This has been a year of improving animal portraits for me. As wildlife a photographer it is always nice to shoot a new species, but for me, 2019 has been a year of improved encounters where I’ve been able to capture wildlife portrait images that were big improvements over past images. 12 of my top 13 images are vast improvements over previous images of the same subjects. While behavior and interaction are defining parameters in great wildlife images, so many of my top 25 also include a calm resonance of emotion and action. 8 of my top 25 are birds, 14 of the images are of furry subjects people probably most associate with my photography and safaris, and 3 are landscape moments that just had powerful impact and color at locations I’ve photographed before. 12 of the 25 were shot on Yellowstone/Grand Teton Safaris. So let the count down begin.
#25 Yellowstone’s Golden Gate in Golden Light
Climbing up the switchbacks out of Mammoth Hot Springs going south you pass through Yellowstone’s Golden Gate and enter Swan Flats. I’ve driven past this spot a million times and never seen it lit up like it was this late afternoon autumn day during the Yellowstone/Grand Teton Fall Wildlife Safari. Fresh snow created a nice counterpoint of color to the glowing rocks.
#24 The Bald Eagles Are Back In Utah For The Winter
After a couple of years where hundreds of bald eagles died from west Nile virus carried by pied-billed grebes from the southeast US to the Great Salt Lake in Utah (then eaten by the eagles) – bald eagle numbers have rebounded dramatically. February 2019’s Utah Raptor Safari proved to be one of the best ever as we photographed hundreds of bald eagles, barn owls, raptors, and ermine at different locations around the Great Salt Lake. 4 of my top 25 for 2019 came on this amazing safari.
#23 Barn Owl On The Hunt In Utah
Another image from 2019’s Utah Raptor Safari – this barn owl hunts in the early morning light. The frigid cold nights around the Great Salt Lake mean mice are frozen in beneath the snow, making for a hungry population of Barn Owls who normally hunt at night. When the sun begins to warm the snow, releasing the voles to forage, the barn owls, northern harriers, falcons, and ermine are ready to pounce. The very white chest, with small tan spots, of this owl indicates it is a male owl, while females have more tan/brown on their chests. We were shooting about 50 to 60 encounters with these hunting barn owls each day.
#22 A Majestic Bull Moose Crossing The Gros Ventre River
Another image from my Yellowstone/Grand Teton Fall Wildlife Safari. This shot ranks so high because of the huge rack and body, beautiful afternoon light, and splashing action of the bull crossing the Gros Ventre River, on the south side of the campground of the same name. Another image from this encounter is #4 on my list. While I have other bulls in ponds and rivers, all the elements came together in this image – making it one of the best in my stock library and an improvement over all my other similar images.
#21 Sunrise Through The Mist On Yellowstone’s Swan Flats
I mistakenly passed up an image similar to this a few years ago (I was overcome with wildlife anxiety) at the same location and vowed I would never make that mistake again. Up before dawn and on the prowl, my safari group and I were ready when this scene presented itself to us on a frigid fall morning this past October. I like the layered subjects showing through the fog at different intensities, the nearly silhouetted foreground trees, and the blast of orange sunrise light cutting across the scene.
#20 A Mountain Lion To Remember
This female mountain lion rests in the warming sunrise light on a bitterly cold winter’s day on my Yellowstone/Grand Teton Winter Safari this past January. Out early in the Soda Butte Valley, near the parking lot with the bridge that crosses the Soda Butte River, we encountered only my second mountain lion in Yellowstone, just above the road on a small hillside. In talking to the rangers the next day it seems this cat was at the end of her life – teeth worn down by age, emaciated from lack of food, half a dozen porcupine quills stuck in her cheeks. She would lift her basketball-sized head and look around, but appeared no longer able to move. She died later that morning, on that small hillside overlooking the wild country she had lived her life in, no doubt her genes passed down to other mountain lions roaming the wildest country in North America. Just the sheer excitement that I felt (initially upon seeing her) gets her on my list for 2019.
