Home Nature Labs Countdown: A Decade in the Field

Countdown: A Decade in the Field

If you know us well, you know we love our countdowns. But this year, we’re doing it a bit differently.

After spending several months in the field for each year of the past 10 years – and roughly half the year in the field for each of the last five – this year we probably didn’t even spend a full week in nature. Total. No joke.

Why? 

After a bizarre, turbulent journey to fully capture the narrative story for Nature Labs, we finally reached our goal in October 2020. As a result, we’ve been focused on post-production this year, with just the odd jaunt into the wild to grab a bit of film we missed.

And since we didn’t spend much time in nature, we don’t have many images to countdown! So, we thought this might be fun: We’re going to look back at our 10 years together in the field and re-select our favourite images from each year, broken-down into these four categories:

👉🏻 Simon’s favourite image

👉🏻 Jill’s favourite image

👉🏻 Our most successful image 

👉🏻 Our favourite encounter/best story we captured

Ready?


Okay, before we start the proper countdown (see yesterday’s post), we thought we’d share Simon’s four favourite images from his previous 20 years spent in the field. That’s before Jill. Which just sounds so sad, doesn’t it? 

Three spirit bear images from the slide days. Anyone else remember those days? Film chilling in the cooler; every shot mattering; photo developers accidentally ruining a roll of film and the once-in-a-lifetime shots of a coyote nursing 12 pups? No? Just Simon. Okay, moving on…

The first image is Simon’s most published image – it’s appeared in Time Magazine, a National Geographic documentary, books, newspapers and has been displayed at public events globally. It’s also, probably, his first top image and, depending on the day you ask, his all-time favourite.

The second image might be Simon’s best selling image – it’s been featured in calendars, magazines, books and on posters hanging in classrooms around the world. 

And the third shot featured here was the media’s go-to file photo for almost every story on the spirit bear for about a decade – with almost every paper in Canada having published it at some point.

The final image is Simon’s favourite pre-Jill, non-spirit bear image: Grizzlies in the Mist. It was Simon’s first award-winning image and has been featured in galleries, publications and documentaries. It remains one of our top selling limited edition prints.


Number 10 is 2012

👉🏻 Jill’s Favourite: Though we spent much of the summer of 2012 in Yellowstone, this image from our encounter with a beautiful grizzly sow and her cub-of-the-year in the Canadian Rockies is what stands out for Jill.

👉🏻 Simon’s Favourite: Badgers – the mustelid family as a whole – are some of Simon’s favourite animals, so it shouldn’t surprise that, up until last year, a solitary moment at sundown with a badger cub in Yellowstone National Park is his favourite from 2012.

👉🏻 Most Successful Image: Remember the cub featured in Jill’s favourite image? Well, it’s the same bear featured here and it’s our best selling image from 2012.

👉🏻 Favourite Encounter: Our best encounter from 2012 was with an incredible mother otter and her two pups – one able bodied, one paraplegic. It stands as one of our greatest experiences in nature – maybe our favourite of all-time. And it’s a story we’re bringing to life through Nature Labs! Join us on Patreon to watch a story you don’t want to miss.


Number 9 is 2011

👉🏻 Simon’s Favourite: Our first year immersed in nature together was unbelievable. We saw incredible sights, but we weren’t totally prepared photographically. Even so, this image of Grand Teton National Park’s famed grizzly 399 looking back at her cubs in magic light still holds up to this day for Simon.

👉🏻 Jill’s Favourite: We had a lot of luck with grizzlies in 2011 and this image of a grizzly sow (she had a yearling at the time) in the Canadian Rockies is Jill’s top pick from her first year in the mountains.

👉🏻 Most Successful Image: Don’t laugh. Or do! But this river otter image is the most successful image we took in 2011 – one of four of our images featured in the surgery rooms of BC Children’s Hospital, hopefully helping put a smile on the faces of those who need it most.

👉🏻 Favourite Encounter: Before embarking on our first trip into the field, Jill decided she most wanted to see a cougar and a tornado. She got both, but alas we only got a photo of one of the encounters: A cougar in the Canadian Rockies killing and dragging a bighorn sheep up a cliff. It was our first and only cougar encounter. We have spotted other tornadoes, including one from our balcony this summer. Fun!


