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Fall Photo Tour
September 2015
Trip Report

All Photos by either Joe or Mary Ann McDonald.



This year's Fall Photo Tour was one of the best in years, as we hit the peak of the fall color and the wildlife was quite cooperative as well. On the day Mary and I arrived in Bozeman, the mountains surrounding this growing western city were covered in snow from a storm that had passed through two days earlier. The skies on the day of our arrival were clear, and throughout the week we enjoyed nearly continuous blue skies and warming temperatures, without getting too warm to be uncomfortable for this time of year. With the odd exception of not seeing a Coyote for the entire trip, we did see or photograph virtually all of Yellowstone's major mammals, and a list of those are given at the end of this report.

Originally we had two Tours planned, but we decided to cancel the second tour and instead Mary and I visited Glacier National Park and the Grand Tetons National Park, covering a large area where two days were essentially lost to driving. While we thoroughly enjoyed both parks, those trips reenforced for us why we love Yellowstone, and why we visit this park every year, sharing this great park with our participants.

BOne of the fun activities we do on this shoot is present a Shooting Assignment where we ask our participants to photograph 20 different subjects, based upon particular themes, like 'looking up at the world' or 'the bison as icon,' and many of the images from this report are from these assignments. The Assignment gives everyone a focus, in that we're not all so focused on the wildlife that we miss the bigger picture, the grand landscapes, the geothermal features, the environment, and the plants. While trying to process and deliver images to us by Friday proved extremely difficult due to the shooting schedule, the resulting portfolios of everyone will reflect Yellowstone's beauty, and on Friday evening we presented a sampling from that shoot. Images from that show are included here.

The following is our Trip Report.

Day 1. Sunday

We met the group at the airport or the hotel, and afterwards we had an hour long orientation meeting, went for an early dinner, and finished with a Power Point presentation that reviewed what we’d be shooting for the week. By 8PM we were finished and ready for tomorrow’s start.

Day 2. Monday.

We left at 6:15AM and headed directly to Swan Lake Flats for a sunrise shoot. The skies were clear but the temperature was surprisingly pleasant. We did our scenic shots of the lake, the sunrise, Electric Peak, and some distant shots of a herd of Elk that were backlighted against the frosty hillside.
Afterwards, we headed to Sheep Eaters Cliff for breakfast, where the group photographed the Basalt columns, satisfying the first of the 20 shot assignment (geophysical feature). Lichen-covered rocks filled another requirement, and a Common Raven visited while we were finishing.

We headed back towards Mammoth, to avoid the congestion and traffic and construction leading to Norris, and stopped for lunch at Lava Creek for lunch. There I found a Common Dipper, an aquatic songbird that obliged by being the most cooperative Dipper I’ve ever photographed. Most of the group joined me and we spent well over an hour as it dipped under, grabbed an aquatic naiad or larvae, and continued hunting.
From there we headed towards Tower, but a great herd of Bison scattered across the golden grasses, with gold-leafed willows and scattered pines, with a blue sky filled with puffy cumulous clouds, it was a spectacular scenic, and a good candidate for ‘The Bison as icon,’ one of the shots.b

By now it was past 4PM and I was considering heading back shortly to try to catch the Bighorn sheep, but as we did our ‘final’ stop, of distant meadows, mountains, and clouds, and close-ups of Rose Hips, we heard that Sheep were not far down the road. We headed that way – the sheep were not close!
bAs we drove east, however,  I spotted a Black Bear and cub, and for the next 1.5 hours we either waited for, or photographed, the Bear as it slowly made its way across a meadow. Mary got some nice shots as the Bear stood on its hind legs, and everyone managed some good ones. It was now well past 6 when we headed home, passing another Bear that was walking down the road towards us, with another young cub of the year in tow! The bears walked right by our vehicle as it wandered on.
As we headed home, Ed found still another Bear right beside the road, but there was no place to stop, and the light was low, so we continued to home, arriving at the lodge at 7:15PM.

Day 3. Tuesday

Yesterday, just as we were pulling into our lodge, we learned that a wolf pack had killed an Elk near Mt. Washburn. We knew that the news would travel quickly, and the area would be crowded today, so we left at 6AM and headed directly to Mt. Washburn and the wolves. We had no information on how close or far away the kill was, and when we arrived we found that the pack was nearly a mile away – or so it seemed. They were far off, and although the group took some record shots, the show was really just watching the pack, 19 wolves in all (Mary had counted 18).


