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Best of 2023, Part 1: Favorite Photos and Moments of the Year

It was a wonderful twelve months for photography. When I compare with past years, I’d say this was probably my most productive year since 2016 (when I traveled a little too much). I was on the road quite a bit in 2023, but that’s a good thing following three years of disruptions caused by COVID and Yellowstone floods. I hosted more guests than ever on my tours—be sure to check out their work in the Best of Clients feature—and even fit in some scouting. As a result, it was difficult to whittle down my favorite moments. Some of the images that landed on my Not Quite Best of 2023 list could’ve easily been here. And ultimately, my favorite photographic highlight isn’t even here… I think I have to reserve that for a separate post, because it involved multiple encounters and produced so many memorable moments.

It was a good year in other respects. Two overseas family trips were tied to my work in different ways. The second was our visit to London for the 59th Wildlife Photographer of the Year awards, where I had a chance to see old friends and meet several colleagues for the first time (some of them are featured in the Best of Peers post). It’s always an honor to land a photo in WPY, but having a chance to finally return to London for the awards was a huge thrill.

Big thanks to my tour clients this year, those who purchased prints and items in my stores, and to anyone who took time to comment on and share my work online. I hope I can keep you entertained in 2024. But first, let’s look back at 2023…

 

Best Photos and Standout Moments of 2023

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: 20222021202020192018, 2017, 2016, 2015.

 

January 16: Breaking the Bobcat Curse

Bobcat

Bobcat

I’m not superstitious, but my longest-running wildlife jinx undoubtedly involved the winter bobcats of Yellowstone. I had seen bobcats in the park before, first during my inaugural winter visit in 2008, and later during brief encounters in the dark near the road. None of them produced good photos. Over the years, other photographers were having much better luck, particularly in the park interior. So when I started leading winter tours, I purposely planned outings that would take us through the bobcat “hot spots” where so many others had struck gold. It didn’t help. In fact, my timing was rather awful. I’d consistently show up a week early or a week late, even when cats were seen reliably over multiple days by others.

This year I was returning again in January. A week prior to my arrival, another bobcat was seen and photographed, this time on a deer carcass (whether it had killed the deer, which fell off a cliff, or simply lucked into it, is unknown). I kept counting down the days, knowing that while a meal of that size could sustain a smallish cat for some time, the presence of larger scavengers would likely drive the cat away.

When the day finally arrived, we got on our snow coach and raced to the spot, a narrow canyon that required a short walk in. Just as we pulled up, a snowmobile drove out of the canyon. They had just driven past the site. “It’s gone,” the driver stated. Everyone looked at me. My bad bobcat luck had seemingly followed us into the park once again! But we still had to check for ourselves. There was no way I was giving up that easily. So we trudged down to the canyon, snow falling quietly around us. Sure enough, no cat on the carcass, but I looked up to the base of the cliff… There it was, taking shelter from the snowfall!

Eventually, the bobcat came down. Though it was still dark and the snow was thick, we couldn’t have asked for a better first encounter. And ultimately, we and the many other park visitors who got to enjoy the sighting were very lucky. The deer had perished in a steep part of the canyon. Over the course of ten or more days that cat stuck around, and no coyotes or other large scavengers ever came by. It was too isolated. On top of that, a river separated the cat and its prize from the road. So we had a perfect viewing spot that wasn’t too close to spook the feline. Combined with the large meal that led to extended viewing, it was really an amazing confluence of circumstances.

Not only did I break my Yellowstone bobcat curse, but on the first day of my second tour, one of my clients spotted the same cat a couple miles upriver. So both of my groups were able to enjoy this rare treat.

 

January 18: Lone Wolf

Gray Wolf

One of my favorite places to explore during a winter Yellowstone visit is Hayden Valley. It’s not always productive. In fact, the large expanse of deep snow is more often devoid of life. Conditions are simply too harsh for most animals. Only a few hearty bison consistently dot the landscape. Sometimes you see foxes and coyotes, or an otter in the river. This year we lucked into a weasel sighting. But simply having the opportunity to photograph wildlife in such a clean environment is enough of a draw.

On this day, we pulled over in the snow coach to snap photos of a large bull bison who was trudging up the groomed road toward us. I made a cursory scan of the distant hills, hoping to perhaps spy a small orange fox dot against the snow. Instead, a black shape emerged. It was too small for a bison, and it really was black. Leaving only one possibility: a wolf!

Wolves have made my Best Of lists for several years running, mainly because encounters with them are still so rare and special. This is probably the first one in which the wolf wasn’t all that close. But the distance worked to our advantage. I liked having the chance to frame it against the vast snowy landscape. When it passed under this hill, the overhanging snow bank provided enough shadow and contrast to add a much-needed sense of scale to the scene.

See more photos from my 2023 winter Yellowstone trip.