#19 A Bobcat Shows No Fear
This bobcat image, taken in January after some extensive rains in California (thus the green grass), reminded me of some of the “glory days” of bobcat photography back in 2014 when bobcats were seemingly jumping off the hood of my truck. In 2014 I averaged 7.2 cats per day, while in the Sep 2018 to March 2019 season we averaged a paltry 3.3 bobcats per day. But this big tomcat was an old school bobcat, not showing any fear of me just 30 feet away. First, he strolled back and forth as I did my best “wrangling” imitation trying not to let him get by me, then he sat, then he laid down and stared at me like this. The squirrels were close by – so maybe he didn’t feel like leaving this great hunting meadow. We played this game for a couple of minutes before he tired of me, and casually left. This point-blank encounter was just fun for me.
#18 A Townsend’s Warbler Shows Himself
I’ve chased these gorgeous little warblers before through thick brush, tree branches, without ever getting a real quality image – until now. At the end of April and through early May I do a series of bird safaris to Butterbredt Springs, a peak birding location in the eastern Sierra’s about 30 miles north of Mohave, CA. The springs bring an assortment of birds to this location, some vagrants, some locals – all busy with the coming of spring. This brief encounter gave me another opportunity to improve on the images I already of this gorgeous warbler – one of 10 warblers I’ve shot there, and one of 40 other species I’ve regularly encountered and photographed there.
#17 A Male Ruby-Crowned Kinglet Flashing
I’ve got hundreds of images of these beautiful little Kinglets, all without the ruby crest flashing in the sun like this. Many of you know that I shoot in bursts, usually taking 5-15 shots at a time, because things can happen so fast you can’t push the shutter-release in time to get something that occurs quickly. This occurred during one of those bursts of shots and lasted for a brief second before the ruby crest disappeared. As I was shooting I never saw the crest pop up, but my camera did. Luckily, I was fairly close so at least some of the background blurred out saving this image from being too “busy”. Just an amazing shot that I had sought for many years.
#16 The Bison Carcas Conquering Black Bear
This black bear was actually on an elk carcass just a few minutes before this near the top of Slough Creek on my Yellowstone Spring Wildlife Safari. We watched him swim Slough Creek, which was running pretty high and fast this past spring, and get on top of this bison carcass in open view. I’ve photographed black bears eating berries, pine cones, grass, squirrels, elk, mule deer, and moose – but this is the first time I’ve photographed one on a visible bison carcass. We watched him for quite a while as he stripped small pieces of meat away from the bones and fur. With no dramatic foreground obstructions, and with him standing up on the carcass a little, the elements came together for a very clean image.
#15 The Safest Place On The Planet Earth At That Moment
We encountered this grizzly sow and her cubs near Roaring Mountain one early morning on the Yellowstone Spring Wildlife Safari. Dew was still on the grass as this little cub maneuvered between its mother’s front legs to eat the same grass she was eating. Not just great interaction and behavior, but this image brings forth a certain amount of mother/child emotion and intensity with the cub in this protected position. I’ve seen this type of interaction before, but due to the bear’s position, or my position, or poor light or possibly distracting elements (like long grass or sagebrush), this is the first time I got a great image of it. It still could be improved, with both sow and cub facing into the sun for better exposure and detail – but we all walked away alive so I’m good with this.
#14 Peregrine Falcon Bringing Food To The Fledglings
Again, a vast improvement over other images I have of peregrine falcons. This was an amazing summer of falcon photography along the California Coast. July and August gave me multiple opportunities to photograph these peregrine falcon families in San Pedro and Rancho Palos Verdes. Because the nests were below in cliffs that we photographers could stand on above them, over the course of a morning there were hundreds of opportunities to shoot fly-bys, with the parents bringing in food as in this image, as well as the food hand-off between the parents and fledglings, and the constant aerobatics being performed around the cliffs. These were stand-there-and-shoot encounters, where your ability to scan for the quick flying falcons, get them in frame, and pan with them at high speed while blasting through long sequences of images made all the difference. I love this shot which is clear and sharp, shows nice flight motion and positioning, shows the prey (a dove) clearly being held in the talons as the parent dives towards is flying fledglings.
