Joe and Mary Ann McDonald's

Wildlife Photography

Yellowstone Fall Wildlife Photo Tour, September 2003

Trip Report


Because of 9/11 we haven't been to Yellowstone since 2001. Last year, our Quest for the Wild Dogs in Tanzania and our Kenya Photo Safaris coincided with our usual time of doing a photo tour in Yellowstone. 9/11 effectively canceled our last trip, since air travel prevented us, or most of our participants, from getting to Yellowstone. So it was with a great deal of excitement and anticipation that Mary and I prepared for the tour, and with some questions -- would be fine Yellowstone as exciting after a two year hiatus? Would the wildlife be as good? Would we be bored with American wildlife after so much foreign subject matter?

Well, the answers were Yes!, Yes!, and No, we were not bored. Instead, we were extremely excited, pumped, and psyched each day, and at the conclusion of our second trip we were ready for a third. Amazing, when one considers that our day started with a load up of groceries and camera gear at 5:45AM, a departure by 6:15AM, and a full day afield where we often didn't arrive back in Gardiner until 7:30 or 8PM! One evening it was 8:45PM -- a full day filled with shooting. It was exciting!

If you've read our brochure you know that this trip is designed primarily for wildlife photography, not for scenics. This presents a risky proposition since the scenics are a given and wildlife requires luck -- or skill and expertise and luck. While we concentrated on wildlife, in our off times, when game was scarce or when we simply encountered an area that was scenically spectacular, we shot some great landscapes. More on that later --- let's concentrate on the wildlife for now.

Several of our participants had done this trip before and one, Steve, jokingly gave us a shopping list of subjects he either wanted to see or to photograph. One was wolves, and although we almost guaranteed him that he'd see wolves, we dismissed the possibility of getting any type of a shot. Typically wolves are seen in Lamar Valley as mere specks, and that's through binoculars! However, we were lucky, and while stopping to assess a possible distant elk at an 'animal in habitat' composition, or the aspens on our side of the road as an abstract composition, Mary spotted a wolves between our vans and the elk. "Wa-Wa Wolf! Wolf! Wolf!" Mary barked into our Walkie-Talkies. All of us jumped out of the van and most everyone, except the guy that wanted to see the wolf, had a good view. Too fast for photos for most, but at least a good, relatively close view. The wolf disappeared over a ridge and we decided to try to intercept it by the road so we hopped back into the van and drove off. Mary's van, with Steve inside, passed a clearing just before the wolf appeared on the ridge again. I was following and spotted it, and everyone in the van had a great view. Later, luckily, a black wolf crossed another road and Mary was there, and this time Steve had his first look at a wolf.

We returned to the spot where we'd first spotted the wolf and noticed ravens and magpies flying about, a sure sign a kill was present. I scouted about and found the carcass, and positioned everyone on a hillside where we could watch for any approaching wolves. We weren't close by any means -- 200 yards or so, but we were treated to several coyote interactions as various dominant, or submissive, coyotes joined the scene, and later a wolf came loping in, hopping on its hind legs either to look bigger or to see above the sage. Interestingly, the coyotes backed off but did not flee, and several of us have images where a relatively relaxed coyote shares the frame with a wolf!

The first group also had a request for a great gray owl. Peter and Carol had also been with us before and Peter joked that great grays didn't exist in the park, since we hadn't had an encounter for almost six years. One late afternoon (or early evening) as we began our return to home I spotted one sitting on a tree above a bull elk a group was watching. We pulled over, and as we watched, incredibly the owl launched itself from the branch and flew the 200 or more yards directly at us! It landed in a tree about 20 yards from the road when another flew by, within a dozen feet of Peter and carrying a mouse in its beak. It joined the other and exchanged the mouse, and Carol got the sequence on video. The owls flew off and we tried to follow but the birds were actively hunting and just kept moving through the woods. Our light was failing and we quit. Two days later we tried to find the owls but were unsuccessful.

Our second group wanted the owl as well, and we spent a fruitless couple of hours searching an area where other photographers had had luck the previous day. I spotted one as it flew through the woods but I couldn't find where it may have perched. That afternoon we decided to try again, deciding to take the entire group to the area where the birds were most frequently seen and to then disperse and wait, hoping that an owl would fly in while hunting. I took the group uphill and through the woods while Mary decided to explore alone on the opposite side of the road in an area where the owls had not been seen. I was close to our destination, 12 huffing and puffing photographers behind me, when Mary spoke excitedly into the Walkie-talkie, "I've got an owl at eye level 20 yards from me!"

We backtracked, and Mary talked me in to the general area by the radios. Just as we were getting close -- Mary said she could see our group in the woods, my radio battery died but fortunately Mary was close enough that she could leave the owl, wave to attract our attention, and direct us. It is a real testament to a group's cooperation that 16 people, our 12 participants, a girl that joined us, an old friend, and Mary and I, worked our way slowly and quietly toward the owl. We cautioned everyone to be quiet and to follow our directions, and it paid off. A few times someone accidentally cracked a branch and you could see how that small sound caught the owl's attention. Once, in the distance, a car door slammed like a rifle shot and the owl flinched visibly. Fortunately, no noise was loud enough to frighten the bird and we eventually worked within frame-filling distance. As the afternoon progressed the bird began hunting and flew to a series of perches. One was in full sunlight and the group was able to circle around and get the bird in direct light, with its yellow eyes piercing in the afternoon sun.

Coyotes are most easily filmed when at a kill but most kills are restricted since they might attract a bear. Luckily, something had killed a cow elk and we were told by another photographer, a former participant of our Yellowstone tour, Rich G., about the carcass along the Firehole. We arrived just minutes before the last of three coyotes left the carcass and although we waited two hours nothing came back in. We left and did scenics through the high light of mid-day, and as we started home we passed the carcass where two coyotes were again feeding. This time we were successful and for the next half-hour or so we had some tremendous shooting of coyotes a river's width away. Great shots.

Moose were a must-see for two of our participants on our first trip but they eluded us, while Group Two had a total of 6, including two bulls one morning on the way to Lamar Valley to look for wolves. Elk were relatively scarce, with the great 'elk parks' of Gibbon Meadows and Elk Park virtually deserted. Fortunately we encountered a couple great bulls at Norris, and a true Royal elk along the Madison, so both groups had superb elk shooting.

Along with Gray jays, bison, ravens, spectacular chipmunks, big horn sheep, and red squirrels, our groups spent a good deal of time shooting landscapes. We did not shoot the geothermals, but instead concentrated on more subtle images of aspens, meadows, and canyons and waterfalls. An entire late morning was comprised of a compositional exercise at Tower Falls where the group shot this traditional tourist stop in an entirely different and dynamic way.

The weather in Yellowstone is always variable. On the first trip, in mid-September, we had frigid temperatures and snow some days, while for Group Two we had cloudless skies and temperatures approaching 70 every day of the trip! Nonetheless, the foliage changed dramatically during the second week and some of the group's highlights included the aspen shots we made along the northern tier of Yellowstone. Both trips ended with a final round with pronghorns.

Mary and I must extend our thanks to both groups for their enthusiasm and cooperation, and also a big thanks to our friends, and many of our former participants that we met in the park who passed along tips on what was where, and when. These scouts added immeasurably to the success of our trip and we'd like to recognize this and to thank them.

Next year we'll be returning to Yellowstone for two tours, and possibly a third that will include a Digital workshop that would include the Grand Tetons. Check our Gold Schedule for the dates! See you there!


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