Number 8 is 2013

👉🏻 Jill’s Favourite: Mountain goats are crazy, balancing on a cliff face like this one. The light in this image is also crazy, peeking through a crack in the highway overpass above (our secret is revealed!). Craziest of all? Simon was balanced in an equally precarious spot, got the photo and didn’t get a concussion or die. For all of these reasons, it’s Jill’s favourite from 2013.

👉🏻 Simon’s Favourite: Simon’s choice is this coastal wolf peeking out from its thick forest cover. Our car was actually moving when Simon spotted the wolf and when he took the photo. Neither of us are quite sure how we ended up with this shot, given the circumstances and the split-second nature of the encounter, but alas!

👉🏻 Most Successful Image: This one narrowly beat out Simon’s favourite image from 2013 as our most popular image taken that year. Taken in Yellowstone National Park, Simon waited a long time in the cold for the take-off and was finally rewarded.

👉🏻 Favourite Encounter: Our favourite encounter from 2013 was with an otter family. We observed them for weeks and, amazingly, one afternoon, the female decided she needed to focus on fishing and nominated Jill as chief babysitter. If Jill tried to leave, the female would chase Jill back to where the pups were stashed. No joke. While Jill took care of her volun-told responsibilities, this pup peeked through a hole in the log where it was sleeping.


Number 7 is 2014

👉🏻 Simon’s Favourite: Maybe you’ve heard: Jill has a nickname – the weasel whisperer. For years, she was known for being able to find weasels on demand. Just not for Simon. Which was awkward. Until she found him a long-tailed weasel den in the Canadian Rockies. Simon’s top pick from 2014 was from this encounter.

👉🏻 Jill’s Favourite: Is this our best landscape image? No. Is this one of Simon’s favourites from 2014? No (though it might because he almost died of exposure while getting the shot). But it’s Jill’s pick and it’s her choice – it combines one of her favourite places, Waterton Lakes National Park, with her favourite activity, storm watching, in one image.

👉🏻 Most Successful Image: Our most successful image from 2014 is of Antelope Valley in Yellowstone National Park – the place where Simon saw his first bear and fell in love with nature at age 7. Unlike 1989, the wildflowers in 2014 were stunning and so too was the sunset on this particular night.

👉🏻 Favourite Encounter: The story of Curious the fox is one of our all-time favourites. We’ve written about it extensively, but if you’ve not heard the story, join us on Patreon to hear this incredible story of heartbreak and resilience.


Number 6 is 2015

Here’s how Simon summed up the year on our old blog:

“Jill and I got married, which is about as high as one can get in life (marrying the one you love that is), and we also were able to photograph long-sought after creatures (pine martens!), which is about as good as it gets for a wildlife photographer. We were even able to spend time with some of our favourite animals: Curious, Scarface and Raspberry – who produced her first set of cubs.”

Not a bad year!

👉🏻 Simon’s: You have no idea how badly Simon wanted to photograph a marten. He worked hard tracking them, with no success, in the Canadian Shield until, finally, on Valentine’s Day 2015 the curse broke at the same time his grandfather passed away. His grandfather’s name? Gordon. This marten’s name? Gordon. Obviously it’s his favourite shot from 2015, but it’s not a bad one either, eh? 

👉🏻 Jill’s: Jill’s top pick from 2015 is this great grey owl peeking out from behind a tree in Grand Teton National Park. Ironically, Jill wasn’t there when the image was taken – too many mosquitos out & about that day. So Simon went hiking by himself, kinda got lost & found this owl. Neat!

👉🏻 Most Successful: This image of Scarface – one of Yellowstone National Park’s most iconic grizzlies – was featured in National Geographic, the Washington Post, the Chicago Tribune and numerous other publications around the world. It was our most successful image from 2015, but for incredibly sad reasons.

👉🏻 Favourite Encounter: Though the previous image was more successful, this image means more to us. It’s our favourite from this encounter with Scarface – our very last we had with him before he was killed. Simon first met Scarface as a cub-of-the-year in Yellowstone at the age of seven and watched him grow up. Simon was with Scarface when he first learned about the spirit bear – sparking that twenty-year journey. And Simon was with Scarface when he decided to end the Spirit Bear Youth Coalition – bringing that journey to a close. In fact, the death of Scarface was one reason that we decided to launch Nature Labs, but more on that another day.


