It's easy to take the surroundings of where we live for granted. As a nature photographer, it's often tempting to travel to exotic places for elusive subjects. This year has obviously been a bit different from the norm! Whilst I realise I've been luckier than most to have had several overseas trips - from the southernmost islands of Japan at the start of 2020, to the Italian Apennines where I spent an unforgettable summer filming a family of bears - most of the images that you'll see among this year's favourites were taken right on my doorstep. That's the ultimate prize, to find a familiar animal and photograph it in a unique way, and I've enjoyed each window of opportunity that has been granted to do that.
In a photographically quiet year, there have been some special photo chances and even more special moments, and here are just a few favourites . . .
Grey Heron - London, UK
Probably my most photographed species this year is the Grey Heron. Many attendees on my Urban Wildlife workshops would agree how easy it is to spend hours by the riverside capturing its quirky elegance. Everything about the heron - from its snaky neck to its fancy head-dress - is photogenic. Here I wanted something different from the usual face-on portrait, something more suggestive, mysterious, seductive. I saw this moment as a study of texture and shape which would work best in black-and-white. It took several gusts of wind to get the feathers just the way I wanted.
Red Fox - London, UK
After a quiet autumn on the photography front, as I'd been busy filming on a hospital documentary, I paid a visit to the local Gothic cemetery. Having lived around the corner from it for 15 years without so much as looking in, I wish I'd gone sooner - as there was this very friendly fox, a well-known resident, strolling among the tombstones! Out of a few 'photo-shoots', this golden autumn morning with "Charlie" remains a favourite. It's been a rare treat to use my wide-angle lens with a winning combination of a beautiful animal, great light and interesting surroundings.
Red-Tailed Bumblebee - London, UK
One of the commonest bees to appear in British gardens in early spring, to photograph it is a first for me! As I didn't have my camera to hand, this was taken on a point-and-shoot, showing what results you can achieve with even the most basic camera. 2 months after lockdown hit London, with the usual spring trips out of the question, I was getting nature and photography withdrawal. Then one bright spring evening the bees and butterflies arrived. The garden fence in shadow provided a dark background, and the gold setting sun caught the bee's vibrating wings. This was, I kid you not, the first photo I took - and it was a sigh of relief, of a normality gradually returning.
Mute Swan - London, UK
This was taken at one of my favourite photo spots in the capital. At dawn, the wrought-iron bridge creates a moody atmosphere, giving a nice balance of shadow, side light and reflections for interesting portraits of common birds. Like herons, foxes and now bees, the common subjects can give wonderful photo opportunities if only we keep our eyes and minds open to them.
Marsh Fritillary - Majella National Park, Italy
Macro photography is a perfect creative outlet as you can immerse yourself in a tiny alien world. It's accessible too, as any area with plants will hold a host of insects. During an August heatwave, a few butterflies were lingering in a scorched thistle meadow. The striking colours and textures were what drew me to this marsh fritillary, and I got as symmetrical a shot as possible without scaring it away. It was a sweaty but very enjoyable afternoon.
Ryukyu Scops Owl - Ishigaki-jima, Japan
During an evening of owl-spotting in Japan's Ryukyu Islands, my guide Masahiro found this endemic Ryukyu Scops Owl by his flashlight. Its small size and intense yellow stare differentiates it from other owls in the area. It's not an amazing image but it's a unique sighting. It's my best picture of an owl and a warm memory of my first time in Japan.
Red Fox - London, UK
Yes, it's Charlie the red fox again - but a slightly different image as he ponders the morning light (or so it appears). Whilst in some ways I prefer the other photo aesthetically, I like the long shadows and texture of the dry autumn leaves. And I feel more connection with the fox here, like he's leading me into the forest.
Marsican Brown Bear - Majella National Park, Italy
(screenshot from upcoming film "My Neighbour Is A Bear", 2021 release)
It's a rare privilege to follow in a bear's footsteps and an even rarer one to follow a mum as she raises her four cubs. Over 6 weeks this summer, I filmed the highs and lows of this family for my friend Mattia's documentary, witnessing seldom-seen moments of family life, hunting and survival in pure intimacy. The daily eye-witness accounts of villagers could not prepare us for this special encounter in our garden, as the five bears engorged themselves on ripe cherries for several hours just metres away. If we can, I'd love to return next summer to see the cubs before they disperse to make their own breeding territories.