After the wolves headed into the forest we continued on to Mt. Washburn, and hoping to intersect with the wolves we drove up the Chittenden dirt road. We heard the wolves howling but they never appeared, and we spent an hour or so photographing the fire-damaged forest and the high country. We ate breakfast by tail-gating, then continued on to the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone and Artist Point, to photograph the canyon and the falls.
As we entered Hayden Valley we encountered a large herd of Bison that were grazing below us, with a serpentine, oxbow  river meandering through the meadow. It was a beautiful scene, perfect for a panorama stitch, and we spent an hour there. Ed did a couple of cell phone panos, and they were so good that everyone started doing the same. That was pretty amusing, with all our big, expensive gear, here we were using cell phones for our photography!


sWe continued on, stopping at the Cascade picnic area south of Hayden valley where we had a leisurely lunch. Everyone was tired from yesterday, and nearly all had missed dinner last night, so we had planned on being back to the lodge by 6, in plenty of time for the group to go to dinner. We started towards home at 4, but by 4:30 we met a large herd of Bighorn Sheep, ewes and lambs, near the Calcite Springs Overlook. The sheep were right next to the road, so the shooting was a bit difficult because they were so close, and the Ranger on duty had everyone giving the sheep room, so we were moving about for our angles. But we did get some great shots, and didn’t leave for home until 6:10.
We reached Gardiner at 6:35, where an excellent bull Elk and a group of cows were close to the road. The elk bull was backlighted, in glowing backlighted grass, and the scene was beautiful. Although a few participants may have wanted to shoot the Elk, no one spoke up, and instead everyone – who spoke! – opted to continue on to the lodge and to go to dinner. It killed Mary and me to pass on the scene, but everyone was tired, and the group wanted to go and we had had a very productive day with plenty of good shooting.

Day 4. Wednesday
We left at 6:15 and headed towards Lamar Valley, and Mary was on fire! By Elk Creek, she spotted a mother Moose and her Calf about two hundred yards off the road, close to vegetation. I had passed it, and had to back up a few hundred yards to return. The moose didn’t appear to be doing anything, and since several buck Mule Deer were moving towards us, I followed them. dMary and most in her van stayed where they were, and the Moose eventually walked across a ridge, backlighted beautifully, and they got great shots. Ed had a real stellar shot – the mother and calf framed by pine trees on either side, it was beautiful.
Meanwhile, the Mule Deer did continue toward us, and our entire group gathered at the lower parking area and had the Deer cross the road in front of us . We had multiple opportunities for some nice shots.
We continued on to look for more mule deer, turning into Petrified Tree to look for more deer.



Again, Mary spotted a Red Fox, and we followed it for several minutes as it ran along several different fallen trees, giving us wonderful views. Eventually, a distant deer spooked the fox and it ran off.
We continued on to the Yellowstone Picnic Area and while I scouted the canyon wall for subjects, the group gathered along the roadside to photograph a small herd of Pronghorn Antelope that were close by. The buck was rounding up does, and we had some great shots before breakfast, and afterwards, when they moved to open sage, we shot them again.


We continued on through the Lamar Valley, ending up having a lunch at the far end, where people had luck with Dipper and Canada Jays. We headed back towards home, shooting at Soda Butte, and then at the Yellowstone Institute for landscapes, and then by 5:30PM towards home. At the canyon near Gardiner a nice herd of Bighorn Sheep ran down the cliff, and came right beside the road.
We did portraits and pan shots, and stayed there until they moved back up the cliffs. Mary left before I did, and had a bull Elk silhouetted against the horizon for the last shots of the day.



Day 5. Thursday

eHoping to finally get a bull Elk we headed directly south to the Madison River and, luckily, we found a good bull Elk, a herd of cows, and several other bull Elk that were trying to horn in on the herd. The shooting was excellent, but after about an hour the Elk moved across the river and moved into the forest. We headed to breakfast – it was 9:30AM.
From there we headed to Gibbon Falls, where the group shot the falls, and to avoid the traffic from Mammoth to Norris, we turned right and headed to Canyon. We checked out Hayden Valley, hoping to find a coyote or bison crossing, but we were unsuccessful,  so we continued up to Dunraven Picnic Area for lunch. There we shot Common Raven, Canada Jay, and Stellar’s Jay while we tried to eat lunch!

