[NOTE: This post is more about sharing a few favourite experiences and their accompanying images than simply sharing a gallery of favourite pics from the year…if you want to skip the stories, you’ll find 10 favourite pictures from each of us on our 2015 Favourites page.]
2015 has been one incredible year for us in the Launstein family! It’s certainly been exciting to see the recognition and awards that Jenaya and Josiah received in the past year, but much more important than the accolades are the moments spent together in the field.
After transitioning back to photography full-time at the beginning of the year, I (John) have been able to lead us on a lot more photography adventures than ever before!
In fact, our first photo adventure together came on just the second day of the year, and it proved to be a richly rewarding one for Josiah!
We had planned on heading out in search of snowy owls to start the new year, but the forecast for January 1st was for bright sunshine and wind, so we opted for a more favorable forecast on the 2nd: overcast with periods of light snow. Ha. Not exactly. The snow started as we made our way northeast from our home in the pre-dawn hours, and never let up. In fact, it built steadily into a veritable snowstorm flirting with official blizzard status as the winds, and snowfall, built steadily. After 7hrs in near white-out conditions, Josiah voiced what we were all thinking: how on earth do you see a snowy owl in a blizzard? And what self-respecting owl would even be out in these conditions?!
With less than an hour of daylight left, Josiah suddenly asked us to pull over, and sure enough, we had our first snowy owl of the day…and within minutes, our second and third. It turned out that the third time really is the charm for Josiah, as after witnessing the beautiful male owl catch a vole right in front of us (we NEVER bait, lure or manipulate owls or other subjects, ever), it flew to a weathered old fence in a field as the snow swirled all around. Josiah braved the -30C temperatures and squeezed the shutter on what would become his most awarded image to date, “Snowy Snowy.”
Some of our planned outings for the rest of the month of January and into February had to be postponed after news broke that Josiah had become the youngest ever to be named the Young Outdoor Photographer of the Year with one of his favourite pictures from 2014, “Bighorn Battle.” January and February saw Josiah and Jenaya interviewed live on CTV, Josiah conduct his first radio interview on CBC Radio One, and both sit through numerous interviews with reporters about their wildlife photography and the remarkable accomplishments they’ve achieved. It was a pretty special, though very unexpected, way to start the year. Of course, we made plenty of trips into the hills and mountains around our home photographing local wildlife between all the media appointments. :)
Finally time came for a much-anticipated trip to the West Coast in search of owls and waterfowl in British Columbia. We headed out in Jenaya’s Jeep and before long found ourselves tracking Short-Eared Owls, a Great Grey Owl, Long-Eared Owls, Saw-whet Owls and even a pair of Barn Owls through our telephotos. In fact, we photographed 19 different owls of 6 species (had to throw a Great Horned in there, too) during our trip, and each of us returned with some of our best owl images to date.
One of the highlights for the three of us was experiencing only our second sighting of a Long-Eared Owl. In fact, we ended up finding FIVE. Although not the type of image I was envisioning when we headed out in search of them, I decided to try and tell a different side of the owls’ story and ended up creating a new favourite in “Hidden.” My favourite thing about this image is the memory tied to it as Josiah held back blackberry and dogwood branches with his arms and tripod so I could get this angle, while listening to Jenaya’s shutter firing from her position a few yards away.
So far it looks like 2015 for us was the “Year of the Owl,” and that probably isn’t far from the truth. We could fill several blog postings with owl stories and pictures from this year, and even just our February trip to the coast, but that wasn’t all that BC had in store for us.
On one of our last days on the coast, we met up with (now) two-time WPY Rising Star Award winner Connor Stefanison, and he took us to one of his favourite destinations for waterfowl. All three of us returned with new favourites of Green-Winged Teal, Mallards and Wood Ducks, but it was Josiah who stole the show while no one was looking. Actually, that’s really what happened! While Connor, Jenaya and I were chatting about our plans for the rest of our trip, Josiah noticed a Canada Goose acting very aggressively in the wetland across the bay from us. I noticed him climb down to the shoreline and set his tripod up with a low angle, but totally missed what he was photographing. The result was a series of images that are all award-winning-class images, including one that landed him his SECOND awarded image in the 51st Wildlife Photographer of the Year, “Goose Attack.”
Even though “Goose Attack” has helped put Josiah on the international map (in fact, that image joins “Snowy Snowy” in touring top museums in 70+ countries), his personal favourite came a few moments later.
Although we left the owls and water behind the day after Josiah knocked this sequence out of the park, we STILL weren’t done with capturing images that would become favourites. We returned to Alberta through Kamloops, BC in hopes of finding some Sierra Nevada Bighorn Sheep (a species-at-risk, formerly known as California bighorns). Once again, BC delivered in spades, and the outing resulted in Jenaya being awarded for the 2nd time in the Nature’s Best Windland Smith Rice International Photography Awards with “Band of Brothers.”
March saw more outings for Snowy Owls on the prairies and plenty of trips to the mountains for mule deer and bighorn rams. By April, we were photographing foxes in Waterton Lakes National Park, and as things picked up we packed up and took the trailer down to our favourite park to catch all the action. Sadly, the day after we arrived we learned that our favourite mama fox, a stunningly beautiful vixen we had photographed for the past five years, was killed by a vehicle just a few days earlier (you can read the story and meet this wonderful animal in our “Tribute to a Mother” post from Mother’s Day). We were pretty depressed, and can still get emotional about losing one of our all-time favourite wild animals (we miss her…a lot), but were delighted to see her mate take over raising their kits to maturity.
