It’s been an interesting twelve months, to say the least. Though it initially seemed like things would be back on track from a tour and travel perspective following the peak of COVID-shutdowns and cancellations, I was a bit too optimistic in thinking things would go smoothly. I did get to lead a number of tours, but my spring fox tours suddenly had to be cancelled (a good decision), and then successive Yellowstone trips were also nixed, the second due to the massive floods that shut down our rental cabins for much of the summer. On the personal side, we were also challenged this year. It will be difficult to look back fondly at 2022.
Nonetheless, there were a lot of positives to come from the photography side of things. I survived multiple speaking engagements, which folks seemed to enjoy: first for the inaugural Yellowstone Summit early in the year, then a couple times for Photography Experts in the fall. In the spring I joined the gang from Wild & Exposed for my first podcast interview, which was a lot of fun. It’s been nice to find ways to expand my audience and engage with new people in these formats. Occasionally, I even found time to put together random projects just for fun (mostly for social media), including the labor-intensive March Wilderness contest (won by the spirit bear!).
My travel slate began, once again, in Yellowstone National Park. Despite the fact that I keep wanting to do winter adventures every two years, they remain popular. And I admit I’ve been enjoying winter visits to the park even more lately. My next two trips took me to South America, return visits that had been put off due to COVID. It felt great being back in southern Chile and western Brazil, sharing those wild experiences with some wonderful clients. Another COVID-delayed tour to Alaska went down successfully in September (none of those photos made the Best Of list, but one did show up in the Not Quite Best list), and I wrapped things up with an exciting scouting visit to Mongolia in November.
I’ve been repeating this mantra for three years now: hopefully next year will be even better—or at least, “back to normal”—travel- and tour-wise, but I guess we’ll see. There’s certainly a lot planned for 2023!
I’d like to thank everyone who supported my business through print and gift item purchases this year, and especially my tour clients. In light of the Yellowstone floods, your support really made a difference! As usual, I have made a donation to two causes based on my online store sales: the Husky Marching Band Scholarship Fund, and for the “new” charity I pick annually, For the Love of Bears.
On to the highlights!
Best Photos and Standout Moments of 2022
As always, these selections represent my favorite images or moments from the past twelve months. They’re listed in chronological order. If you missed my previous year-end favorites that I’ve featured since I started the blog, check ’em out here: 2021, 2020, 2019, 2018, 2017, 2016, 2015.
January 18: The Wapitis… Again
Another year, another close wolf encounter makes the list. This is the fourth year in a row I’ve had a wolf on my favorites list, but I think that just proves how special these moments are. Inevitably, when I lead a winter Yellowstone tour, the animal near the top of most of my clients’ wish lists is the gray wolf. Fulfilling the dream of a close-ish wolf encounter is easier said than done, however. It’s something that rarely happens during a tour, and when you are lucky to find them, you have to deal with their general wariness, occasionally-hazardous winter conditions, and park regulations.
This year’s first tour group was one of the lucky ones. On our very first morning in the Yellowstone interior, we approached Midway Geyser Basin and spied several wolves out in the flats near the runoff from Grand Prismatic Spring. Once again, it was the Wapiti Lake Pack, which landed on this list in two of the three previous years. In recent years they’ve been a fairly large pack that travels far and wide, and they’re not averse to using the park’s roads. So if there’s a pack one’s likely to see during a magical winter encounter like this, there’s a good bet it’ll be the Wapitis.
On this day, we actually had a splinter group of only about eight wolves, but they put on a show. It’s the first time I can recall seeing wolves amidst the steamy runoff of the park’s famed thermal features. Those distant moody shots were something new and different for me, but I still opted for the standard closeup shot… as this happened to be the only time to wolves looked our direction while they crossed the road before us.
Over the course of the next week or so, the Wapitis continued to pop up here and there, putting on a show for visitors. But this was the only time we got the timing right, and given their adventure among the thermals, I wasn’t complaining about the additional missed opportunities.
January 24: Bisonscapes
Another familiar subject on this list is the American Bison. A big reason I’ve been enjoying my winter visits to the park more is because the bison continue to provide a lot of nice photo ops. Each winter I seem to go back and find a new way to shoot them. This year in particular seemed to present some wider scenes depicting these hearty beasts in the harsh environs of the Yellowstone interior. This shot may exemplify that more than the rest. The bison is tiny in this scene, but still recognizable, and I enjoyed framing it between the frosty overhanging branches of a large conifer.
