This was a busy, busy year. It felt good to be back out there, and I was fortunate to share many of these experiences with clients. As is often the case when I have a productive photo year, I like to pick out not only my favorite images, but also some of the “runner up” moments that didn’t make the final cut. This year was a bit more challenging due to the increased number of trips. In some cases, there may be more than just one image or encounter that fit a specific theme here, so enjoy the bonus content!
You’ll find the Not Quite Best of the Year below, but be sure to also check back over the next week or so for both the Best of 2023 from my peers, and my own favorite images of the year.
January 23: Flying Marten
The last few years, American martens have provided highlights on my winter Yellowstone tours. I love these animals, and they’re generally elusive (also very difficult to photograph when they’re on the move). The main reason we’ve been getting more sightings recently is because they have a tendency to raid dumpsters and trash cans near the park’s winter hubs. And this is the main reason I have a hard time elevating this shot to my “Best of the Year” list. I love the moment, leaping between trees, but I wish this was an animal I stumbled upon in a backwoods adventure, rather than something I knew might eventually show up to scavenge a park facility.
March 27 – 29: Frog Heaven
It felt good to be back in Costa Rica again. While I always preach that “every visit is different” when it comes to these biodiverse destinations, this year’s tour offered a surprise even I wasn’t prepared for. It was really good for macro photography. Costa Rica is, of course, known as a macro hot spot, with bountiful rainforest wildlife on a small scale. However, my tours there usually coincide with the dry season, which isn’t nearly as good for finding snakes and frogs. This year, the timing was the same, but we started in the cloud forest before heading down to the Caribbean slope. Both locations were excellent for macro subjects, and I was aided by a new flash diffuser that worked wonders when it came to lighting (something I typically have struggled with over the years). We saw more red-eyed tree frogs than ever before, and added several other species, including the common tink frog, common rain frog, and Boulenger’s snouted frogs shown above.
Most importantly, all of these photos were taken “in situ,” meaning we photographed the animals where we found them in a wild setting, with no manipulation or handling of the frogs.
March 31: Sunset Cruise
One of the highlights of my Costa Rica adventure is a cruise on the Rio Tarcoles. It’s mainly bird-centric, but a bonus that it provides is a huge uptick in photography. Shooting in a dense rainforest is tough, from tracking down subjects, to finding open views and angles. So on the wide open river, we get a lot more chances to see and photograph these birds. Recently, we’ve been scheduling our Tarcoles excursions for the afternoon, in nice light that culminates with sunset. But in the past, it’s been difficult nailing down the exact timing to find a cooperative subject during those sunsets. This year, it came together. As we approached the mouth of the river, the Pacific Ocean reflected a warm tint. Aside from a distant cormorant perched on a snag too far away, we didn’t see many other creatures around the shore. But then we spied two Great Egrets settling in near the water. I asked the boat captain to back up, and we soon had the pair lined up with the peak of the orange glow. It all came together nicely, and as a bonus, the egrets were soon joined by two Roseate Spoonbills.
April 3: Basilisk Jesus School
The brown basilisk is nicknamed the Jesus Christ Lizard, for its ability to run across water at high speeds. During the Corcovado extension of my Costa Rica tour, we followed our guide to a remote stretch of river during our wildlife search. It was a beautiful spot, but fairly quiet. As we rested, I looked for signs of life. A few colorful moths were about it, until I spied some young basilisks near the edge of the water. They darted back and forth along a short stretch, so we set up to try and capture the rare shot of these lizards running across the surface. To describe it as challenging is an understatement, so I couldn’t help but be pleased with what did turn out. However, they mostly traversed a shadowy stretch of the river, forcing me to bump my camera to a high ISO (introducing a ton of noise). “Rescuing” the images in post-processing was a chore… mirrorless cameras still don’t handle really dark tones well in my experience, and in this case any brightening resulted in serious banding issues in addition to the noise. I had to run some of the images through DXO Pure RAW software (first time I’ve used it) just to achieve a reasonable looking photo. Overall, I’m still not happy with the overall image quality, which is why this shot didn’t make the Best Of list.
