Last year seemed to go faster than any other yet I did less travel in 2017 than in any of the prior five years. My goal for last year was to focus on writing, my business and editing a lot of the photos that I already have on my hard drives.
Did I accomplish my goals? Yes and no. I had an unexpected opportunity to spend the entire summer season in our RV in Estes Park. And that was a phenomenal experience. To wake up every morning, look west to see the Continental Divide and watch wildlife babies grow all summer was an experience I will never forget.
But I do still love to travel so I mixed in a few trips over the course of the year—Alaska as always, South Dakota, New Jersey and a few destinations around my favorite home state of Colorado.
So here are my top picks from 2017 out of the 37,714 images I captured. Enjoy the images and the brief stories associated with each, and to see more images from 2017, check out my annual video of images.
During our last week at the campground in Estes Park, we worked on remodeling some campsites. I was out photographing the finished results when I heard something rustling near me. I looked up to see this big bull moose. A few minutes later a second one popped out from behind the trees. They roamed around the campground for about an hour before heading into the trees on the property next door. Seeing the wildlife all summer and fall just outside of the RV was one of the best things about being there.
I am always looking for new perspectives on animals I have photographed a lot. The bighorn sheep are one of my favorite animals to photograph—it is in my logo after all—so I tried a few different angles this year during the rut. This is a close up of a ram's eye on a sunny afternoon where you can even see the mountains and setting sun in his eye.
#15: Snowy Dream Lake
We have had very little snow this winter in Colorado but this past fall was a different story. One of the earliest snowfalls in recent memory was the morning of September 25. And it just happened to be my birthday. I couldn't miss the opportunity to capture a photo I have envisioned for several years of the snow covering the rocks thanks to the low water level typical in fall at Dream Lake in Rocky Mountain National Park.
Although I go to Alaska every year to photograph brown bears, I also add on additional destinations to mix it up each year. This past year was no exception with a camping trip into Denali National Park and Preserve. There was quite a bit of road construction happening on the first 15 miles. One night I needed to head to town to catch up on emails, purchase some supplies and make a few phone calls. By the time I headed back to the campground, the road was already closed with the exception of an hourly pilot car. The delay meant I didn't get back to the campsite until after midnight. But that delay meant I saw one of the best displays of Northern Lights I have ever experienced in Alaska. This view was directly over my campsite. It started as just one slight shiver of light in the sky, and then the colors kept getting brighter and the dancing kept getting stronger. Within about 30 minutes the entire sky was full of swaying curtains of purple and green.
I was playing a casual game of badminton in Stanley Park, just one and a half miles from downtown Estes Park, when someone yelled there were two moose in the lake. I said, "they are more likely elk." Elk wander all over Estes Park but moose are rarely seen in town. But sure enough, when I turned around there were two very young moose walking towards the Fish Creek Arm of Lake Estes. It was a hot July afternoon and the moose walked down to the water where they cooled off for a bit. Then they started walking towards the crowd that was gathering but sense overruled curiosity; the moose turned around and walked into the woods on one of the nearby mountains.
Another benefit of being in Estes Park for the summer was the ability to get up to Trail Ridge Road before sunrise without having to wake up in the middle of the night. Even from our RV it was a 45-minute drive to my favorite spot to photograph pika but it allowed me the opportunity to spend a lot of time with one of my favorite alpine critters last summer. It was hard to pick one of my shots of the pika but I settled on this iconic behavior of this small mammal, a member of the rabbit family. Pika spend most of the summer building caches of food called hay piles. These critters don't hibernate but rather live off of the hay piles during the winter months.
A very different experience with a moose happened when I was in Denali National Park and Preserve, Alaska. I traveled to the park during the peak of fall colors. My goal while there was to photograph caribou and moose in the fall colors. The weather didn't seem to be cooperating but, as I tell my photo students, you have to take what Mother Nature gives you because you can't change it. Embrace the weather because you never know what kind of feeling it can evoke in a photo. I missed this large bull moose crossing the road but as he walked off towards the Alaska Range the fog started to lift in the valley below. Composing the moose below the tall, snow-covered mountains gave a sense of scale to the scene.
#10: Hummingbird on Nest
I have photographed hummingbirds quite a bit around Colorado but I had never photographed one on the nest or feeding babies. I thought I had missed another season of opportunities as June rolled into July. Then an acquaintance in Estes Park mentioned he found a nest in his yard and gave me the opportunity one morning to photograph it. It was mid-July, late for a nesting bird, but I jumped at the chance. I am glad I did. My friend said the eggs were taken from the nest just a couple of days later by a predator bird.
Lake Estes in Estes Park is a favorite location of the urban elk in town. They cross it pretty frequently and spend time in the water during the hotter summer days. I was at the right place at the right time when this cow elk not only walked through the lake but started splashing around in the water like a little kid.
#8: A Trio of Baby Golden Mantled Ground Squirrels
We went for a hike to look for American martens. Although we saw one—it crossed the road in front of us in the dark as we drove home after walking several miles to see one—we stopped and spent time at this great little spot that was home to yellow-bellied marmots and golden mantled ground squirrels. These three squirrel babies sat out on this log for a while watching us and the other hikers walking along the trail. I loved the soft green background that framed these adorable little babies.
