Top 10 of 2020

Published: 12/29/2020

A year that definitely needs no introduction. This post feels a bit trivial to write in 2020 -- I could post 10 out of focus iPhone images of whatever and still be immensely lucky this year. Ultimately the health of my friends and family are the biggest priority and I've been really lucky in that regard. 

In contrast to my packed 2019, I surprisingly didn't do a whole lot of travel in 2020! I was however still lucky enough to photograph in three locations -- New Jersey through July, Iceland for a few days in Feb, and Wyoming from August on. Between finishing my PhD, being an infectious disease modeler during a global pandemic, moving across the country, getting married, getting and (still) training a puppy, I didn't set any yearly gigabyte totals in my photography, but I still got out more than I expected and made some images I'm *very* happy with. I also had my first photography honors in 2020, getting in image on the cover of Forest and Bird placing the same image on Audubon's Top 100 list -- pretty cool!

From a photography point of view, this was very much "the year of the vertical". I don't think I've ever taken or enjoyed this many 2x3 or 4x5's, but a lot of images just happened to lend themselves to that format. To dive right in...

10. American Robin silhouette 

Taken during a late August camping trip -- my wife and I were enjoying an awesome sunset against the tree line, one of those sunsets where you want to make a successful image so badly but also struggle to find a way to make it work in camera. Plus, you don't want to sear your eyes out. Some rugged looking pines fit the setting pretty well, and a perched American Robin finished the scene off. 

9. American Redstart

It actually took a global lockdown for me to chase Warblers. Okay, pretty lame joke. But really, as tiny, flighty, colorful birds, these little guys are a birder's delight and a photographer's foe. Honestly though, I've never had much interest in photographing them -- they just aren't really my cup of tea. But, living within walking distance to literally one of the premier Warbler migration hotspots during lockdown led me to give it a go. This preserve had always been somewhat of a tease -- it often showed promise in terms of sightings, but rarely produced quality opportunities to make images. Birds were too high or in too thick cover and it was just frustrating. But with a new found appreciation for just being able to get out, I took a lot of joy in seeing a sudden burst a color in the deep green foliage. The American Redstart was one of my favorites to see -- this male jumped into a clearing just long enough to get a perfect head turn and highlight its characteristic orange banding.

8. Pronghorn Silhouette

This image was taken in early October when the local wildfires were in full force. Coming from the east coast, it was pretty jarring to have smokey skies and ash falling for days straight, not to mention the weird orange glow. Driving along a road where I often see pronghorn, I saw this super muted sunrise over a mountain ridge and immediately set to work trying to find something to silhouette it with. Luckily, these four pronghorn obliged very well, and created one of my (IMO) more unique images.

7. Purple hour pronghorn

This image was taken early one morning with some really cool light. It was generally really overcast, but a bit of super soft purple light was poking through onto the mountains lighting the snow up and creating a very cool setting. From here, it was just finding some wildlife to make the shot work. A group of pronghorn obliged nicely, making one of my favorite shots of the year. This is also a special image for me since it was my first time doing wildlife photography with my wife and I's then 13 week old lab puppy -- she did great hanging the backseat with my wife while I made this image. Ironically, this was about ~2 weeks before the aforementioned lab pup developed car sickness -- a current work in progress! But hey, at least the three of us got to grab this frame.

6. Snowy range milky way

In contrast to NJ, the dark skies in Wyoming are just mind-blowing. They are just *so* dark and packed full of stars. Moving to WY in August, I had missed the majority of the milky way season, and between the weather and smoke from all the various fires, my ability to image the galactic core was limited. The few nights I did get out, however, were awesome. This image of the milky way setting over the Snowy Range was one of my favorite. I can't wait to get out again this summer for some camping / astro fun.

5. Blue-grey Gnatcatcher

I made this image in early April visiting the same local preserve as the American Redstart image just after the lockdowns started. As mentioned before, this park is super challenging for photography despite being a really good place to see quite a number of species. Gnatcatchers, being their tiny, flitty selves, were the epitome of this preserve -- ever present in the spring, but rarely in range. Until! One day there were two coming back and forth to the same tree. On further examination, there was a small pile of moss wrapped up in some spider webs. A nest! Not just a nest either, a nest actually reasonably low and in the clear. I was able to prop myself on another tree stump to get a better angle as we watched a couple make a nest. Careful to let this pair be, we only visited a few times, but I was thrilled to capture this image with a bit of dangling spider web off the beak.

4. Diving Red-shouldered Hawk

This image is actually one that I'm shocked worked out and I'm really pleased with overall. This was taken around 3pm in July in my parent's backyard. The light was super harsh and rough, but when I saw this raptor perched low in some pines I figured what the heck I'll try for a shot. A lot of the shots were spoiled by heat shimmer and harsh light, but when I saw this full drop shot I knew it was one of my favorites. It took a lot of work to process this image to balance the harsh light on one side and shadows on the other with the yellow cast from the grass below and shadow blue cast, but in the end I'm really happy with it and I feel it's a super unique Red-shouldered hawk image. PS, in case anyone is wondering, this dive was successful and a minute later this guy popped up with a field vole.

3. Northern harrier

What's a Top 10 lists without a Northern harrier? These awesome birds have graced these lists each year since 2017, and this year is no exception. In fact, this year this species takes home two of the top slots (slight spoiler!). While I've frequently photographed Northern harrier in New Jersey, that location never really allowed for shooting in true "golden light" -- between the tree line and the light angle, you couldn't get those first and last 30 minutes. Due to nature of the plains in Wyoming however, photographing at first light is pretty straightforward. I was fortunate to find a few juvenile harrier that didn't display the same skittish-ness as their adult counterparts and the location allowed for beautiful rich backgrounds. This was one of my favorite poses from those August sessions and made one of the most dynamic harrier frames I've captured.

2. Arctic fox

Early into 2020 while travel was still possible, I went to Iceland hoping to photograph coastal Arctic fox in their natural setting. Although most Arctic foxes are white, the Icelandic ones are almost all dark morphs. While they of course spend time in the snow, they primarily scavenge along the coastline made up of dark seaweed and volcanic rocks, so being white here is a disadvantage, in contrast to the typically thought of snow setting. So while the dark morphs really pop against the snow, I really wanted an image of one showing off its camo and natural behavior. This one strolled right past me, giving me one of my favorite shots of the year.

1. Northern harrier

This image is, in many ways, the culmination of wildlife photography spanning my five years in New Jersey. I've sought after a banking shot like this for literally years now, and while I had many passes that were in the similar vein none were quite as "perfect" as this one. I loved the two toned background, the soft light, the way the bird pops, and the fanned tail. This is, in many ways, the exact opposite of the previous NOHA image on this year's Top 10 list, but theres just something about this image in particular that gives it the top spot of the year.

With another year of wildlife photography in the books, I'm very thankful for the amazing opportunities these birds and mammals presented. But obviously, in a year like this that is all pretty close to trivial. I'm more than anything thankful for my family, my little pup, my ever patient wife, and ultimately the health of all of them. Looking forward to 2021, I hope we see some seriously needed changes to the US -- and given this is a photography blog I wouldn't mind seeing some bears again either. If you enjoyed this blog, feel free to follow me on social media.

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