After our photo session, my client Tim made an off-hand comment about how we had just watched the students in “Basilisk Jesus School.” I probably won’t be printing this on t-shirts any time soon, but it was 100% spot-on.
Interesting in joining me on my next Costa Rica adventure? It’s happening in 2025, and you can learn more here.
May 9: One Last Puma Walk
I’ve written a lot about the Puma Walk experience in Patagonia. This year we were fortunate to enjoy a few of them. This one occurred on our final full day. Something I hadn’t really enjoyed in the past was a walk in nice golden light, but this time, we got to spend time with a family at sunrise. The morning began in darkness, with eight different pumas that had come together. Eventually, they peeled off from each other, and we remained with a mother and her two older cubs. When they settled down on this slope with distant mountains behind, it was simply a matter of waiting for them to move a bit. Eventually we were gifted with the rim-lit scene we hoped for.
June 4: A Quiet Morning at Yellowstone Lake
The first morning of my spring Yellowstone tour kicked off with a wonderful bear show (more on that later), but eventually we found ourselves down in Hayden Valley and along the northern rim of Yellowstone Lake, where birds took center stage. It was a lovely morning, with blue skies mixed with fluffy clouds. When we arrived at the lake, some of the morning fog was still burning off in the distance. There was no wind, so the reflection on the lake was pristine. I’ve spent time photographing these reflections before, but it’s a rare treat to get some sort of wildlife in such a spectacular setting. In this case, all it took was one lone Goldeneye, swimming a fair distance from shore. I loved the way it was dwarfed by the surrounding patterns above and below.
June 8: Histrionics
One of my favorite spring subjects in Yellowstone is the Harlequin Duck. However, we don’t always see them, as my tour falls a bit later than the peak of the species’ migration through the park. Usually in mid-May, you get several pairs hanging out on the Yellowstone River, but after that ~2 week period, sightings can be a bit of a crap shoot. We made a couple stops at this spot during my tour. The first time, the ducks weren’t too cooperative, but during our return visit, we had three of the photogenic drakes hanging out together. Though generally they will tolerate each other’s presence, there is the occasional spat, and it was obvious that the late-arriving third male was not welcome on this boulder. The Harlequin’s scientific name, Histrionicus histrionicus, never seemed more appropriate.
July 31: Mornings at the Beach
My late July/early August Alaska tour ended up being much more productive than I anticipated. Of course, I was coming off a couple of autumn visits, when the days are shorter and the weather is a bit more tumultuous. During this mid-summer trip we were fortunate to have mostly dry days, and we also had some well-timed low tides. Despite the fact that we never got a clear, blazing sunrise to use as a backdrop for the bears, the cloud patterns on this morning were just as good. I went vertical to maximize the dappled pattern, doubled in the reflection. It was very hard keeping this off my “Best Of” list, but that’s what happens when you’re spoiled with bear sightings!
September 8: Two Aardvarks!
The aardvark is often mentioned as one of those “holy grail” species. You know, the ones that even locals in Africa rarely see in the wild, if ever. I was fortunate to see a couple of them during a trip to South Africa in 2016, and later we caught a brief glimpse of my third in 2021 (soon after seeing my first pangolin, and just before seeing an aardwolf!). It’s the type of animal we always joke with guides about seeing, knowing it will almost certainly never happen.
During one of our early night drives on my Zambia tour, it did happen. However, since we split a large group into three vehicles, this often means that not everyone gets to see certain animals. I struck out on that sighting, as well as several more of the elusive species my clients were seeing during later night drives. But I made up for it on this night.