 

March 28: Night Walks

Five-striped Flea Beetle

Praying Mantis

As I discussed in the Not Quite Best article, we enjoyed some really productive night walks during this year’s Costa Rica tour. Not only did we get to photograph a number of frogs in situ, but we also saw plenty of interesting bugs. This gave me an opportunity to play around with my latest set of macro gear (something I seem to swap out before every jungle trip), and in this case, I came away quite satisfied with my macro setup for the first time in ages. Worrying less about how the equipment would perform allowed me to concentrate more on experimenting, as I did with these two shots. I am fond of the layered perspective in the five-striped flea beetle photo, and while the mantis portrait didn’t require any flash, it was fun framing a familiar subject in a different way.

See more of my macro results from the 2023 Costa Rica tour.

 

April 3: Silky Sighting!

Silky Anteater

There are favorite animals, and there are bucket list animals. I happen to get so excited about small, rare furry creatures that a great many of them popped up on my recently-published bucket list. The silky anteater was one of those critters for a long time. It’s the smallest and most elusive of Latin America’s anteater species. It also happens to be the cutest, but we never did get to see this one’s face. Nonetheless, it was a major find during my Costa Rica tour: the type of animal one jokes about seeing without ever expecting to.

I wrote an article about how this isn’t “Just Another Anteater” earlier this year.

 

April 10: Bonus Baby

Common Pauraque Chick

Though my April trip to Belize (on the heels of my Costa Rica adventure) was a family trip, I still brought a couple pieces of gear just in case. Belize was a destination I’d hoped to visit for some time, and knowing that we’d spend some time in the rainforest, I was prepared to photograph a few creatures while sharing the jungle experience with my son for the first time.

During a walk near our lodge, I surprised a Common Pauraque from its daytime roost. Pauraques, like many nightjars, are expertly camouflaged, and often sit on the ground in broad daylight. They can be almost impossible to spot during the day, unless you accidentally flush one. That’s what happened here, except in this case, the adult left something behind when it flew to a new perch: a tiny chick. Knowing I’d probably never see, much less photograph, a pauraque chick again, I leaned over and snapped a couple shots before retreating to allow the adult to return.

 

April 11: “Ocellated Turkey in the Mornin’…”

Ocellated Turkey

My son hasn’t shown much interest in wildlife just yet. He likes bison in Yellowstone, but nothing else really grabs his interest. Or at least didn’t, until we started talking about the Ocellated Turkey prior to our Belize visit. It was, admittedly, a species I really hoped to photograph—they’re so much more colorful than our North American variety—but he really latched onto the idea of seeing them in person. And from the first sighting, he was all in. He even made up a song about them (in the title above). We saw a lot of turkeys, but he got excited about every one. So it’s his enthusiasm more than my own that makes our turkey encounters special, and lands them on this list. I also happened to like this semi-abstract portrait a fair bit.

See more bird photos from Belize.

 

May 7: Puma Walk… Ending With The Dark

Pumas

There are photos that make my Best Of list, and there are moments. This was a MOMENT.

The Puma Walk is a special experience that I’ve featured in my year-end recaps in the past. Most folks don’t quite realize how special it is to walk on foot with a big cat, watching it from close range as it patrols territory or seeks prey. The pumas of southern Chile have grown accustomed to people over the past couple decades, and there’s a mutual tolerance and respect that has been established between the two species to allow for such shared experiences. This year’s Pumas of Patagonia tour featured one of the best Puma Walks I’ve had with guests.

It wasn’t easy. We waited for this family to rouse themselves from a day-long nap, and when they finally set out, we had to follow through thick brush, up steep slopes, down again, and onward. At one point we ended up on a steep mountain slope, waiting for their next move. When mom (the one-eyed cat in the foreground) made up her mind, she chose to walk… right through our group. We remained still and let her and her large male cub pass. Her daughter, in the background, eventually followed. I was able to barely fit them all in the frame at 135mm as they resumed their trek.

Male Puma

Male Puma

Eventually the cat family went down into the flats, allowing us to return to the road. We were milling about, buzzing from the incredible high of the walk, when our guide called out, “The Dark!”

Out of the evening shadows, a large charcoal shape emerged. It was Oscuro—”The Dark”—the region’s dominant male puma. I last saw him in 2017, when he was new on the scene. Since then, he’d grown even more, and the number of young gray-furred cats in the area spoke to his dominance. It was an incredible finish to what was already a magical afternoon.

Join the 2025 Pumas of Patagonia tour.

 

May 8: A Long-Awaited Reunion

Magellanic Woodpecker

There was a bird that I’d worked hard to find not just this year, but during past trips, without any luck. Until, at long last, it magically appeared before me. That was the Pel’s Fishing Owl, which I finally saw in Zambia. So why is it only on my Not Quite Best list? Well, there was another bird…

Unlike the Pel’s, I’d actually seen the Magellanic Woodpecker before. This wasn’t something new. However, that one sighting occurred thirteen years ago. It was a female, and she instantly became my favorite woodpecker. How can you not love that jet black plumage, accented with a white striped on the back and a bit of red around the face… and that crest?! When I began leading tours in southern Chile several years later, seeing this bird again was always high on my wish list. But all of our searches came up empty. Until this year. Exploring a campground where we’d had luck with several birds before, we actually found a smaller Striped Woodpecker first. While we were photographing it, the call of a much larger woodpecker rang out… and then it appeared. Once again, it was the black beauty.