Number 5 is 2019

👉🏻 Jill’s: Jill cheated! She selected two images as her co-favourites from 2019. Though Simon very much disagrees, photo one of the grizzly cub in the snow is her favourite from an epic encounter in the Canadian Rockies that would have been more epic if we didn’t get into a serious car accident later that night on route to a Nature Labs interview. Her other co-favourite? A lynx mother and kitten from our very first (photographable) lynx encounter. We only got two shots.

👉🏻 Simon’s: Jill cheated? Simon super duper cheated. Three images?! Oh, whatever. Simon’s selections are of the aforementioned encounters with the lynx and snow bears. The third image is of a well-known Mount Robson Provincial Park boar that is featured prominently on Nature Labs, dontchyaknow. Also, he says it’s his best technical grizzly bear image of all-time.

👉🏻 Most Successful: Look, this selection is down to pure stats. Not our fault it’s a tie. Our most successful images from 2019 include a lovely grizzly bear mating pair from Mount Robson Provincial Park (the sow is up for best supporting actress in a Nature Labs production) and yet another image from the snow bear encounter – even if this one isn’t the best we took that day in our opinion.

👉🏻 Favourite Encounter(s): Okay, we both really cheated for our 2019 selections. We had three all-time great encounters that year. We got to film otters mating in BC (violent!). We watched a marten dismantle a moose carcass in Mount Robson Provincial Park (and totally steal our heart in the process). In fact, that was one of our top five encounters of all-time. Oh! And we also met Wahb the grizzly bear cub. Well, we named him Wahb after a character in certain book a few of you might know. We only met him for five minutes once, but he was the first offspring of one of our favourite bears, Alaska. We hoped, like the character Wahb, this Wahb would grow strong and have a good, if complicated, life in an area set aside to protect grizzlies. He didn’t. He was killed by a car. Obviously. We still miss him.


Number 4 is 2016

👉🏻 Jill’s Favourite: Jill’s 2016 selection is of one incredible red fox vixen. More on the story in a moment, but of the thousands of images we took of this family that spring, this is the one that stands out for Jill. It’s pretty cool. She thinks she picked well.  

👉🏻 Simon’s Favourite: Simon agrees with Jill that the fox encounter was incredible and probably the best animal story we’ve ever witnessed. But almost equal in ridiculousness was an encounter with Banff National Park grizzlies 126 and 142 – playing with reckless abandon for hours and hours. Did we mention that this wasn’t during mating season? Did we mention it was a perfect Rocky Mountain morning in a field of wildflowers? There were a few good ones from this encounter, but looking back, this photo was the clear winner. Yeah, Simon knows he picked well.  

👉🏻 Most Successful Images: Again, stats tell us we have a tie for most successful image of 2016. You and a few magazines have made photo 3 of a lone wolf wandering the wilds of northern Ontario quite popular (thanks!) – and you also seem to like Simon’s image of a red fox mating pair. As the sun was coming up in northern Ontario, this pair put aside love to fight over a meal of stashed squirrel. In the end, they compromised and split the squirrel – lucky squirrel! – but not before Simon got this shot and frost bite on his trigger finger.

👉🏻 Favourite Encounter: Look, we teased it with Jill’s selection, so obviously our favourite encounter from 2016 – and of all-time – was with a remarkable fox vixen. And no image from the three months we spent with her summarizes her story better than this one. Why? You have to be a Patreon superstar to find out. Trust us, the video is worth it! A real tear-jerker! Plus, you can support a great cause while you cry!!


Number 3 is 2017

👉🏻 Simon’s Favourites: Simon cheated. Again. He picked two images, but in his defence, how could he not? In 2017, he snagged images of a fox vixen carrying her kits to a new den in her mouth, one-by-one. Some kits were small, some weren’t. None looked pleased. But Simon was very pleased with photo 1. He also loves photo 2 – river otters having a laugh in a Rocky Mountain snowstorm. What was no laughing matter? Simon spotted the otters in near-white-out conditions while looking backwards through the car as we drove on a highway. Simon says his spot-of-a-lifetime has nothing to do with his selection of this image. Jill doesn’t believe him.