That photo was sort of a spur-of-the-moment thing. This one was brewing for years. During each winter tour, we stop at these dead trees to shoot a few landscapes. The stark environment and long shadows (on sunny days) open up some possibilities in that regard. But something I’ve never had is wildlife in the midst of this stand.
Not long after taking the first photo at Midway Geyser Basin, we were heading back north in the snow coach when we ran into a traffic jam. Snow coaches and snowmobiles were backed up while this lone bull stood on the road. Eventually he trudged off into the snow, right toward the trees. We happened to be stopped in the perfect spot. It was just a question of “if and when” he would wade across, parallel to our position. We opened the windows and doors and waited… and eventually he hit his mark.
January 28: Mammoth Magpie
It’s quite obvious at this point that bison are my favorite black and white subject, but I’m not above going monochrome with Yellowstone’s other denizens. One this day we had stopped at Mammoth Hot Springs for a brief landscape shoot. The lower terraces can show off a nice mix of steam and some color to contrast against the surrounding frosty bits. On this day we had a pleasant surprise awaiting us: magpies! A couple of the birds were wandering around searching for insects amidst the warmer thermal runoff.
I waited for them to take off, hoping to capture them in flight against the orange mounds of the terraces. That didn’t quite work out the way I’d hoped, but one of the birds landed on a higher shelf. Harsh sunlight shone from behind, piercing the rising steam and casting shadows from the sparse trees. It made for a really cool mix of patterns and lines… something I feel is enhanced even more with a monochrome conversion.
May 10: Puma Prayer and Perch
It felt great being back in Patagonia with the pumas. During the course of a week, several females were congregating in one areas where multiple kills had been made. The cats were coming and going, sharing kills and tolerating each other pretty well. At one point, while we had two or three pumas lounging closer to the carcasses below, we spied a lone cat high up on the cliffs atop a nearby hill. I also happened to spot an Andean Condor nearby, no doubt attracted by the pungent smell of the carcasses.
The way the puma was eyeing the condor, I figured there was a chance it would make an attempt. This was a younger cat, probably not experienced enough to recognize that there was little chance of succeeding (never mind that its target was perched on the edge of a large drop-off, which made the whole endeavor pretty treacherous). I tried warning my clients about what was about to happen, but there were too many cats around and everyone’s attention was scattered. Folks were distracted while she stalked and lunged… and the bird promptly flew away. One of my clients, Nancy, was close enough to hear me, however, and nailed a wonderful shot of the condor circling back around with the dejected puma looking on. The two shots together really tell a great story.
Following the failed hunt, the puma still had to figure out how to get down. There was other food (granted, not quite as fresh) waiting below, but this was a high cliff, and for a few moments she seemed unsure about which way to go. Straight down certainly wouldn’t work.
Eventually she worked her way down the backside. A few minutes later we saw her coming around the base of the cliff. Eager for a meal, she galloped down the hill (so close to me I couldn’t fit her in the frame). I’ll always remember those pounding footfalls as she raced to get in on the nearby feast.
May 11: Guanacos Through the Curtain
The Patagonia tour came to an end, and on our way out of Torres del Paine we came across a large herd of guanacos near the road. It was our closest opportunity to photograph these handsome animals all week, especially up close, so we took some time to snap a few shots. The only problem I was finding was that the late morning light was a bit harsh, the backgrounds weren’t terribly pleasing, and the guanacos weren’t doing much aside from grazing.
Thankfully, they were slightly backlit from one direction… and we had some long grass at our feet. So I lied down on my belly and tried shooting them through the grass. This smoothed out the background considerably, and added a golden sheen to everything. Thanks to that backlit fur, subtle guanaco shapes emerged from the murk. I was happy to find a new way to photograph this familiar species.
July 20: Macaws in a Hole
Brazil was another destination I was excited about. It had been four years since my last visit, and the tour had been delayed twice due to COVID. Fortunately, a hearty group of past clients stuck with me throughout the long wait, and we enjoyed one heck of an experience! The trip started with a scouting extension. It marked my first visit to the southern Pantanal. On the way there, our very first stop brought us to Buraco das Araras, located on the edge of a giant sinkhole.
What a surprise this was, and a fantastic way to start the trip. Of course, I’d seen photos other photographers had taken here and in other similar locations, which depicted macaws photographed from above, often against inky black backgrounds. I didn’t have a sense of the topography until we arrived. On the edge of the massive sinkhole are two platforms on opposite sides, one for afternoon viewing, the other for morning visits. The macaws (primarily Red-and-green, with an odd Blue-and-yellow thrown into the mix) remain restless, so they are often leaving their perches and flying back and forth across the massive depression. One might be able to capture them in warm sunlight, against the red rocky walls, or wait for the right mix where they fly into the sun, but the background remains in shadow.