While I felt relief mixed with excitement for my first Pel’s, with the Magellanic I actually did a happy dance. Thirteen years between sightings! She makes the list.

See more photos from the 2023 Patagonia adventure.

 

June 4: Triplets in the Morning

Grizzly Bear Cubs

Bears featured prominently in this year’s highlights, and it all began on the very first day of my spring tour in Yellowstone. Sometimes when we head out in the morning, we pick a general destination and just hope to see and photograph whatever surprises appear. On Day One of this tour, however, I set a very specific goal. I’d heard that a popular grizzly bear sow had recently re-emerged on the west side of the park with her three little cubs. This was notable for a couple reasons. First, it’s a part of the Yellowstone road loop I rarely explore due to hampered visibility and limited wildlife sightings. And in the case of this particular bear, she normally shows up earlier in the spring, before vanishing into the park interior for the summer. So an early June sighting is somewhat uncommon. But it was worth a shot. The potential payoff was too good to pass up.

We drove into the park and began the commute along the western corridor. Low fog was slow to burn off, but as we approached what I knew to be her territory, I could just make out the shape of a grizzly bear in the gloom. It wasn’t until I pulled over that we were able to spy three tiny fur balls following her.

Over the next hour, we shared the sighting with relatively few people. The bears stayed on the hill above the road, allowing for safe viewing, and as conditions brightened and the haze lessened, our photo ops improved. The first year cubs were as fun and energetic as you might expect, but a messy hillside covered in deadfall isn’t always the most photogenic setting. Nonetheless, things came together a few times, most notably when the odd speeding vehicle zoomed by on the road below. That gave the cubs pause, and allowed me to line up group portraits like this.

Join me on the Yellowstone Spring Wildlife tour in 2024!

 

July 30 – August 2: Bountiful Bears

Alaska Peninsula Brown Bears

I could have included more bear photos from my mid-summer Alaska tour here (notably, the wide beach shot that I quite adore, but which landed on the Not Quite Best list). It was so productive. But at some point, I have to limit the amount of bear photos here!

These three scenes were special in their own way. We were fortunate to spend time with two different families that featured cubs of the year, and also lucky to have a number of low tides to work with. This gave us extra beach time. When sows head out to the beach to clam, the cubs are something of an afterthought. They can’t do much aside from watch, learn, and pounce on scraps their moms leave behind. Clamming is not a terribly dynamic activity, so after a while it becomes more challenging to create different types of images. I felt the wide scene above—as another bear wandered in the distant background—allowed me to put together a more unique composition. With the mountain serving as a third layer to the scene, I was really pleased with the result.

Brown Bear Cubs

The cubs are fun to watch much of the time, of course, and we all hope to capture some of their more active moments. For our group, the highlight occurred when one of the families came into a grassy area so the sow could graze on nutritious sedge grasses. The cubs, with nothing else to do, took the time to wrestle. They actually came out in a small circular area that was devoid of most of the long grass… almost like a ring set up for their battle. These antics went on for some time and we had a front row seat for all the action. I decided to challenge myself by using a longer fixed lens. This made it more difficult to keep the cubs in the frame, but a few tight portraits came out. This was my favorite.

Alaska Peninsula Brown Bear

We largely enjoyed nice weather throughout the week, but in the final days fog started rolling in. This made photography quite challenging. Working with an opaque background, and pretty uninteresting bear behavior (more clamming, slow walking at low tide), we had our work cut out for us. I began experimenting with in-camera movement, overexposures, and more abstract compositions. I had noticed that, thanks to that blank gray sky and the shallow layer of water at low tide, the reflections of the bears actually stood out more than normal. So I composed this scene, using just a sliver of the actual animal to tie everything together. It may be my favorite frame from the trip.

 

Photos of the Year (i.e., Part 2):

For the first time I’m not including my favorite image(s) of the year with the other picks in my Best Of post. That’s mainly because a) there’s a full series of them from moments scattered over a week, and b) that will sort of help lead me into sharing my next batch of newly-edited photos. See Part 2 of my Best of 2023 here.


More Year in Review Content:

PHOTO/23 Yearbook Magazine

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.

Also see:

Best of 2023, Part 2

My Not Quite Best of 2023

Sharing the Top Work of 2023 From My Peers

My Tour Clients’ Best of 2023

My 2023 Favorites in Entertainment and Literature

2 Comments

  1. Helen January 4, 2024 Reply

    Fantastic work Max

    • Author
      Max January 4, 2024 Reply

      Thank you, Helen!

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