This year's trip marks our 19th year of doing photo tours to Yellowstone and already I'm anxious to write, next year, that we've just completed our 20th year! Well, that's a year away, but it may indicate the excitement and enjoyment we experience each year, and illustrate the fact that we are never bored or tired of this great wildlife national park. In almost 20 years, we've certainly seen changes, and this year that biggest change was the rarity of elk. We saw fewer than we have in the past, but we still obtained photos, and certainly observed, of the annual elk rut.
In 'Decade of the Wolf,' the story of the first ten years in Yellowstone's wolf reintroduction program, the authors, Gary Ferguson and Douglas Smith note that in 1968 the northern elk herd in Yellowstone had been culled by government hunters to a low of 4,000 elk, in response to the the severe over-grazing caused by an elk herd free of predators. While we've heard somewhat confusing figures about elk numbers, in terms of total population and the northern herd, which are exposed to hunting and to wolves, the elk population has decreased. Hunters and ranchers (I'm generalizing, here) blame the wolves, while biologists (again, generalizing) cite previous over-allotment of elk hunting tags, drought, and predation of elk calves in spring by grizzlies. The truth may lie somewhere between all the opposing views, but one fact really shouldn't be disputed, and that's that wolves were, and now are again, a part of the Yellowstone ecosystem and that whatever the elk numbers are now, those numbers probably more accurately reflect the true carrying capacity of elk in a changing world.
Yellowstone's wolves have been blamed for a decrease in elk, but that same decrease has prompted regeneration of formerly heavily browsed habitats. Aspens and cottonwoods that were, just a few years back, only represented by mature or aged trees are now seen as saplings - elk are not eating all of the seedlings! Wolves compete with coyotes, and coyote numbers - once one of the highest concentrations in all of North America - certainly appear to be down, but since coyotes compete with red fox, that smaller canine's numbers are increasing. In our two weeks in Yellowstone are very cursory survey certainly reflected this trend - I think we saw about 5 coyotes on each trip, and only the second trip got worthwhile shots - once while we were having breakfast, and another when most of the group were out with a great gray owl and a coyote walked right into one of our group who had stayed behind.
We saw more red foxes than I'd ever seen in Yellowstone, and several people (including some with small point n shoot digital cameras) showed us frame-filling shots of foxes. On our very first day in the park, the Saturday before our group arrived, Mary, Tom Waster, and I did a rather thorough scouting trip of the park and, in Hayden Valley, we encountered a very cooperative red fox. The fox was mousing along a long meadow that bordered the sagebrush, and several photographers clustered by the roadside as the fox passed. Later the fox moved deeper in the valley away from the road and several photographers followed, but most everyone was courteous and leap-frogged to new positions by circling around and behind those in front. In that way, as the fox moved by it wasn't disturbed by someone rushing in to take a shot. Eventually the fox moved far enough out that only three shooters remained - Mary, Tom, and I, and we were rewarded by several full-frame passes. Mary got the best shot when she flipped to vertical and caught the fox full-frame as it walked towards her.
My best coyote shot occurred on the break-day between trip one and two, when Mary returned our first group to Bozeman and stayed to buy a week's worth of groceries for the next group. I was driving along and spotted a coyote next to a pickup -- I suspect the people inside had tossed out some food. I waited until they left before I moved in for some shots, and when the coyote spotted me it trotted right over, actually circling me and coming in to within three feet - I thought it might try a quick snap at me. Over the next half hour it stayed in the area, approaching several cars for possible handouts. Eventually it wandered off, and although our group staked out the location several times over the next week the coyote never returned.
This year we had some of the best luck we've ever had with GREAT GRAY OWLS, and both groups did quite well. Mary found the first owl for our first trip, and because we had been there first we were able to establish some type of crowd control and group cooperation as more and more photographers arrived. We had timed that owl search for a cloudy day and we got lucky - we had the owl and we had the weather for contrast-free shots. We stayed with that owl for several hours, and on one perch the owl cooperated by rotating a complete 360 degrees to provide a multiple of view and poses. From that perch it flew to a beautiful lichen-covered limb before flying off to another perch deeper in the woods, where we left it at peace. For our second week Mary spotted another owl on her side of the road (we split up to search several different fields), and this owl was perched on a low snag in an open field in complete sunlight. Unfortunately another photographer had been working the owl before we arrived, and this aggressive individual moved too fast and pushed too hard, spooking the owl off the perch before our group could assemble. The owl flew to another perch, and this photographer simply walked in front of our group as he raced to a new position. Later, one of our participants heard him say that our group was just a bunch of tourists, so I guess it didn't matter to him.