That’s what produces these contrasty images, and morning is definitely better in this regard. While I did try to capture some fully-spotlit macaws, I also wanted to experiment. So I purposely underexposed a bit, hoping to catch a mere sliver of the birds’ shapes as they emerged from the darkness. It worked out for this particular shot.
In total, I took over 5000 photo just at the sinkhole, which is nuts (that made up nearly 25% of my shots for the entire trip!). Fortunately, a few turned out okay.
July 30: Resting By the River
By the end of the Brazil tour, we were in the northern Pantanal, stationed in the jaguar capital of the world. Due to the length of this tour, I had scheduled one fewer day of jaguar searches, but it didn’t matter. We had more jaguar encounters than ever (averaging nearly five cats seen during each outing on the river). It all kicked off with one heck of a close encounter during our first afternoon.
We found this younger cat, which had just been separated from its mother the day before, following an attack from an adult male. It was hanging out on its own, hiding in the shade of some bushes along the shoreline. Our view wasn’t great, even as it occasionally made half-hearted attempts to hunt birds. At some point though, it got bored, or just uncomfortable, and moved to a different resting spot… right at the base of a riverside tree bathed in afternoon sunlight. That, combined with light reflecting off the surface of the water below, lit the cat up, giving us a nice opportunity to capture some lovely portraits. I warned my clients that it might be the best jaguar shoot of the trip… and I think I was right.
August 2: Four Years Later
That was not, however, the most satisfying jaguar encounter for me personally. On the final day of our Pantanal exploration, we came across a female that was prowling the banks of a small canal away from the main river. I had flashbacks to my previous Brazil tour, four years earlier. On that trip I remembered being enthralled with the setting along the canal—tall yellow-flowered trumpet trees, cascading roots along the open shore—and wishing we’d get a cat walking along there. It never happened.
This time though, we were in the right spot, and she walked right in front of the big curtain of tree roots, just as I’d envisioned four years prior. Some dappled light enhanced the scene, making it even better than I’d imagined.
The shoot actually ended with us stationed in prime positioned to get this cat cresting an elevated sandy beach, coming right at us into late afternoon light… but she veered off just beforehand and swam across the river. A missed opportunity, but I was still thrilled with this long-awaited score.
November 14: Grumpy Cat
Because some of my trips earlier in the year were cancelled, I was able to allocate time for a scouting trip. My Mongolia trip came about rather quickly, following an initial recommendation from one of my tour clients. Planning wasn’t exactly smooth, as we had to deal with delayed and cancelled flights, and completely switched our outfitter mere weeks before our arrival. But the rewards made it worth it.
Mongolia had been on my radar for a while, but I didn’t know too much about it. I was mainly eyeing it as an alternative snow leopard destination, but the idea of seeing other news species, including the Pallas’s cat, also held a lot of appeal. Up until about five years ago, we mostly only saw Pallas’s cat footage from remote cameras. It is a shy and elusive critter. Lately though, more and more photos of this species have appeared online, and it turns out Mongolia is a potential hot spot for them. So naturally this was going to be one of my primary targets during this trip.
All all-day drive from Ulaanbaatar brought us to the eastern steppe, a mostly-flat, barren land. There were almost no trees, scant grass as winter approached, and very few boulders or larger rocks to speak of… it was amazing to think that anything could survive in this environment. But as we quickly realized, there were rodents everywhere: mostly Brandt’s voles, but also Mongolian gerbils. These provided sufficient food for a host of predators: buzzards, foxes, weasels… and Pallas’s cats. Ultimately we saw a lot of cats. They’re certainly not easy to spot (I was proud of myself for finally spotting one before our guide), but once one is seen you can often get close.
That’s because they really prefer to rely on their stealth and camouflage… and that’s where the challenge lies. A Pallas’s cat would rather just lie still and pretend you can’t see it than run away. If it decides to leave, it will move at a molasses-like pace, backing up directly from you, only turning a millimeter at a time, gingerly placing each paw on the quietest possible patch of dirt. It’s the most deliberate animal I’ve ever seen. Honestly, this behavior was so strange and unexpected (despite the fact that it makes sense, when you are a small-medium cat worrying about Golden Eagles swooping down on you from above) that the Pallas’s cat goes down as one of the strangest animals I’ve ever encountered.