#13 A Father’s Tough Love
I had never seen this kind of behavior before among pronghorn. We spotted this fawn along with its mother and sibling in a meadow just off the road in Yellowstone. As we photographed them, the fawns laid down in the long grass as the mother walked away to feed nearby. Slowly, a buck pronghorn wandered into the same area as this fawn as it fed. When it got close, maybe twenty feet away, the fawn stood up, probably thinking that it was its mother returning. The buck and this fawn had about two minutes of amazing interactions. The fawn would walk right up to the buck, who would put his head and horns down as this photo shows – corralling the little fawn in between. There was no aggression or danger apparently, the little fawn would back up and the buck would continue to stand there looking at what may have been its own off-spring. We got wonderful images of the doe and her fawns, but this was interaction and behavior at its best. This image was also taken on this year’s Yellowstone Spring Wildlife Safari.
#12 Bull Elk Doing The Dance Of The Rut
Locking horns is just elk rutting behavior at its best. On the August Wildlife Safari to Mt. Evan’s to photograph goats, and Rocky Mtn National Park to shoot elk and other wildlife – each year we have had encounters with bull elk just entering the rut. At the end of August, the bulls are sizing each other up, carrying out brief fights – preparatory to the full-scale battles that will take place when the rut fully kicks off. I’ve shot brief skirmishes from a distance, but never with a close, unobstructed view. That changed on this encounter with these bulls (two of the nine bulls nearby). I’ve shot fights in the water where I couldn’t even see the bulls due to the massive spray of water in the air, shot them end-on fighting – but this time I got this classic composition of two big mature bulls heads cocked and horns interlocked, performing a seasonal behavior that is millennia old.
#11 The Ferocious Short-tailed Weasel / Ermine
After years of having ermine (winter white-coated weasel) encounters that were more running and chasing than shooting, I finally got a hunting weasel who didn’t push my running stamina to the limits. This year’s Utah Raptor Safari provided us with a unique and long ermine encounter which gave us all the images we could dream about. In this image, the ermine has paused (these suckers move quickly) for a brief second as it hunts through some granite rocks along the marshy border of the road through the Farmington Bay Wildlife Management Area (WMA) in northern Utah along the shores of the Great Salt Lake. I’ve seen weasels here before, for mili-seconds, but this time we spent more than an hour with this hunting weasel. They are amazing killers dressed in this coat of pure white, looking peaceful and serene, moments away from biting through the skull of another vole. So close in fact that I shot this with my 70-200 f2.8 VR2 Nikon lens and D4s body.
#10 A Winter Ruffed GrouseDelicate, detailed, and beautiful – those are words that come to mind when I look back on this Ruffed Grouse Image. It was about -19 degrees as we cruised near the Pacific Creek Road along the main highway in Grand Teton National Park. It was still dark when we encountered a covey of these grouse on and around the road. The grouse moved around the road, in and around the tree trunks of the pines bordering the road – and this male even did some strutting with his gorgeous black feather collar extended. Like so many other animals on this top 25 list for 2019, I’ve photographed ruffed grouse before, but never with them so close and approachable. Maybe it was the unbelievably cold air that kept them calm and close, or maybe they had come to the road to pick up sand and grit to digest their food with – but whatever the reason I was grateful for the encounter and images.
#9 A Boar Cinnamon Black Bear And His Stump
First, it is important to note for scale that this broken pine stump stands about 8 feet high, well above my head. We found this browsing black bear along the upper edge of Crescent Meadow in Sequoia National Park on a June Black Bear Safari. For about an hour we followed him, getting some normal log walking shots, some normal grass-eating shots – before he finally did something truly interesting. He stood up against this broken stump and began to smell into its bark, no doubt trying to find the scent of a termite or ant nest to dig into. Unlike milk-producing black bear sows with cubs, boars will spend far more time outside of meadows looking for termite nests to supplement their food sources. I like the pyramid composition of this image, the soft light on the bear, and the detail in its fur – even though I have a brighter background.
