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Trip Report:

Yellowstone Wildlife and Landscapes
Photo Tour


Our 28th year of doing Yellowstone Photo Tours and this, I believe, was the most challenging. The road that led from Sheep Eater's Cliff south to Norris Junction was closed, so that the only road to Hayden Valley or to the Madison River was over Dunraven Pass on the northeastern side of the park. Accordingly, we had only limited exposure to some of our favorite locations, the Hoodoos and Aspen Groves near Golden Gate, Swan Lake Flats, and we could not get to some others, like Thunder Mountain.

tThe park has certainly changed over the years, with the two biggest changes being the massive forest fire in the 1990's and, about fifteen years ago, the introduction of the Gray Wolf. The fires, although devastating at the time, opened up the park, making it far more scenic as the tall pines that lined the roads, and providing views that were previously hidden. Now, two decades later, the pines are beginning to reclaim some of these scenics, as the trees are now five to fifteen or twenty feet high. In another ten years some of the views, now visible, may be gone, but for now the grand vistas are still visible.

The Gray Wolves were introduced to restore Yellowstone to the ecosystem it was originally, before wolves were removed from the park and extirpated from most of the West. Prior to the reintroduction Elk were everywhere, and the huge numbers were detrimental to the park's vegetation. Elk-proof fences in several areas illustrate the effect of the elk. Inside the fences aspens grow thick, while outside the fences only sage brush is visible.

As would be expected, the reintroduction of the wolf was controversial, and the Park Service had consulted with numerous wolf experts on the potential effect wolves would have on the elk. On the low end, some experts believed that the wold would have no effect, as the wolf would only kill the sick and the weak, thus preying upon animals that would die anyway. Estimates ranged from 0%to 50% on the high end, and the Park decided on the consensus opinion of a 20% decline in elk numbers.


The actual numbers were three times greater, at a 60% decline, due to wolf predation. Unofficially, some park visitors think the decline is closer to 90%, but that's an exaggerated view. At any rate, the consensus was wrong because the researchers did not take into account the elks behavioral changes due to the wolves. Progesteron levels dropped, so calf production dropped; and foraging suffered, as elk were pushed out of prime grazing areas to marginal areas (timber).

Because of this, Elk are now a 'trophy' animal to photograph, and this year we saw less than SIX elk outside the lawns and buildings around Mammoth. The only large herds we saw were in Mammoth, which is terrible for photography as the buildings or the manicured lawns, not to mention the crowds of tourists, rules out any quality shooting.

On the positive side, the Park has probably returned to a natural state, and elk numbers may be 'correct' for the area. Young willows, aspens, cottonwoods, and other trees and shrubs are returning to areas where only plants forty or more years old once grew, and songbirds, small mammals, and other creatures have become more common. Ecologically, reintroducing the elk was probably the best thing, but it has impacted upon the elk viewing and photography.

eWe did have luck with Elk, on our last day, but it is so odd to travel through former elk country and see nothing but grasses. Bison were as common as ever (although a few years ago we saw only ONE bison the entire trip!) but oddly, we saw few Bison in Hayden Valley. Instead, the herds were in the north, in the Lamar Valley and the valleys towards Tower Junction.

We were extremely lucky with the weather. We had rain on our first morning, but when that warm front passed we had extremely pleasant temperatures for the rest of the week. Although many parts of Montana suffered record hot temperatures that week, Yellowstone, at a higher elevation, was merely pleasant, and we've had other trips where it was much hotter and far less pleasant.


fThe Aspens and Cottonwoods were at their peak autumn color, adding glowing patches of orange or yellow on the hillsides and in the valleys. The landscapes were spectacular, and for many, including me, that landscape photography was the favorite photo subject. We did very well with Pronghorn, concluding the last hour of the tour with our best shooting of this, the fastest land animal in North America, and we did fairly well with Bighorn Sheep. Other 'regulars,' like Coyotes and Pika and Moose, were extremely scarce. We had only two very brief and rather unsatisfactory encounters with Coyotes, and only one with Pika, an animal that we often enjoy for hours.

Luck was certainly with us, though, as the weather was changing and the forecast was for rain the following week. Indeed, it rained the night before and the morning of our departure for home, and the temperature had dropped, heralding the coming winter. With only Dunraven Pass open for access to the other areas of the park, we were extremely grateful to have warmer weather and clear roads, as Dunraven often closes because of snow.

pDespite the road closures and the lack of luck with some mammal species, Yellowstone remains our favorite US destination. The week raced by, despite the road closures. Next year, the roads in the Park should be open, and we're anticipating a normal year of access, and new, wonderful subjects.