At any rate, crowd control was a bit more difficult with this second owl, and although that photographer still continually changed positions he did so a bit more slowly and quietly, and he didn't push pass the shooting line that we had established. We certainly appreciated that, but I was annoyed when I later heard about his comments. Had I had the chance, I'd have liked to have suggested to him that he'd have a lot more luck if he moved more slowly and demonstrated a lot more patience. A friend who knew him said that he was a good shooter and 'good guy,' which I'm sure is true, but if so, I wish that he'd have been aware that his actions -- carrying a big lens and looking serious - can be mimicked by 'mere tourists' who see someone else acting in a particular way. I think it's far better to set an example of patience and courtesy to others, so that clueless on-lookers may indeed learn the right way to behave. It's our philosophy that one can get a lot done if everyone works as a group and cooperates, and furthermore, professional photographers or serious shooters should set a behavior standard that others can admire and emulate. Selfishness is not only rude, it also results in animals being pushed and flying off or fleeing, indicating that someone has pushed too hard.
Illustrative of our philosophy is the wonderful experience we had with BIG HORN SHEEP RAMS on our second trip.There's an area we know that occasionally had a hidden bachelor herd of big horn rams and I'd hoped to hike out to the spot one evening to scout it out for our groups. As luck would have it, our shooting schedule was so filled that I never had the free hour to do so -- we returned to the motel too late each evening to do anything but unpack. Luckily, though, one of our group spotted some rams one morning and our group made the hike (about 2/3rds of a mile) to where we'd seen the sheep. They had disappeared by the time we arrived but we found them again along a hillside, and for the next three hours our group slowly worked our way into the bachelor herd. The sheep completely accepted us, and several times various rams walked by as they changed positions. When we had finally had enough shooting all the rams were lying down, calmly chewing their cuds as they gazed out over the valley. We slowly moved out and the sheep didn't stir - we had approached with caution and concern and we now left with concern and respect, and the animals were completely unfazed by our encounter.
American Pika, one of the cutest small mammals in the Park, were a bit reclusive this year, but a few of us managed to get a couple of series of this rabbit relative. Two years ago, in their habitat, I photographed a Pine Marten, and a friend of our's, last year, photographed a weasel capturing a pika in the same location. So you never know what may show up!
It had been several years since we'd last seen, or photographed well, big horn sheep rams and that experience was the highlight of the week for many, including perhaps all two weeks for Mary and I. Other real highlights - we photographed several new scenic locations - an overlook of Grand Prismatic Spring, a waterfall we've driven passed multiple times, the 'mute dog forest' that always delights us with the incredible abstract landscapes, and some great pronghorns. We found a new location for American Pika, a cute little rabbit relative, that teased us with only a few shooting opportunities, and we're seeing more and more mule deer each year. Each group saw black and grizzly bears and wolves, and we shot both species of luck with varying degrees, although I must admit that the Park rangers and the crowds make quality bear shooting very, very difficult.
This year we brought along our own spotting scope for viewing wolves -- a Tasco 20-60X scope I cajoled my parents into buying me for a Christmas present when I was in the sixth grade! I had contemplated buying a new scope before the trip, something of a luxury considering we only use a scope once or twice during the week, and usually we just borrow one of the wolf-watchers scope to do that, but I checked out my old Tasco and felt that it would do the job adequately for the limited role. However, I did survey many scope users, and had the chance to look through a Zeiss, Swarovski, and Bushnell scope, and the optics in each were similar enough that I couldn't decide which might be the best. Interestingly, the Zeiss owner was the most enthusiastic endorser, and he said he's looked through every scope made and thought the Zeiss was not only the least expensive of the group but was also the best. I would be VERY INTERESTED in receiving any feedback or opinion about 'scopes, because I'm still toying with the idea of getting one for next year. Any feedback will be appreciated!
We didn't see any moose, although there was a moose bull, cow, and calf seen in an area we frequently traveled but the moose were always out early and retreated into the woods before the light came up. This year Yellowstone has been suffering a drought and although we hit the peak of fall foliage, aspens were rather muted and those scenes were a bit lacking.
In truth, Mary and I felt that this year's trips were, perhaps, the best ones we have had in the last several years. We had great luck but I believe the success of the trips were very much due to the patience and cooperation of our groups. Everyone cooperated wonderfully, everyone was very patient, and everyone had a positive outlook that resulted in a no-stress, positive attitude group that resulted in wonderful images. Thanks, everyone, it was our pleasure!
Next year's Yellowstone Fall Photo Tour, September 14-20, and 21-27, still has some openings, but if you're interested, please contact our office as soon as you can. If you'd like to see other photos, from previous trips, check out the trip reviews from 2005 and 2006 to get a real sense of what we'll find and shoot on these Yellowstone tours.