#8 A Picture Perfect Mousing Coyote Leap
Another shot from this year’s Yellowstone/Grand Teton Winter Wildlife Safari, this co-operative coyote gave me the perfect opportunity to capture a near-perfect mousing leap in the snow. I mean, it could have been better if he had glanced at me mid-leap, but then that would be asking the impossible. I’ve photographed hundreds of coyote mousing leaps like this – probably on every single Yellowstone Wildlife Safari I’ve done in the past 37 years – they are just very predictable when it comes to mousing jumps. You can see them suddenly concentrate on a spot, ears revolving, body muscles tensing – before the jump takes place – so plenty of time to get the camera framed, focused, and rolling. The overcast light gave me a near shadowless shot – common light in winter. But all the reflected light kept my exposure at iso 400, f6.7, at 1/2000 second, +1 exposure compensation – a perfect speed and f-stop to capture the motion sharply, with enough depth-of-field. I’ve got plenty of profile jumps and jumps right at me, but this was a perfect composition for showing his entire body and leaping form. Thanks, buddy.
#7 Rushing Western Grebes And The Dance Of Spring
It was having these rushing western grebes come almost right at me, rushing into the light, and having three of them up in-frame that pushes this image to #7 on my list. Up until a couple of years ago, I had never seen this behavior with an opportunity to photograph it. Lake Hodges, near Escondido where we stay during the San Diego Wildlife Safari, is one of California’s great locations for shooting this late winter event. And like all wildlife encounters, some are better than others – and this one was great. Dozens of grebes paraded around on the lake in front of us, every few minutes a couple would rise up and rush, mostly far away. But these birds came towards us, rushing about 60 yards in one burst, and there were three of them. Behavior and Interaction personified.
#6 The Black Wolves Of Lamar Valley And The Death Of A Pronghorn
The caption on this image says 3 of 5 black wolves, but there were actually 6 – I miss-counted. Driving east past the Buffalo Ranch, I caught movement out of the corner of my eye racing towards us. It turns out a black wolf was chasing down a pronghorn, closing the distance, and then dragging him down about 200 yards away in the sagebrush. I never got a clean shot of the chase, even though I leaped out of the truck and snap-shot a bunch, my focus point being a piece of sagebrush half-way in-between us and the wolves. But minutes later after parking and climbing the steep hillside next to the road, we had a perfect angle on the comings and goings of the 6 black wolves as they came to the carcass to feed. I like this image of the two black wolves running back to the carcass with the middle wolf firmly feeding on it. FYI – I have to admit that my client and friend, John Klenke, shooting from the backseat of my truck – got an amazing shot of the chase, with the black wolf just feet behind the running pronghorn. It would be my #1 image if I had taken it – so well done John!! Taken on the Fall Yellowstone/Grand Teton Safari.
#5 Golden Eagle Glory
This image, and the sequence of images it came from (about 12), have vastly improved my library of Golden Eagle images. We were photographing bighorn rams on the side hill about 50 yards from where this eagle landed, down closer to the road. As I wandered towards it, it began to fidget around nervously, so I got my tripod legs set up and got ready. Being only 30 yards away (and shooting a 500mm lens on my Nikon D4s body) and having the bird on the sidehill from which it would have to leap downhill towards me in order to get lift and fly – put me in the perfect position for this image. By far my best Golden Eagle image. It combines a cool subject, nice eyeshine, flight motion, and near-perfect light all in one image.
