Joe and Mary Ann McDonald's

Wildlife Photography

Yellowstone Fall Photo Tours 2004

In mid-September we conducted two back-to-back fall tours, and, as usual, Yellowstone revealed new, pleasant and exciting surprises. Our first surprise, however, was to find that our standard vehicles, 15 pax Ford vans, were no longer available. Our rental car dealer only rented 12 pax vans now, which were not large enough for people, food, and gear. We had to do some quick thinking.

So, one new feature this year was the addition of a third vehicle, driven by a good friend of our's and a professional photographer as well, John Trone, who is also a veteran of some of our Africa trips. John drove an SUV and two participants, which we rotated daily so that everyone had the opportunity to pick my brain (limited, perhaps, see Oct.-Nov. Tip of the Month), as well as Mary's and John's. That solved, the solution worked perfectly. Thanks, John.

Another added bonus was the help we had from a long time friend, John Mullen, who practically makes Yellowstone his home in fall and spring. John's innumerable contacts and knowledge of the area helped us plan our schedule to maximize daily changes -- bears are here! wolves are at a carcass there! etc. John spent a lot of time with our groups and added a lot of great information. Thanks, John.

Yellowstone always offers something new, so that each year we return we're sure to see entirely new subjects, new conditions, and new experiences. This year elk were scarce -- the usual hotspots of Norris and Gibbon Meadows, and Elk Park were almost absent of elk. In fact, we had to work fairly hard to get good elk -- an absolute 'given' most years, but in the course of a week we always succeeded.

Elk are always present around Park headquarters at Mammoth, but this year one very aggressive bull made life miserable in that area. The bull smashed several vehicles and almost put down a Park ranger for good -- he was slightly injured, before the animal was tranquilized and the antlers removed for the season. He'll grow new ones next spring, and hopefully will have a new attitude. Folks were upset about the antler removal, but the elk was a potentially lethal presence around a very highly trafficed area, and it was the best solution at hand.

We've never seen so many bears! On two different days we had 8-10 bears, including a total of about 10 grizzlies for the trip. Grizzlies were particularly common toward the park's east entrance and bears often foraged within YARDS of the road. Rangers were constantly on duty to monitor bear and people activity, and in the days we filmed grizzlies I must say the rangers were extremely cooperative and photographer friendly. In the past we've seen rangers over-reacting and mismanaging people when a bear was hundreds of yards away, but this year we could only give the highest praise for what we saw.

Bear jams were commonplace, and it was a challenge to find a parking space when we'd unexpectedly arrive at a congested area. We overcame this dilemna at one location, where wolves had killed an elk and where wolves, coyotes, and bears had returned to feed, by leaving extremely early in the morning and getting a convenient parking spot right across from the kill. We did our job, but the wolves didn't -- never returning to the kill while we were there. However, not too far from that location we spent an entire morning with a family of black bears -- and our group was the only ones there! The bears were extremely tame and continually fed in our direction, requiring us to back off to keep a prudent and safe distance away.

Coyotes were less frequently seen than normal but both weeks at least one great coyote foraged by, giving us the opportunity for closeup shots. Trumpeter swans were among the best we've ever had, with one pair preening and swimming nearby provided the people worked with respect.

On one morning, an over-eager photographer, perhaps concerned that he had to get to the swans before a good spot was taken, raced out to the lake. I followed as quickly as I could, trying to stop his rush, but he arrived at the lakeshore fast, and immediately the swans swam off -- the shoot ruined for the morning. Ironically, ten minutes earlier I had scouted that spot, and been even closer to the swans, but I had moved slowly and without rush, and the birds were undisturbed. Returning to the vehicles this photographer asked me if the swans were there, I said yes, and he proceeded to ruin the shoot. Thanks.

Aspens were great both weeks and despite some winds the trees held their leaves. Pausing to shoot the basalt columns one day we had nearly 20 big horn ewes and lambs pass by, providing some great portraiture. While working the aspens we had one of the best mule deer shoots ever, for as we worked a resting doe she stood and approached us as she grazed. Soon, another doe joined her, and a fair-sized buck, grazing close enough to offer full frame headshots!

Pronghorn put on quite a show on the first day of the second tour -- an animal that proved rather uncooperative for the first group. Which points out how different each trip can be. On the first tour, we had our best mule deer, big horn sheep, and grizzly bears; while on the second, our best black bear, pronghorn, and elk.

The great gray owls eluded our groups. I found one for John Mullen, the first he's ever seen in 10 years of shooting Yellowstone, right before the start of the first tour. John's probably walked over 100 miles scouring the forest for this owl without success, so it was really a pleasure to show a friend a highly desired quarry. But this also shows how difficult it can be to find the owls, try as we might. This year, too, our search was hampered by road work in the area and by the presence of a huge grizzly that was spotted in the area. I found its tracks while searching for the owl and I was thankful I hadn't bumped into the bear, or had it lumber into our groups when filming an owl. So, maybe it was for the best that this year the owls eluded us.

Also of note, however, were the great groups -- two, back to back, entirely different but all wonderful. Group 1 had more digital shooters, Group 2 more film (they will change soon!), with G1 composed almost entirely of new people and G2 almost all veterans of past trips. An interesting development, but wonderful. Thanks, everyone!

Each week provides its own gems, and although we're not scheduled to return to Yellowstone next fall, we're seriously rethinking our plans. If you'd be interested, contact our office to be put on our mailing list to notify you about tours in 2005. If not, we'll definitely be back in 2006!

Although there will be an increase in price (gas went up significantly, and the new vehicle size restriction impacts as well), the basic brochure will remain the same. To get an idea of the tour, please look at our 2004 tour brochure as your reference. Should we decide to do the trip an updated brochure will be put on-line.

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