👉🏻 Jill’s Favourites: Jill also cheated. Again. She couldn’t decide between two bighorn rams getting a concussion during the annual rut in the Canadian Rockies and a young-ish bull elk, pausing in the early morning fog, while trying to determine where the elk rut party’s at…and why he wasn’t invited. Curiously, both images were taken by one Jillian R Cooper. Jill swears that had nothing to do with her selections. Simon doesn’t believe her.

👉🏻 Most Successful Images: The stats cheated again! They scored another tie! The bison image was taken in the Canadian grasslands and is one of our best selling images of all time. In fact, several bison images we took during this encounter occupy four slots on our top 10 all-time best sellers list. (What? Only the New York Times can have a bestseller list?) Of course, because it’s a tie, you also know that we took another pretty neat image in 2017: A bull elk walking the ridge line at sunrise in the Canadian Rockies. Funny story: Simon rolled – like literally rolled – out of the car WHILE IT WAS MOVING to get on the ground and get the angle to get this shot. Also a funny story: This is one of Simon’s all time favourite images and yet he didn’t select it as his favourite for 2017. Is it because he knew our analytics would feature it and he could use his choice to highlight other images? Very suspect, Simon. Very suspect.

👉🏻 Favourite Encounters: So, 2017 wasn’t the best year, photographically, but we had a couple of cool encounters. Maybe you heard, Simon almost died while tracking – and photographing – a fisher, while Jill took nearly 17 years to find her boots. That was pretty cool – it’s still our only fisher encounter that yielded photos! We also saw a wolverine. It wasn’t our first, but it was our first image of the nasty-cool mustelid. Jill’s family was visiting and were along for the ride when we spotted it. Rumour has it they never knew Jill swore prior to that morning (b*** s***). Rumour has it they were all left dazed and confused in the back seat of an unparked (potentially still moving, depending on who you believe) car while Simon and Jill attempted dodge heat waves to get a not-so-great-but-you-can-still-tell-what-it-is photo of a wolverine. Oh! And in 2017, we also photographed the Harry and Meg of the bear world – grizzlies 126 and the late 148 – while they romanced at the train station in Banff National Park. Which was rather unique to see, especially while on route to a meeting.


Number 2 is 2018

Here’s our summary of the year from our former blog:

“2018 was a whirlwind. Meetings. Pitches. Travel. Learning to do audio via YouTube. Turning our apartment into a wall-to-wall Post-It note apocalypse…we mean storyboard. You see, we’re trying to create the first prototype of Nature Labs by fall 2019 and, as a result, we had fewer days in the field than ever before. Yet 2018 was good to us. We made our time in the Rocky Mountains count like never before, narrowing our search to specific individuals and landscapes we’ve come to know well while working to create the stories that will underpin Nature Labs.” 

So cute. Fall 2019?! Really past Simon and Jill?! Oh, wow. You really had no clue how bad things were going to get, eh? (What a couple of suckers!!)

Back to the countdown.

👉🏻 Jill’s Favourites: Jill’s shamelessly cheating from here on. It’s how it’s going to be kids. Deal. Jill couldn’t decide between a moose cow and calf perfectly reflected in a Rocky Mountain lake, turned pink thanks to the sunrise, and a sub-adult female grizzly peeking from behind a dandelion. Simon thinks she could have chosen if not for the fact we both love that grizzly bear a whole heck of a lot. Fair.

👉🏻 Simon’s Favourites: Stunningly, Jill didn’t select her own image of a bobcat for her top selection. So, Simon will do it for her. And maybe it’s because he hopes it earns him good karma and helps him see a bobcat in the wild one day; or maybe it’s because he just thinks Jill killed it. (It’s the latter and, to be clear, Jill didn’t kill anything. Not literally. Actually, nor did the bobcat. It’s feasting on roadkill. Anyway!) He also says, though he never thought much of it at the time, the photo of a grown-up Curious the Fox in stunning light is one he can’t shake. He says it would be morally wrong not to include it in the countdown. Simon also selected what he says is his best technical image of all-time: A great grey owl in flight during a late season snowstorm here in Calgary. Whatever, Simon. A three-way tie? Really?

👉🏻 Most Successful Image: We really didn’t realize what we got at the time, but we’re extremely grateful to all of you for showing this image some love. 2018’s most successful image is of a very cool red fox, which kindly let us watch as he searched for a new territory as he set out on his own for the first time. And, like most young bachelors, boy did he eat! Like 30+ voles in one day!

👉🏻 Favourite Encounters: Favourite encounters? Favourite images? It’s so hard to know with 2018. It was a good year. You see, we got to watch a moose cow and calf swim against the backdrop of one of the most iconic views anywhere in the Rocky Mountains: Maligne Lake. At sunset, no less! If that wasn’t cool enough, we also stumbled across an extremely unique black bear family: A brown sow, with a black yearling cub, plus a black cub-of-the-year and a white cub-of-the-year. Talk about a modern family. Very, very cool. (And if you want to know more about why this family had mixed-aged cubs and why a white black bear can be found in the Rocky Mountains and how it relates to the spirit bear, become a superstar on Patreon and watch the story!) Oh! And alongside our friend and Patreoner Ganesh, we watched one of our favourite bears, a grizzly bear named Alaska, walk along the shoreline of Bow Lake in Banff National Park, just as the sun crested the mountains. Alaska was never a big bear, but she had a big heart – overcoming a life-threatening illness, she beat the odds and had two sets of cubs. She was finally thriving, we gather, when she was hit by a car and killed this past summer. We’ll miss her very much.


Number 1 is – drum roll please (not that it’s needed as you can read and also probably do basic math) – 2020!

It’s not recency bias. We swear. We swear! 2020 was just unreal photographically. There were some other aspects about 2020 that weren’t so great…but, yeah, photographically! Wow!

👉🏻 Simon’s Favourites: Simon is definitely allowed to cheat on this one. We found a swift fox family living it’s best life on the Canadian prairies. They were once extinct in Canada. But they’re making a comeback and we got to spend a week with this family for Nature Labs. The image Simon chose, he says, is probably the best image he’s ever taken. But in strong consideration for the all-time mantle – and the 2020 mantle, obviously – is a curious long-tailed weasel, poking out of a hole on the Canadian prairies at sunrise. It’s not even cropped! (Or maybe Jill cropped it for Instagram…he’s not really sure because he doesn’t partake in social media…but, anyway, the point is you don’t get that close to a weasel very often.) And Simon also selected a male lynx stepping up onto his bully pulpit to declare his love for his mate. And maybe it’s not the best best photo, but maybe the encounter was so crazy he had to include it because we’re not including video on this countdown and trust Simon here, Jill’s video is insane. Capeesh?!

👉🏻 Jill’s Favourites: Jill is also allowed to cheat, even if she selected a slightly inferior swift fox kit photo to Simon’s choice. Still, some might agree with Jill that this one’s better. It’s allowed. Also allowed? One of Jill’s all-time favourite images: A lynx and kitten walking across a frozen river in Canada’s boreal forest. If Simon’s being honest, he’s jealous he didn’t select this image as his favourite.

👉🏻 Most Successful Images: Like hips, stats don’t lie. It’s a tie for our most successful image of 2020 – a lynx giving us a high paw as it walked on by and a lynx kitten peeking through the forest at its onlookers. Fun fact: A few days after these images were taken, we returned to cell service only to discovered the world had been put on pause. That was weird.

👉🏻 Favourite Encounters: So, in addition to a host of other super cool encounters, we were able to hang out at a badger den – our first since focusing only on Canadian biodiversity. Simon, as you know from past posts, loves his badgers and he loved these badgers. We also went from having the world’s worst luck with lynx to breaking the curse in the final days of 2019 and then finding 17 DIFFERENT LYNX IN TWO WEEKS. You could say it was a memorable stretch in the wild. And to top it all off, thanks to our partners at BC Parks, we were able to film mountain caribou rutting (and almost killing each other…which was awkward given the state of mountain caribou, but, yeah, anyway…)! Not bad!

We hope you enjoyed the countdown of our top images and memories from our ten years in the field together.

If you’re just missing our countdowns, don’t fret! We have another one that starts shortly. Stay tuned!

  • Simon & Jill

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