A 12/31/11 Edit: HAPPY NEW YEAR, EVERYONE! Wishing you a beautiful start to 2012!

Every year, for five years now, Jim Goldstein at the JMG-Galleries Blog invites photographers to participate in his “Best Photos” project. Bloggers post about their top five or ten images from that year, then send the link to Jim who compiles a master list which he then publishes in January.

I’ve never participated in this project nor any other end-of-year recap because for one, I’m hyper self-critical and always figure my “best” is still coming … you know, next year. And second, well, I never did it because I never knew about Jim’s project until this year. That’s the real reason.

This month, I came upon a beautiful compilation of bird shots over at The Birder’s Report, posted by Larry Jordan. Looking through Larry’s images, ranging from a Green Heron feeding a chick to a Bushtit in flight, I realized that Larry’s favorites were not only lovely, but they had significance based on the short story behind many of the captures. And that idea resonated deeply, based on my own motivations for carrying a camera. (Thanks, Larry, for being that source of inspiration.)

My great joy in wildlife photography revolves around the moment, the emotion, the elation of witnessing something that either adds dimension to a wild animal’s psyche or social behavior — or something that draws me further into the circle of trust, as it were. My favorite example of the Trust Circle was my session with the Shorebird Nation on an Oakland dock. That year, one of those photos happened to be one of my best as well. But even if it were technically or artistically poor, that picture would rank among my all-time favorites, for what it captured: a fleeting revelation of something new.

In keeping with that spirit, I’ve picked my Top 10 Favorite Images of 2011. These are not necessarily my best. But they best represent the idea of a photo being a story … or a window into a new emotional experience.

#1 – The Eurasian

After relocating to Seattle last year, I found a 15-acre parcel of habitat in a city where very little public shoreline (relative to California’s shore) is public and accessible. So, I spent a lot of time with the local fauna. In October, a large flock of American Wigeon showed up on the duck pond and, with them traveled a solitary male Eurasian Wigeon. He remained with them through the winter and I had the chance to photograph him often. I took this shot in the midst of wigeon mayhem, as a juvenile Bald Eagle passed overhead several times, spooking the wigeon into nearby Puget Sound.

American Wigeon and Eurasian Wigeon in flight

American Wigeon Takeoff - ©ingridtaylar

#2 – Snow Geese as Escher

In the late 60s, my parents had an M.C. Escher coffee table book I dog-eared and chocolate-smeared for all of the times I studied Liberation or Reptiles or Encounter — and marveled at the impossibilities. When I find patterns in nature that even remotely resemble Escher’s work, it takes me back to those days when my brain was forming its earliest notions of artistic license. I photographed these Snow Geese playing at Escher, last February, in the Fir Island area of Skagit County, Washington.

Snow Geese in Skagit Valley

Snow Geese as Escher - ©ingridtaylar

#3 – Quest of the Night Heron

When I visit my mother in Southern California, I’m always itching to haul my camera down to the local harbor where pelicans, egrets and herons congregate on the breakwater and fish around the cement edges. It’s my peculiar affinity for wildlife in urban or industrial backdrops that drives photo sessions like this one. It’s not that I encourage pelicans or herons flocking to humans for handouts. It’s simply that I appreciate the ingenuity and adaptability of the birds as they time their return from the ocean with the precise hour at which the fishing vessels chug into port. This Black-crowned Night Heron had probably engaged this vessel previously. He tagged along as pictured here, then landed on a table of fish scraps, grabbing his share before the gulls descended.

Black-crowned Night Heron Flying after a fishing boat

Quest of the Night Heron - ©ingridtaylar

#4 – “Eagle One, I Repeat: State Your Intentions!”

I did not expect any close-up Bald Eagle encounters on this short walk around Union Bay Natural Area in Seattle. But when the Lake Washington wigeon flock flushed, I knew it was just a matter of time before an eagle came into view. The birds will sometimes flush minutes before that specter of a raptor is even visible to me, and in this case, as I was looking up for that shining beacon of a white head, this Bald Eagle swooped low in front of me with a legion of crows on its tail. I snapped this shot on one of the many passes the eagle made to secure herself a duck from the lake. To me, the crow resembled a fighter-jet escort, hence the title. Ultimately, the crows and a solitary Red-winged Blackbird escorted her from the turf without any prey in her talons.

Bald Eagle with American Crow Escort

Bald Eagle & Escort - ©ingridtaylar

#5 – This Is Not a Duck

I mentioned earlier, my favorite duck pond on that 15-acre parcel of Seattle waterfront. One morning the pond was socked in silence, shrouded in Puget mist with not one duck on the pond or preening on the embankment. I knew something was off because there is always a resident Mallard — without exception — any month of the year, any hour of the day. I heard a huge splash and thought it was a large salmon heading up stream to spawn. But, as I focused my lens in the direction of the splash, this Northwestern version of Nessie emerged from the pond. There’s a stream that leads from Puget Sound into the pond area which accounts for the occasional otter in the mist. Because otters will sometimes grab ducks as prey, it’s no wonder my usual duck cohorts were nowhere near where they could be nabbed by this interloper.

River Otter in a Duck Pond

Otter Takeover - ©ingridtaylar

#6 – The Turns of Terns

Less than a mile from our Seattle apartment, I discovered a gem of Caspian Tern habitat: a roof of a seafood warehouse where the Caspians set up shop while they fished the salmon smolt from Puget Sound. I’d had the occasional Caspian encounter in the Bay Area, but never two months of this proximity to a Caspian Tern colony with only the occasional photographer sharing the location with me.

The spot where I photographed was a straight-line channel where the terns descended at great speed, then repeatedly dipped their bills into the Sound as they traveled farther out for their smolt dinners. I learned to discern which terns would be returning with food, by the calls they made in the distance as they flew toward their rooftop home and dining area.

Caspian Tern Skimming Water

Caspian Skimming - ©ingridtaylar

#7 – An Osprey With No Dropped Calls

There are wildlife photographers who would cull this photo — or at least not post it — for all of the distracting elements and a few blown highlights. But, the clutter of this image — with the Osprey leaping in the frame — is what means the most to me. This is where I camped out in my “car blind” throughout the summer, photographing an Osprey pair that returns each year to its cell phone tower nest.

There was drama that drove me to anxiety … like the time period where I did not once see the male and feared for his well-being. The previous year, an Osprey not too far from this location was [fortunately] rescued by a wildlife team after the Osprey was discovered hanging and entangled in a power line. So I watched — and worried — and snapped photos of this Osprey pair’s existence as it played out in the context of modern technology. The two never did produce any young, but I hope to find them rebuilding their possibilities at this same site next year.

Oh, and … the highlights were blown because I forgot to turn off bracketing. This frame was then captured with too much exposure compensation. It was the only image I snapped with this particular pose.

Osprey Arriving at Cell Tower Nest

Master and Commander - ©ingridtaylar

# 8 – Spawning Homeward

This is one of my most poignant and significant photos of 2011. Until we moved to our little flat near the Ballard Locks in Seattle, I did not fully grasp the complexity and nuance of a salmon’s journey home to spawn. I didn’t know that salmon may, in fact, navigate by stars at night … or that they can smell the pebbles and brackish waters that lead them home to dig their redds and lay their eggs … or that those who return sometimes have the battered faces of prize-fighters, surviving as they have for five years in the wilds of the ocean before returning home to spawn.

Watching the homebound salmon every week through the viewing panels at the Ballard Locks fish ladder, I developed a fond association with the salmon I never anticipated. As much as I feel connected to the seasonal migration of birds, I will now always feel utmost respect for the power — the imperative — of the salmon cycle that drives these animals to their ancient homes, against all possible natural and unnatural odds.

Salmon Spawning

Spawning Homeward - ©ingridtaylar

#9 – Mt. Rainier and Its Lenticulars

I’m not sure this photo needs much explanation except to say that the phenomenon of lenticular clouds over Mt. Rainier is awesome — in the truest sense of the word “awesome.” I shot this from a hillside park in Kent, after Hugh and I raced to this location when we saw the lenticulars forming over the peak. On that evening, there was a collusion of shape, texture and color to render this image. These were the real colors and the real clouds. I tweaked just a bit of contrast and sharpness, and brought up shadows in the foreground greenery.

Mt. Rainier and Lenticular Clouds

Mt. Rainier and Its Lenticulars - ©ingridtaylar

#10 – Barring the Hat

I describe my first encounter with a Seattle Barred Owl in this post — a short blurb that also gives the background on how the owl came to own this hat. The long and short of it: she snatched it from a boy’s head (no harm to the boy) and toyed with it for ten minutes before losing interest and dropping it. This is definitely a favorite moment. I’m not sure I’ll ever have this experience again.

Barred Owl and Hat

Barring the Hat - ©ingridtaylar

Honorable Mention: Crow Moon

I’ve had so many opportunities in Seattle to shoot the moon, as it were. I’m always looking for interesting foreground when a full moon or a wolf moon or a harvest moon rises behind the city. I shot this image — two exposures, actually — at Seattle’s Pike Place Market. A crow was perched on a chimney near the famous red-neon market sign. Her silhouette perfectly overlaid the rising moon. I shot one frame to expose for the crow and one to expose for the moon, then layered the two shots in Photoshop.

Crow Moon - ©ingridtaylar