#4 What A Massive, Gorgeous Bull Moose
This is the bull moose crossing the Gros Ventre River in #22. Taken on the Yellowstone/Grand Teton Fall Wildlife Safari this year, this beautiful beast appeared out of the cottonwoods just before sunset. We had actually been photographing a different bull that was coming towards us, tearing up willows and cottonwoods, acting very rutty when suddenly this bull appeared out of a line of Cottonwoods. I could see immediately that this bull had a larger rack, though he didn’t appear to be interested in fighting the other bull – though maybe they already had a fight or two. As he stepped out of the shade of the background cottonwoods into perfect low-angle, late afternoon light – he just resonated with color and vibrance. He was about 80 yards away when I took this shot, and then as the first bull approached they both walked off, eventually crossing the Gros Ventre River giving me image #22. The massive size of this rack and the perfect light make this a tremendous image. I started out shooting big racks for nature and hunting magazines back in the early 1980’s and this certainly reminded me of those days as I worked for position to capture as many images as I could. I’m glad I wasn’t limited by film (36 exposure rolls of film back in the day) because I tore through hundreds of images in a couple of minutes, buffering my camera several times, as I killed it. (Killed it: a friends term for getting great images – I like it and use it now….lol).
#3 Navajo Tribal Park – Monument Valley Sunrise
Cropped to a panoramic composition, this pre-sunrise shot of the buttes along the western edge of Monument Valley (taken from just off the highway leading to Monument Valley near the entrance to the Tribal Park) holds a kind of hypnotic energy as I look at it. It started out being in the bottom of the top 25 but as I reconsidered the images, again and again, it moved higher and higher. I was shooting 7 shot brackets starting at -2 stops eV and of the six to eight sequences I took of this far off line of buttes, this image stood out the most. Maybe because it screams the desert southwest to me, or maybe it reminds me of watching all those old John Wayne movies that were filmed in Monument Valley, like the movie “She Wore A Yellow Ribbon” or “Fort Apache” when I was a kid. Either way, this image ranks high because I just can’t stop looking at it.
#2 The Adventures Of A Young Cinnamon Black Bear Cub
We worked hard to get this shot. After finding the sow and two cubs (one cinnamon and one black) we followed her up and down the sidehills as they stopped to chew on sugar pine cones and play. We finally ended up down along the edge of Huckleberry Meadow in Sequoia National Park on a typical black bear safari, where we got to witness the two cubs play king of the log – on the log this cub is laying on in this photo. The black cub was pushed off the log after a tussle, then as it stood on the ground next to the log (the log is about 3 feet thick) the cinnamon cub reached down and tried to choke it. I got a nice sequence of choking and fighting images – but this image had more strength than the playful ones. After releasing the black cub the cinnamon cub laid on the log like this carefully staring at me. It is a calm image, almost serene, but there is a depth to the bear’s face and eyes as he ponders my presence 35 yards away. We had been with them an hour by this time, and he had heard the camera whirring many times, heard us stepping through the underbrush and setting up tripods – but this moment of contemplation, of me the photographer – pushed this image to near the top of my top 25 list.
#1 The Killer Weasel Revealed
It was tough to decide between my thoughtful, gazing cinnamon black bear cub and this image of the killer weasel after a successful vole hunt. This is yet another image from this past February’s Utah Raptor Safari and the same weasel from #11 in my list. I ended up choosing this image based on the years of struggle to find a damned weasel, and an ermine at that, that was successfully hunting and had a captured victim in its jaws. For the time we followed this weasel he successfully hunted and killed 6 voles, caching them in the reeds at a certain spot each time before returning to hunt. Maybe he had a nest of babies there to feed, or maybe he was stocking up for a coming snowstorm that would limit his hunting – but this little beautiful creature was as much a killer as anything I have ever photographed. Other predators are much bigger (like grizzlies), or more graceful (like red foxes), or more feared (like mountain lions), or maybe even more prolific killers while hunting (like barn owls) – but no animal combines beauty with ferocity like this short-tailed weasel, this ermine, did on this day in February 2019 in northern Utah on the Utah Raptors Safari. He wins. BRP