The following is the day-to-day Trip Report.


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Day 1
. Rain had been forecasted for later in the day but we awoke to rain, and rather than driving about in the dark and eating breakfast in the rain we ate at 7AM and loaded at 8AM. At the park gate the Ranger wasn’t especially cooperative about our entering with our permit, wanting to see everyone’s ID, but we had paid the previous afternoon when we entered the park, hoping to find Elk in the Chinese Gardens. That bull elk was visible but far away, and after waiting for twenty minutes we had headed for our Welcoming Dinner at a local restaurant.

Fortunately at the other booth a Ranger we’ve known for years was working, so we turned around and went through her gate where we were warmly welcomed, had a brief chat, and continued without incident. As we drove the threatening rain clouds dissipated and the first blue appeared in the sky. By the time we reached thebBlacktail Lakes the sky was mostly clear, where we had a large herd of Bison that eventually climbed the hills nearby for some fairly decent images. As it turned out, these were the only mammals we photographed all day.

We made several scenic stops along the way, while checking for mule deer and elk but we saw nothing. As the hours passed clouds built up again and with rain threatening we headed to the visitor center to have our lunch where we could cook and sit under cover. After lunch we headed to the Grand Canyon for more landscapes. I used the IR (infrared) camera for a different look, which was fun. With potential rain looming, the skies were varied, with sun light sometimes hitting the canyon and at other times shadows masking all contrast. Afterwards we continued back towards home, again stopping for scenic shots but, overall, it was a rather slow day.

wDay 2. We loaded at 6AM and headed towards Lamar Valley where we hoped to find bear or wolves at the bison kill that occurred Saturday night. We had just entered Lamar Valley when we saw the Wolf Crowd gathered in numbers at the first pull-outs where a gray wolf had just passed. Fortunately she showed herself again, a collared female, and we shot some distant images as the Wolf trotted up the hill. At Slough Creek the other wolf-watchers were gathered, and we were told that the pack was gathered there. We U-turned and headed back, where we spent the next two hours ‘wolf-watching,’ using my spotting scope to observe the three black wolves and four gray wolves at a mile away, at least. Still, at 60X it was a good view as we watched the interaction.
Breakfast wasn’t until 10AM, at the end of Slough Creek where we found two Mule Deer does, and missed a chance for 13 Pronghorn that were bedded down when we drove in, and had headed uphill when we drove out. Still, we did fairly well with rr
Pronghorn later for instead of following our original plan and driving towards Cook City we drove back towards the Yellowstone Picnic Area, figuring we’d have several chances, driving back and forth, for Pronghorn. En route we photographed more Bison, then a courting pair of Pronghorn, followed by an hour of landscapes at Little America where several of us photographed Glacier Erratics, huge boulders that were deposited on the scoured valley when the glaciers retreated. Near the Yellowstone River’s best Aspen Grove we spent another hour, culminated when three Pronghorn antelope appeared on the ridge, giving us great silhouettes against wonderful cumulous clouds.



By now it was nearly 4PM and time for lunch! We picniced at the Yellowstone picnic area where some of us photographed Least Chipmunks, while others hiked to the rim of the Yellowstone Canyon. Now after 5PM, we headed towards Gardiner where we hoped to encounter the Bighorn Sheep, and spent nearly an hour near the Gardiner Canyon where 26 Bighorn Sheep foraged on the hills above us.

One of our participants dropped his camera and 70-200mm lens which bounced down the rocky slope, finally bouncing into the Gardiner River! With incredible luck, however, the camera landed on a mat of flotsam gathered in an eddy, creating a sponge or pillow that cushioned the fall and actually kept the camera from entering the water. Just 18 inches upstream and the camera would have been under 6 or more inches of water, but instead, only the bottom of the camera was wet from the splash, and otherwise the gear was dry and undamaged. No doubt it helped that the camera had a Really Right Stuff L-camera bracket, which can (and did, here) act as the ultimate camera bumper to protect the camera from hard shocks. Talk about luck!