This shot sums it up pretty well. It was very difficult getting any sort of profiled body shot—they will walk directly away from you most of the time—but the slow look back over a shoulder happens several times during the “escape.” The raised paw, frozen in time in the photo, but in reality moving at a glacial pace, is also appropriate.
Photo of the Year, November 19: Snow Leopard
Back in 2015 I shared my “Best Of” list in this blog for the first time (I’ve been compiling a year-end favorites gallery for much longer, but that was the first year of the blog). A snow leopard made the list. Of course, it was literally a mile away and you were forced to find the vaguely cat-shaped dot in the middle of that photo, but seeing a wild snow leopard is no small feat. Plus, I went through some hell to come home with that image, and it was also important to show how I can often fail to achieve my lofty goals. This job shouldn’t be easy. The photo belonged on the list.
I came back from that trip to India with a bitter taste in my mouth. I knew I wouldn’t be leading a snow leopard tour in that area—so many things about the environment were too challenging—but I kept feeling like there would be a moment in the future when I’d want to try again. I needed to “conquer” the mountains and land decent pictures of this elusive predator… even if “decent” meant any photo op within 500 meters.
Nearly eight years later, I found myself in Mongolia rather than India, drawn to the idea of finding snow leopards at lower elevations (potentially only half the altitude of my Himalayan trek). Did it turn out to be easy? Not at all. We were thrown into the fire with our very first leopard sighting. Sure, the air wasn’t as thin, but the male leopard our trackers had found was high up a steep slope. And unlike the leopard territory I explored in northern India, these canyons and cliffs were largely devoid of game or livestock trails. Instead, we found ourselves scrambling straight up the slope, which was blanketed in loose rock and skree.
It took some time, but we were able to approach mostly out of sight before snapping our initial photos. It’s not like the cat didn’t know we were there. Voices and falling rock were echoing off the walls of the canyon. But we did our best to keep quiet and low while shooting. And when the cat eventually moved we began to get the types of views I could only dream of.
In total, we saw five different snow leopards during our time in the mountains, and our tracking team saw four others. While my India sightings were probably in the “typical” category (i.e., scoping distance), the other sightings we had during our Mongolian snow leopard week ranged from “good” (300-500 meters) to “very good” (200m). The ones with this male, however? That’s more of the Once in a Lifetime variety. It was special, and felt like redemption following my India failures.
I have decided to lead a Mongolia photo tour in 2024, during which we’ll look for snow leopard and Pallas’s cat. More information on that will be released soon, but in the meantime you can contact me for more information.
November 22: Pika Hunt
I really did love seeing so many new species during the Mongolia adventure. The day before this encounter, we had caught glimpses of Pallas’s pika, the second new pika species for me on this trip. On this morning, as we drove up into the hills to scope for snow leopards, a bounding white shape surprised us: a stoat! I am, of course, a big mustelid fan, so there’s no way we weren’t going to stop to try for pictures.
Unfortunately, the stoat disappeared into a hole. After a long wait, it appeared it wasn’t going to reemerge, and we began to walk away, disappointed. This animal—commonly known as the Eurasian ermine—was a new species for me, and the idea of giving up while knowing it was right there galled me. I turned around and went back to staking out the hole. For an hour I lay on my belly, for which I was rewarded with a few peeks from the tiny mustelid. But that was it. Eventually we returned to the car. Our trackers, by then, had decided to set up their scopes, so we warmed up in the car and waited. Rather than getting reports of a cat, it was the stoat that pulled us back out, when it hopped into view after another hour had passed.
It was hunting, and over the next hour we were able to stay with it and snap a number of photos. The highlight, however, was when it surprised a Pallas’s pika—the same species I’d hoped to photograph more the day before—which was caught out in the open. The chase was on. It happened a fair distance away from me, so the resulting photos were mostly blurry and/or cropped severely. But a few turned out just well enough to show the dance between the two. They came together, separated, and then converged again.
Eventually, the weasel prevailed, and quickly stashed its meal. We were with it for some time after that as its hunt continued, but there’s no question that we had just witnessed the peak action moment of the trip.
Stay tuned for more stoat photos soon, once I get the Mongolia gallery published.
More Year in Review Content:
Purchase PHOTO/22, my annual photo yearbook. This year’s issue is 68 pages and contains dozens of images from my various adventures, including my Best of 2022 selections and a preview of the yet-to-be-published Mongolia collection. $19.99 for the print magazine, $4.99 for a digital copy. Purchase a copy of PHOTO/22 here.
Past “Best Of” collections: