Greatest Hits

Top photographers share their favorite mammal images

08-01-2006 // Hannah Schardt

EVERY YEAR we pore over more than 80,000 photographs to select the images of wildlife that we publish in the magazine. For this issue, we decided to try something a little different: We asked four of the country's top wildlife photographers to submit their own favorite images of North American mammals--along with the stories of how these one-of-a-kind photos were created. Following are the photos they selected.

Greatest Hits magazine layout - snow hare

"I knew the shot I wanted to get before I left my hotel room 60 miles away," says Washington photographer ART WOLFE of this image (below) of two bison silhouetted against the rising sun. Driving into Yellowstone National Park on that frigid winter morning, he found the bison just as the sun peeked over the ridge on which they stood. In that golden moment, he captured the dawn light and the steam rising off of the massive animals.

Greatest Hits magazine layout - bison

Another of Wolfe's favorite images, the high-fiving arctic hares on Canada's Ellesmere Island (top of page), required the opposite approach: complete spontaneity. Wolfe was visiting the Canadian Arctic to document its wolves, but the hares ended up being just as photogenic. "From far away, I saw these two rabbits just lying there--they looked like two balls of fuzz," he says. "As I was getting closer, they looked at me, looked at each other, and then all of a sudden they started fighting." Wolfe still isn't sure exactly why the arctic hares were moved to box, but he suspects--and researchers have told him--that it was "sort of a male sparring thing."

Greatest Hits magazine layout - whale

For two uneventful weeks in the Azores, photographer FLIP NICKLIN tried daily to photograph sperm whales--whose range also includes North American waters--but came up mostly empty. One morning at the end of his trip, he got what he was waiting for--and then some. A group of about 150 sperm whales appeared, including a mother and her white baby (above, left). But how to isolate two whales from the dozens of others? "I got in the water in front of all the others and waited where I thought they would pass by," says Nicklin, who lives in Hawaii and Alaska. "Finally, the baby swam by in front of the mom just long enough for three frames. I never got close again." Nicklin says that the five days of waiting between shooting those three frames and getting them developed were "excruciating."

Nicklin waited even longer for this image of two narwhals (above, right) off Canada's Baffin Island--he spent three and a half months in the Arctic before he got close enough to photograph the animals. Nicklin was approaching the end of his visit, he says, when he and a writer colleague found these two male narwhals guarding what turned out to be a dead or dying female (seen here between the two males). "They were fighting off groups of much larger males who were coming in and nosing around," he says. After following the drama for about seven hours, Nicklin and his colleague towed the dead narwhal to land, where a researcher conducted a necropsy and found the animal had been speared by a tusk. The photographer still doesn't know why she was killed--or why her body had been guarded by the two males. "The hard thing about narwhals is that we know so little about them," says Nicklin. "And the great thing is there's so much to discover."

Greatest Hits magazine layout - wolf

On assignment in the Canadian Arctic's Ellesmere Island, Minnesota photographer JIM BRANDENBURG caught sight of a pack of arctic wolves--and fell head over heels. The white wolves are almost completely isolated from humans and Brandenburg immersed himself in their icy world. Photographing the animals "ended up being the most fascinating, happiest achievement in my life so far," says Brandenburg. He went on to spend three successive summers living alongside the pack, eventually producing three books and a movie about the experience. This photograph of a male wolf atop an iceberg (above) isn't one of Brandenburg's best known photographs--in fact, he's not sure it's ever been published before. "But over the years, it has grown into one of my favorites," he says. "I think it says something about the land and something about the animal--usually in photography you have to compromise on one or other."

Greatest Hits magazine layout moose and cougar

Perhaps the most remarkable thing about this photograph of a moose suffused in golden light (above, top) is that it exists at all. Wyoming photographer TOM MANGELSEN had been waiting for hours in dreary rain at Denali National Park in Alaska--two companions had already packed up and left--while the massive bull moose, head of a harem of 19 females, lay in the grass. Suddenly, the sky cleared and the light Mangelsen had waited for all afternoon appeared. At that moment the moose stood and stayed perfectly still while Mangelsen captured the image with a one-second exposure. "It was like magic," he says, "with the sun hitting the peaks and the snow squall coming across the mountains at same time." Before Mangelsen took this photo of a female cougar (above, bottom), he had photographed cheetahs, lions and tigers all over the world. But he had never even seen one of his own country's elusive wild cougars--and never thought he would. Tipped off by a biologist friend to a cougar family's presence in the National Elk Refuge near his Jackson home, Mangelsen quietly staked out the den (where he was eventually joined by dozens of curious onlookers) and for 42 days--the duration of the cats' stay--documented their comings and goings. A few months later, inspired by his time with the cougar family, Mangelsen cofounded the nonprofit Cougar Fund, dedicated to protecting these cats throughout the Americas and to educating the public about the value of cougars in nature.

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