sDay 3. We left at 6AM for what we expected to be our longest day, since the direct route to the Madison River was closed, requiring a trip east to Tower Junction, then up and across Dunraven Pass to Canyon, then west to Norris, then south to Madison, adding nearly 60 miles to the trip. Near the Petrified Tree we stopped for a spectacular sunrise, using the skeletal trees that are the relics of the 1990’s fire as the foreground to anchor the scene. A common mistake enthusiastic photographers often make when they see a great sunrise is simply stopping and shooting the sky, which in reality could be anywhere. It is far better to keep driving and find something that identifies the location, whether that is an acacia in Africa, a palm tree in the Florida Keys, or the stark shape of fire-blackened Lodgepole Pines in Yellowstone. While there I accidentally spooked a big-racked Mule Deer, which bounded down the hill in its distinctive hopping bounds.

sAs we neared the Basalt Cliffs overlook we stopped for a fog-bound river valley, with part of the Yellowstone River masked by the growing fog. Islands of trees rose above the fog, which ebbed and flowed over the course of the time we photographed, sometimes nearly obscurring the valley in the gray blanket of mist. Two Bighorn Sheep, a ewe and a large lamb, were feeding on the rocks above us, and eventually the two wandered to the east, stopping briefly to nurse before silhouetting themselves against the sky and disappearing beyond the ridge.

We had our breakfast in a cold forest at Cascades Picnic Area, then continued on to Madison Junction where we followed the Madison River as we drove towards West Yellowstone. Near the iron bridge we stopped for a distant Great Blue Heron, but otherwise there was no wildlife, no elk, no bison, no swans. Retracing our steps to the Junction we continued south, stopping for a time at the Firehole Falls, and shortly after, back on to the Madison River where we encountered the first Trumpeter Swan we’ve seen in several years. Years ago Trumpeters were a fairly regular occurance, but over the years these birds, in the fall at least, have become very uncommon. I wouldn't be surprised if the wolves are responsible for this reduction, as a big white swan might be able to intimidate a coyote but not a wolf, which could then raid a nest or kill young swans. Just a theory. This bird was extremely cooperative, and after swimming out mid-river to feed on aquatic vegetation the bird returned and swam up a narrow channel within yards of us. We met a tourist who told us that earlier, and not far away, a Grizzly Bear mother and cub had swam and played along the Madison River.


g We stopped along the Firehole Lake Drive and White Dome Geyser where, after a fifteen minute wait, the geyser erupted, making the time worthwhile. Another tourist told us that a bison had died along the Nez Perce' River and a grizzly had been on the carcass. We stopped briefly at the Nez Perce river bridge and learning that the bear had not yet returned to the carcass we continued on towards home.
Driving from Madison to home requires nearly two hours, and we drove directly until we reached the Basalt cliffs where we shot the blocky columns, the remnants of past volcanism, in the low angular light. Soon after, we stopped for a Mule Deer and fawn that fed along the road. We arrived back to the lodge by 7:15PM in the gloom of dusk, with everyone fairly tired from a pretty successful day.


sDay 4. We left at 6:15AM, stopping to fill up Mary’s van before negotiating through a new ‘gate keeper’ at the park entrance that went fairly smoothly. In the predawn light we drove to Swan Lake Flats where a low hanging fog imparted some mystery to this familiar landscape, and we waited about fifteen minutes before the light permitted some shooting. Just prior to our shooting we were treated to a spectacular chorus of Gray Wolves and Coyotes, the former howling and the latter yowling and yipping, while Elk bugles rolled across the hills. It was a magical few minutes. With a cloudless sky it wasn't long before Electric Peak caught the first orange light of the rising sun, and within minutes the light rolled down into the valley.


Four Bison were bedded down nearby, creating a good foreground for Electric Peak and the band of fog that separated the two. Three new Bison ran from the south and began to fight, their black silhouettes clashing, framed against glowing, backlighted grasses, and although it was an interesting view no one got into position in time for any shooting.
tThe above shot was made with a 28-300mm lens and a 2X tele-converter. This Canon lens will work with a tele-converter when the lens is zoomed out towards the longer focal length. Then, the back element of the lens recedes, providing space for the projecting front end of the 2X tele-converter. If the lens is zoomed towards the short end the converter won't fit, or, once attached, will not permit the lens to be zoomed to the lower range. This makes sense, however, as there is no point in adding a 2X to a 28mm or 50mm, making the lens 56mm or 100mm, respectively, when the original zoom accomplishes the same thing!

