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The Canadian stories behind the best wildlife photos of 2015

Connor Stefanison's pictures appear in the 2015 Wildlife Photographer of the Year exhibition.

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The Wildlife Photographer of the Year exhibition is coming to Canada. Connor Stefanison calls the 51st annual prize "the Oscars of nature photography," and for the second time in his life, this 24-year-old from Burnaby, BC is a winner.  

In 2013, after Stefanison won WPY's Rising Star Portfolio Award for the first time, the prize led to a professional career, as the Simon Fraser biology grad began to publish work in Canadian Geographic, Audubon and British Columbia Magazine. This October, at the Natural History Museum in London, U.K., Stefanison claimed the Rising Star Portfolio Award again.

Stefanison is one of three honoured Canadians, including the awards' grand title winner, Don Gutoski. Their photographs beat more than 42,000 entries from around the world, and the collection of WPY images will appear at Victoria's Royal British Columbia Museum in December after they make their Canadian debut at Toronto's Royal Ontario Museum November 21.

Connor Stefanison

He's a two-time winner of the Rising Star Portfolio Award. Connor Stefanison of Burnaby, BC was honoured by the 2015 Wildlife Photographer of the Year awards. (www.connorstefanison.com)

If you've hiked the Rocky Mountains, cruised the lakes of the B.C. interior, or just walked the streets of Vancouver, Stefanison's images will resonate with you. British Columbia is his favourite subject, particularly its animals and its environment. Five of his six portfolio images were taken in his home province, chosen by judges for their "creativity, artistry and technical complexity."

"In [wildlife] photography, everyone is drawn to the exotics, people think you have to go to Africa or wherever to get pictures," he says. "Shooting in local environments is really important because you just know so much about the area," says Stefanison, who grew up with an interest in nature thanks to his family. "We do a lot of outdoor activities: hunting, fishing, camping, all that stuff." He dreams of shooting pictures of grizzly bears, and trying underwater photography on the Pacific Coast. "There's so much in B.C. that I haven't even come close to doing it all, yet."

Here, Stefanison tells CBC Arts the stories behind the Canadian scenes that represent some of the best wildlife photography of the year.

A Black Bear Looks In

A black bear looks in - Connor Stefanison

A Black Bear Looks In. (Connor Stefanison)

"The bear is a mistake of a photo. I didn't want to get a bear at all. I wanted anything but a bear."

And yet, according to WPY's judges, it's the best image in Stefanison's portfolio.

"Originally I was after a western spotted skunk," the photographer explains. They're a rare species, so scarce they're thought to have disappeared from BC. Through a friend, Stefanison became involved in a study about the skunks, and hoping to help, he set camera traps in the rainforests of Maple Ridge, just outside of Vancouver. Baiting them with bobcat scent and a morsel of deer meat, he hoped for the best: a clear photo of this elusive animal…and no bears.

"I'm always nervous setting up camera traps when bears are out," he says. They're curious, and curiosity can lead to trashed equipment.

"When I came back [to the trap], there was some bear scat on the trail. That got me kind of worried. And then I got to the set up. The tripod was knocked over."

The worst had happened, but it was all for the best. While messing up Stefanison's camera trap, the bear left some photographic evidence of its visit. Award-winning evidence, in fact.

As for the skunk? Stefanison says the hunt continues...

Raven Strut

Raven Strut - Connor Stefanison

Raven Strut. (Connor Stefanison)

Serenity, solitude. Through Stefanison's viewfinder, there's nobody on this snowy peak but him and the raven. "It's not all the time that you get perfect conditions for a snow scene like this," he says. But would you believe there were people, and birds, swarming all around him?

Shot near Hollyburn Lodge, at Vancouver's Cypress Mountain ski hill, Stefanison brought his camera along on a family trip. "This is the top of the trail, it's kind of the rest stop where everyone eats lunch." Where there's lunch, there's ravens, and Stefanison says the birds were "flying around everywhere, stomping around in different spots."

"This one just happened to walk in front of this nice pyramid pattern of trees, and he has this cocky strutting look to him as it's going along the snow." 

Creekside Nursery

Creekside Nursery - Connor Stefanison

Creekside Nursery. (Connor Stefanison)

While shooting rainforest landscapes in Maple Ridge, Stefanison discovered this young family of American dippers nesting in a riverbank. He captured it from a distance with a wireless remote, and spent a day setting up gear and composing the shot, taking care not to disrupt the birds as he brought equipment to their side of the water. "I set up one piece of gear at a time because the dippers were coming back to feed the chicks pretty often. I didn't want to block the feedings."

"Before photography I didn't have too much of an interest in birds … I wasn't actively trying to ID all these species," Stefanison says. "But once you start photography, you start to appreciate and notice how many species there are," even just in the Vancouver area alone. "There's always something new to photograph."

Aerial Buffet

Aerial Buffet - Connor Stefanison

Aerial Buffet. (Connor Stefanison)

The title says it all. Those specks of light aren't stars, they're mosquitos — a feast for a black tern, and a misery for whoever's photographing it.

"This picture doesn't even show how many insects were in the air," Stefanison says, recalling the shoot. He and a friend were on a boat cruise at dusk near Williams Lake, BC. "We have other pictures of ourselves with just clouds and clouds [of bugs] around us. Trying to keep still with all of that going on was really tough." On top of that, Stefanison's allergies were reacting to the tall marsh grasses all around them. "It wasn't very comfortable," he says dryly, but the picture, and the experience of capturing it, was worth every itch.

Night of the Mountain Goats

Night of the Mountain Goats - Connor Stefanison

Night of the Mountain Goats. (Connor Stefanison)

A contented billy goat just hanging with the herd … and one human visitor.

"That was probably the most fun I've had taking pictures," says Stefanison, remembering the days he spent following mountain goats in the Rockies — a backpacking trip that resulted in this serene shot.

Growing up in BC, Stefanison says he's well familiar with the creatures. "For me, they're not an exotic species or anything." But when a friend discovered this particular herd while rock-climbing, Stefanison decided he had to photograph them.

"Before going up I got it in my head it would be cool to get a shot of the goats with the stars in the background," he says. "But I didn't know if it was possible." He had never seen a photo like that before. And he had no idea where the animals go at night. Or what they do. 

"There have been incidents in the past where they have killed or attacked people, but these ones — I never had any aggressive encounters with any of them." The smiling fella in the photo's foreground? He's the dominant billy goat in the group, and Stefanison shadowed him in particular while following their foraging route over four days. "With goats and sheep, I find the bigger they are, the easier they are to get up to," he explains.

Camping close to where the animals rest for the night, Stefanison caught this picture early into his trip. "I don't think there was any moon that night," he remembers. Setting the shutter speed to 25 seconds, a long time for restless animals, his only light was a hand-held flash. The result is his favourite picture in the winning portfolio. "I don't know how many people have been able to do that, just be out there with all the goats foraging around, to have them be relaxed and calm, just doing what they do."

2015 Wildlife Photographer of the Year exhibition. Nov 21 - March 20, 2016 at the Royal Ontario Museum, Toronto. www.rom.on.ca. Dec 4 - April 4, 2016 at the Royal British Columbia Museum, Victoria. www.royalbcmuseum.bc.ca.

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