We moved our RV into the campground in mid-May. Almost immediately we noticed there were several mule deer does hanging around the area. Two of the five were pregnant. We were excited about the potential opportunity to see the babies so we watched the does for any signs of giving birth. The day finally came in early June when we noticed one of the does was no longer pregnant. We saw her baby the next day in the field of flowers below our RV. A few days later the other pregnant doe revealed her twin fawns. And that was the beginning of watching these deer grow up all summer. At first they hid in the grasses and flowers. It was interesting to watch their mothers trust the fawns near us. Later in the summer the three fawns could be seen running and jumping together. One afternoon I came back to the RV to find one of the fawns peeking over our picnic table. We really enjoyed the opportunities the animals of the campground gave us to take a peek into their lives.
Like the deer fawns, I was excited to be in Estes Park for the elk calving season. Although I had seen elk calves before in Rocky Mountain National Park, I had not witnessed the calves immediately after birth. Someone told me the cows start dropping calves around Memorial Day weekend. Not that animals have a calendar to follow but animals are very predictable when it comes to timing. Sure enough I saw my first elk calf the week of Memorial Day. First it was a calf with a very protective mother. Then there was a set of twins with a much more laid back mother. And then there were several calves running around Estes Park. I got a call one morning that a calf had been seen in the Big Thompson River in Estes Park. I ran down to the river to see a scary site of a calf in the center of the river trying to get back to the bank. Its mother was already on the other side eating grass. She didn't seem worried. It seemed like a very hard lesson about how to cross a river. The calf made it back to the bank on its own but its mother was still on the other side. The calf curled up in the rocks and rested. It must have been exhausted. It was only a few days old and had to deal with a river crossing in a river swollen with spring runoff. I snapped a few photos of the calf and then let it be. I returned later in the afternoon to find the cow nursing her calf. The next day the calf and cow were both gone. I saw them in the following weeks and the calf was doing great. It's not easy being an elk calf.
My present to myself for Christmas was visiting a new national park as I work on my goal of visiting all of the national parks by my 50th birthday. One I had never visited was Badlands National Park in South Dakota. I have been to parks all over the country yet I had never been to this one park just six hours from my home. As I did some research about the park, I discovered they have a decent size herd of bighorn sheep. During my short visit I was lucky to have a little bit of fresh snow and some very cooperative sheep. I kept capturing shots of sheep framed against the distant badlands landscape, and this one shot caught my eye with the ram walking along the ridge in front of the distant ridge.
As with many shots, I look at weather and review animal patterns to get an idea of what is the best thing to photograph on a particular day during a particular season. In late winter and early spring, after the mountain bluebirds return, I look for bluebirds in snow. Bluebirds don't like snow, at least not when it is falling, but as soon as the snow stops they are out and about eating bugs and worms on the wet ground. Getting a photo of a bluebird in falling snow was a goal of mine. Although I am still envisioning a photo with a heavier snowfall, I was happy with the few photos I did capture last year of bluebirds in light snowfall. This particular image was captured in Rocky Mountain National Park.
Last year marked my 20th anniversary of my first trip to Colorado, which included a visit to Rocky Mountain National Park. (Read the blog post about those 20 years here.) It was the second national park I ever visited (after Grand Canyon) and was one of the reasons I fell in love with Colorado and moved here. In the summer of the 20th anniversary I found myself living literally within walking distance of the park. I loved it! But in those 20 years I also never saw a black bear in the park. I had seen bears in Colorado and even in New Jersey before I moved to Colorado but never in Rocky Mountain National Park, until last summer. This sow had two cubs in the tree above her, which I never was able to photograph, and had an elk nearby that I suspect had a calf she was protecting. Eventually the elk chased off the bear but I was happy for the moment I had with the bear.
I visited New Jersey in December for a quick trip to celebrate an early Christmas with my mom. I also spent a day photographing with Ashleigh Scully, a very talented photographer based in New Jersey. We both were excited to hear that snowy owls had been reported along the shore. An even better bonus was that snow was falling when I arrived in New Jersey that Friday night. I had to think but I couldn't remember a single time where I saw snow at the shore. Although my mom lives at the shore and I had spent a lot of time at various shore towns I couldn't remember actually seeing snow on the beach in New Jersey. And now I had an opportunity to photograph a snowy owl in the snow on the beach during an irruption year. It took two hours but our group finally found the owl. It was beautiful and a wonderful experience on many counts.
This photo more than any other from the elk rut had a lot of comments on Facebook from other photographers who said they always wanted to photograph elk bugling in falling snow in the fall. Why did it generate so many comments? Because this scene doesn't happen very often in Colorado. Rocky Mountain National Park is one of the best places to photograph elk during their rut or mating season. In late August the bulls will start bugling after shedding the velvet from their antlers. The activity begins to pick up in September as larger bulls join the activity and the cows start to show signs of being interested in the bulls. Although snow in the high country can happen anytime of year, the elk perform their rut season in the lower meadows. Seeing a heavy, wet snow when the leaves are in fall colors and still on the trees is a rare occasion. To have a bull elk standing in a stand of aspens and give out his bellowing call was a moment that put a smile on my face.
So those are the shots out of the more than 37,000 images I captured in 2017 that bring me the most joy for the memories I have, the stories behind them and the images that resulted. I have yet to take a single photo this year. I am not exactly sure why. One reason is because we haven't had any snow to peek my interest in finding wildlife in a typical winter scene. Another reason is because I have been searching for more difficult to find animals, such as a snowy owl that I never had luck finding. And partly because I have been very busy with other types of projects that I am hoping will be a good investment in my future as a writer and photographer. But as I type this the weather forecast on the news is saying it is snowing in the high country so maybe with a little luck tomorrow morning I'll find an animal to photograph that is willing to brave the cold and snow with me.
Happy New Year!