We headed to Sheep Eater’s Cliff for breakfast, where I spent 20 minutes scanning the basalt columns for Pika but the area was vacant. Two Red Squirrels ran across the rocks, joining up and chasing one another until they disappeared over the rim. In the past this area has been excellent for pika, and here we've also photographed weasels and pine martens. In fact, the absence of the pika might be due to one of these mustelids denning nearby and wiping out the colony. It has happened before but after a few years new pikas reclaim this ideal habitat. Three Mule Deer passed by while we ate, giving some nice back-lighting of the deer when they crossed the river and walked by on an adjacent hillside.

By 11AM we were headed towards Dunraven Pass en route to Hayden Valley.  A Coyote, our first for the trip, was along along the roadside but I saw it after passing the nearest pulloff and by the time we turned around the coyote had disappeared. We waited for ten minutes or so, and it reappeared and crossed the road but the coyote moved fast and offered no shots. We continued on and had just entered the entrance to Hayden Valley when Mary spotted several Swans along the Yellowstone River. We parked, and I hiked back, with a radio, to check out the possibilities these swans might offer.

sThe Swans were confusing, as the three immatures looked a lot like Mute Swans, but the white bird which some of us assumed was the female, had a short, straighter neck that a Trumpeter Swan would sport. I radioed everyone that the swans were cooperative and the shoot was worthwhile, and it was, as the birds flopped along on wings not yet ready for flight, giving great shooting opportunities. My conclusion was that the birds were hybrids, and the bird bands they wore were H51, H54, etc., and we assumed that the H stood for hybrid.

We ate a 2PM lunch at Nez Perce’ ford, where four Bison crossed far upriver, requiring several of us to walk fast and far, just catching the bison as they were about to leave the river. We were lucky to get that, but one of our participants, Angus, had ran the 300 yards back to our picnic area to tell us about the crossing, before running back to get the shots. Thank you, Angus! Stellar Jays and Canada Jays visited us while we had lunch but did not linger, and we had few shooting opportunities as these birds flew in to nearby trees, then off to another picnic table.
cAfter stopping to watch a Golden Eagle and Common Ravens at the Yellowstone Oxbow overlook we headed for home. At the Basalt Cliffs we passed a large herd of Bighorn Sheep, but before we had a chance to decide on turning back, two Ranger vehicles raced by, probably to do crowd control and monitor traffic and we figured the shooting would be very compromised. We moved on.
Later, at the Tower Junction we had a good sequence with a Mule Deer doe, and as we drove towards the Mammoth campground I passed by, but Mary saw, a good bull Elk right beside the road, bugling. She radioed me with the sighting and we stopped, getting some shots as the elk bugled before he moved off, following the cows thathad moved uphill, headed towards the visitor center. We reached the lodge at 7, tired after a very productive day.

tDay 5. We left at 6AM to drive to the further reaches of Lamar Valley and Cook City where we hoped to find moose or great gray owls. Although there was an interesting sunrise, nothing provided a foreground and we continued on. The ‘wolf people’ were scattered about with no obvious sighting visible and we continued, stopping periodically to watch the open meadows for moose but without having any luck. Near the Cook City entrance we stopped to scope for Mountain Goats, and after a long search Angus stopped three far to the right – out of Mary and my field of view – but a great spotting on his part. Earlier, James, Mary, and I walked along the large meadows that surround the goat turn-off to search for great gray owls, but there had been no reports of these birds and we had no luck to contradict those reports. We headed for a cbreakfast spot where we idid have very good luck with Mountain Chicadees, tiny birds that are distinctive with the thin black eye-stripe that separates the top, black crown. The chicadees flew in and out constantly to feed upon the seeds now exposed in the opening pine cones. As more photographers gathered the birds finished, disappearing from all the trees where they had been feeding, their morning meal now completed.
We headed back into the valley, stopping at Soda Butte Geyser for some landscapes, where a few of the participants photographed the now abandoned Cliff Swallow nests that line an overhanging ledge. These swallows make a pumpkingourd-like nest of mud where they raise their young and where, I recently read, a surprisingly amount of spousal infidelity occurs. When either mate is absent, another bird may fly in, mate, and return to his or her nest. I do not recall the figures, but the number was surprisingly high, perhaps 20% or more, where one of the parents did not share DNA with the offspring they raised.
wJohn told us about a footbridge over the Lamar River that offered nice scenics, and after a quick recon I had everyone down for the shoot, which overlooked the winding river that swept up to the surrounding mountains. We continued south, passing the Aspen grove we had photographed on Tuesday that now had several bare trees and the rest of the trees with leaves that were now shading to brown, losing their sparkling gold-yellow color. Our next stop was the Yellowstone Institute area where the Cottonwood Trees still glowed brightly, especially when the patchy clouds framed the trees in hillsides deep in shade. Continuing on towards Little America we found a Bison herd that surrounded a small, photogenic pond. We stopped when we could, but by the time we reached the herd a few Bison had started running which provoked an exodus, with bison streaming into a gap in the hills from both sides, draining the bowl of our subjects as they funneled out to a lower elevation.
eAfter lunch we headed to the Hell Roaring area for Pika, where a few shooters had some limited success with this small mammal but these rabbit relatives were surprisingly skittish, offering only brief shots. I had spent 20 minutes at a different talus slope scouting, finally seeing one Pika that ran towards me before disappearing from view.
We continued on towards Mammoth where there were more pika chances we hoped to try, as well as the possiblity of a good Elk, which we were indeed lucky enough to find outside the residential area below the road where a bull circled a small herd of cows and calves. We had limited shooting, as we arrived just in time to get some nice shots of the bull before he laid down in the deep shade of the road above. We waited 45 minutes without any further shooting before moving on to take the back Gardiner Road, where we hoped pto find more Pronghorns. Although we were unsuccessful on the road, in the last sunlight of the day on the dirt road leading towards the CUT cult property we found several Pronghorn bucks and does, with one buck cooperating wonderfully, running towards us, leaping a ditch, and circling us before disappearing over a hill. It was the last shots of the day and a perfect way to end – successfully on our last subjects.