We had been enjoying a productive drive in Lower Zambezi National Park, when I spotted an animal not far from the dirt track we were exploring. An aardvark!!! It detected our presence, and went down into a nearby hole. It was a such a tease. We could hear excavating beneath the surface, but when we checked every few minutes with the light, it failed to reemerge. Another safari vehicle (from another camp) came by, but they didn’t have the patience to wait it out. We stayed and finally heard the telltale rustle of leaves. When we shined our light toward the hole, there it was. Folks were able to snap a few quick shots.
What an evening! But wait… we kept driving back toward camp, scanning with our spotlight. Another animal came into view in the distance. The immediate assumption based on size (and general likelihood) was that it was a porcupine. But I didn’t feel the shape was right. Holy… it was a second aardvark! This one was on the move, and therefore gave us much better views in the open. He was built like a tank too. Aardvarks are much bigger than most folks expect… the size of a medium-sized pig, perhaps? A really impressive animal. Two aardvarks in one night is tough to beat. And it was actually the third aardvark of the trip for client Mary, whose photo of this one I shared in the Best of Clients feature.
September 11: Pel’s, At Last
Another moment that I debated putting on my Best Of 2023 list, but I had another similar long-awaited bird find from a different trip that just pipped it. Still, this one was pretty special. My love for owls is well known, and I was fortunate to add a few more new species to my life list this year. Some were surprises. This one was a target that’s been high on my bucket list for more than a few years.
When I first scouted Zambia in 2021, I only set one personal photography goal for myself, which was to photograph the Pel’s Fishing Owl. It’s a big, beautiful owl that’s notoriously elusive in parts of southern Africa. I’d been told we’d have a decent chance of finding one in Zambia, so we searched for them at every camp, night and day… and came up empty.
Naturally, it remained a priority in 2023, and fortunately, my clients were intrigued by the prospect of seeing this species as well (or they just hoped I’d finally shut up about it). Our experience throughout the first 3/4 of the trip was familiar. No luck finding the Pel’s. Arriving at our last camp, I gave our lead guide Meyam (with whom I had worked two years prior) a look, and he was suddenly terrorized by the flashbacks of our owl failure in ‘21. But Meyam proved to be dedicated and resourceful, and found the Pel’s during a daytime drive. The sighting was better than I could’ve expected. I was delighted. Meyam was simply relieved. A couple days later, a bonus Pel’s showed up across from the deck at our lodge during dinner.
October 22: Bearcat Surprise
One of the big draws during my October Borneo scouting trip was the high density of rainforest mammals. Cats were a major target, but proved to be fairly elusive. Primates were everywhere, and we ultimately saw eight or nine of those. But this part of the world also has a lot of civets. I’d only seen a couple viverrids to date, in the form of the genets and civets seen during my Africa trips. Tripling or quadrupling the number of species in that family was an enticing prospect.
Like the cats, civets proved to be a challenging subject. Our sightings were mostly at night, either too high in the trees, partially obscured, or far too brief to line up a photo. Of all of the civets, which one did I want to see most? The binturong! I’ve known about them since I was young, and as I got older would see and learn more about them (U of Cincinatti’s “bearcat” mascot, smells like popcorn, etc.)… but never really expected I’d see one in the wild. Much less during the day! However, during a daytime drive in the Kinabatangan area, our driver’s initial sighting of a “gibbon” morphed into this unusual daytime encounter. Thankfully, it was relatively low in the tree, moved slowly, and paused a couple times so we could snap pictures. I can’t get enough of those tufts behind the ears!
Photos from this trip have not yet been processed for the archive, but I am close to finalizing details for a Borneo tour in 2025. Contact me to get on the waiting list.
Stay tuned for more of my Year in Review content, including my Best of 2023 photos coming next week!
More Year in Review Content:
Purchase PHOTO/23, my annual photo yearbook. This year’s issue is 68 pages and contains dozens of images from my various adventures, including my Best of 2023 selections and a preview of the yet-to-be-published Zambia and Borneo collections. $19.99 for the print magazine, $6.99 for a digital copy. Purchase a copy of PHOTO/23 here.