We also discovered another favourite fox family was out and about, and managed to catch one of the very first explorations outside the den by five YOUNG kits. This resulted in favourite images for all three of us, but I’ll give Jenaya the nod because there’s just too much cuteness in this single frame to be able to handle…
Before long the summer was upon us and we were back in search of owls…this time resident Great Grey Owls along the Alberta foothills. We’ve been working hard to photograph one in an aspen forest, and it finally came together for us this June when we burned through just about every memory card we had on one seriously cooperative owl. He worked one perch for a while, then offered us another view in the pines, then perched at near-eye-level in the aspens again as the last rays of sunlight glowed behind him, then hunted his way to and then past us in the meadow. We found and photographed several Great Greys this year, but none compared to the experience we had with this one. (You can find even more pictures of this beautiful owl, and more of his kind, on our “Hawks, Eagles & Owls” page.)
Summer slipped into fall and the ungulate rut season was upon us. We decided to concentrate on two of our favourite species to photograph this year, Rocky Mountain Elk, and Rocky Mountain Bighorn Sheep. While we normally photograph these guys in the mountains and hills immediately around our home, we decided to meet some new bulls and rams this year and head north to Jasper National Park for the elk rut, and then into BC for the bighorn rut. We’ll be writing separate posts on both these trips in the near future, but suffice it to say that both experiences were nothing short of incredible. Josiah was already a certifiable bighorn fanatic…he’s now a self-confessed elk addict as well. In fact, Jenaya, Marlise (now 16) and Charis (now 14) were able to join Josiah and I for the first half of our trip in Jasper, and all the girls described their time in the field with us as one of their favourite trips. It’s hard not to get excited when the big bulls are rutting! (If you’re reading this and you’re not experienced in photographing wildlife, and specifically elk, please be aware that bull elk–and cows–can be extremely dangerous at all times but never more than during the rut. Elk can kill you. Please exercise caution when photographing them, use what is now not-so-common sense, don’t risk your life for a selfie opp, and learn best practices for your time in the field.)
One of our goals in heading to Jasper specifically was to photograph elk with mountain views and fall colours behind them. Even though this bull wasn’t one of the giants, Josiah and I couldn’t have been more excited when he chose to bed down in this clearing while we were photographing him.
One of Josiah’s favourites from the elk rut also happened to be of bulls that were far from the biggest we photographed. As we returned from photographing a huge 8×8 herd bull one morning, we spotted two younger bulls scrapping it out at the edge of the forest, no doubt practicing their skills for when it’s their time to fight for the prize.
OK, OK…if you’re like me, you want to see the big guys, too. There’s plenty of them for your viewing pleasure in our “Elk & Moose” gallery, and more arriving weekly as we work through the thousands of images from this year’s rut.
We had barely returned from the elk rut before the mule and whitetailed deer rut got rocking, and Josiah and I spent more hours behind the lenses here in southwestern Alberta. And then, suddenly, the bighorn rut was not only on but deep into full swing, and we headed west across the Continental Divide along the western slopes of the Rockies for great action.
Josiah and I camped out in the snow for this trip, and decided to focus much of our effort in photographing sheep in and along the edge of the forests for a different feel from the standard bighorn pictures and more dramatic light. You can see some of the resulting images in our “Recent Work” gallery (or, if you’re reading this after early-2016, our Bighorn Sheep gallery).
I love this species so much (probably more than any other) that I have a VERY hard time narrowing down my favourites list. I’m not sure that this is my overall favourite bighorn shot of the year (actually, it’s not), but it seems to be overwhelmingly my kids’ favourite of mine, so I’ll let their choice rule…
Once again, not the biggest specimen of the rut, but as this ram began working his way out of the forest toward a group of ewes near Josiah and I, I realized I had a remarkable set of conditions working in my favour…if the ram stayed on his current course. He stepped out of the dark forest and onto a snowfield that was bouncing back the mid-afternoon sun (not normally an ideal time of day for wildlife photography). I was still rolling the exposure dial down with my thumb as I squeezed this shot off, wanting to expose for the dramatic rim-lighting balanced with the reflected light from the snow on his body.
In the end, the shot makes my favourites list for one reason more than any other, and it fits the theme of this review of our year. More than the picture or even the subject, it’s the experience of one very excited 10-year old up-and-coming wildlife photographer beside me, finding his own subjects and angles and choosing his own settings and compositions, that makes this a favourite memory. That my son (who is now 11 in case you’re keeping track of such things) is following in his big sister’s and my footsteps into the wilderness and the art of wildlife photography, is a pretty special thing to say the least. My experiences with Jenaya in the field have been nothing short of incredible. Some of my favourite memories of my entire life are moments we’ve shared together. For the past couple of years now, Josiah has joined us, and our photo adventures are the richer for experiencing the wonders of the natural world together.
If you made it all the way to here, congratulations (and thanks for sticking with us)! Jenaya, Josiah and I each picked 10 favourite images tied to favourite moments and share them with you on our 2015 Favourites page. It’s not really meant to be a “best of” collection (hey, I’m still discovering new favourites in our files every week!), but it is a pretty good overview of the year for each of us. If I were honest with my favourite 10, you would find 10 bighorn pics in my gallery, but fear not, I spread it out.
And if you’re reading this near the time we published it, here’s wishing you and yours the very best for 2016 (and our warmest wishes to you whether it’s January 2016 or not).