nFor equipment this year I used my new 200-400mm zoom, instead of my usual 500mm. Adding a 2X tele-converter, and not using the built-in 1.4X converter at the same time, the images were sharp at 400-800. When I didn't need the extra reach I used the built-in 1.4X, which worked great. I had the zoom mounted to a Wimberley Gimbal head on a RRS leveling base and RRS TVC 34L tripod, Mary used her 500mm on a Wimberley Gimbal Head on a RRS TVC 24L tripod, a slightly smaller and lighter tripod than the one I use. I carried my gear in Gura Gear Bataflae bag bags, which is deep enough to hold a 500mm with a Mark IV camera mounted, or an 200-400mm, even with the hood, although it must be reversed. Because of Mary's recent knee and back surgery (three weeks between the two!) she went lighter this year, using a 400mm as her longest lens. She carried her gear in the Gura Gear Uinta medium bag with the two modules for the gear. The Uinta pack has the unique feature of having accessibility from either the front or the back, so the pack can be slipped off the shoulders and, hanging at the waist, provide access to the gear. Both Mary and I use Hoodman CF cards, and I use a 32gb SD card from Hoodman as the spare in the Mark IVs. They have never failed me.


I thought I had all the gear I'd need but one of our participants, Angus Fraser, who I mentioned a few times in this report, showed me a real must-have. He was using a RRS dove-tail plate for his Wimberley head, another plate for his BH-55, and the Series 3 Leveling Base with the Clamp. With this system he could quickly switch from a ballhead to his Wimberley, or to another head, in seconds. Because I had a scope along for spotting distant game I simply used my second tripod, which worked, but Angus's system was extremely convenient. I will be doing the same!

We would love if everyone who did our Photo Safaris and Tours did one of our Digital Complete Nature Photo Courses to learn manual exposure, flash, workflow, and basic Photoshop and in-depth RAW conversion. We think everyone would get even more out of our trips if they truly were masters of the craft.

mAlthough you probably won't need most of the information for Yellowstone, we are, in 2015, planning on running our Advanced Nature Photography Course which will be primarily concerned with Mastering Flash, remote or camera triggering devices like the Range IR, and macro photography. Contact our office if you are interested.

Refer to our BROCHURE to get an idea of next year's trip!


Visit our Trip and Scouting Report Pages for more images and an even better idea of what our trips to Yellowstone are like. There you'll find our archived reports from previous years.


David Shaffer, who went to Yellowstone in 2003 and again in 2014 with McDonald Wildlife Photography, says that "for a nature photographer, this is probably the best possible way to spend a week. Yellowstone has everything in September - beautiful scenery, animals large and small, fall colors and interesting weather. Joe and Mary Ann know how to bring it to life for you, researching and spotting the best spots to shoot and then giving you (gentle) help with your photography. And along the way, they really stretch themselves to make it a good experience - going out with the group for 12 hours a day, then working late at night to prepare field meals that are over-the-top good."

See David's 2014 Yellowstone Portfolio on Flickr