A slow shutter speed to convey a sense of motion as the bull chased after a cow.

jAfter crossing Dunraven Pass we stopped at the Basalt Cliff overlooks for scenics, then headed west towards home. The group was tired, and although there were a few subjects to shoot, the group wanted to get back to the lodge, to eat, sort images for the slide show tomorrow, and to rest. We reached the hotel at 5:45PM, something of a record!

At the Dragon's Mouth, a geothermal area, Glen and I photographed the boldest, or most aggressive, Jumping Spider I've ever seen. Instead of running away, it continually ran forward, requiring me to constantly back up, just as I was about to acquire focus.

Day 6. Friday

tLeaving long before dawn most mornings we miss the photo opportunities around Mammoth and environs. Accordingly, this morning we had breakfast in our room, then headed out at 7:45 to Mammoth. Nothing caught our attention on the drive up, so we headed directly to Canary Spring where our friend John reported that, one, the steam coming up from the geothermal activity was beautiful, and two, a bull elk was patrolling the area. We spent nearly two hours on the boardwalk around Canary Spring, and with mist rising from the hot water, and the cascading terraces of travertine, there were photo opportunities at every corner and bend. Beautiful.
Afterwards, we headed up to where, on Monday, we had put in a long vigil trying to get an American Pika. When we arrived nothing was visible, and the rocks were silent. But after fifteen or twenty minutes I spotted a Pika on a distant rock, giving us hope that we’d get this small mammal.
We waited, and nothing happened. To keep everyone’s enthusiasm up I commented that sometimes, in rock talus piles like the one we were watching, I’ve had Weasels hunting the area. Ten minutes later John spotted something, and I saw that it was the head of a Short-tailed Weasel! In the next few minutes the Weasel came closer, standing up twice and giving us a wonderful view. Ed was in the perfect position and got a stellar shot of the Weasel, showing both forefeet as it stood. We figured it was hunting Pika, and we expected to see it again after going through the rock labyrinth, but it stayed hidden.
It was now 12, and we still hadn’t seen the Pika, and we decided to give the area a final half hour for a Pika to show. And, after 25 minutes, the Pika reappeared, first racing across the rocks to Rosehips  at the base of the rocks, but then it scampered up the rocks, and at one point was too close for my 800mm. Everyone got shots, and the wait, with a Weasel and finally the Pika, was worth it!
We ate lunch at the nearby Aspen grove where some of us did pan blurs and landscape shots, while others, quite tired from the week, simply rested around the vehicles. We had planned to be back to the lodge by 5, to give everyone a chance to organize today’s shots, pack, and be ready for the slide show this evening.

Before this, however, we did a run through on Blacktail Plateau drive, hoping to find a coyote or bear. At the far end of the drive we stopped for a series of scenic shots, and then headed on to home. But at the end of the drive we saw people overlooking a ravine on the road to Petrified Tree, and as we headed to the main rode we heard a Ranger say to a tourist what a wonderful view they just had. As we turned on to the main road we saw the source – Bill spotted a big Grizzly Bear walking on the hillside above a small herd of Bison.
bWe raced to the first pull off, and arrived just before the Bear started walking towards us. Mary and I had to pull everyone back, as the Bear was passing right below the overlook, and we’d be within the 100 yds that is prohibited. We moved up the road and the Bear walked beneath us, with Bill getting screamed at by a Ranger because he wasn’t paying attention and was too close to the Bear.
We got everyone in the vehicles and raced to the very end of the drive, where we had time to prepare as the Bear ambled up the footpath below us. This gave us the best view, and excellent one, but strangely, one in our group, perhaps because he was trying to manage a big heavy lens, missed the shots. As the bear came closer we prepared to get into our vehicles – to follow park rules, and sure enough a Ranger arrived and shooed us inside. It was unnecessary, really, as the same Ranger told us that she often sees the bear by her cabin, and very close. But rules are rules, and they appreciated our cooperation.
While there, another Ranger started talking with Mary and eventually asked to see our CUL permit, which she gladly showed, as we are annoyed at the number of groups that ‘sneak’ in without a proper permit or papers.
We headed to home, arriving about 5:45, and met again at 7PM for a pizza dinner and a great slide show of our Participants, and also their personal portfolios. Wonderful work. We reviewed the trip highlights and favorite subjects, and we were quite pleased to see the diversity of likes, from the Canyon, and the Mammoth thermal areas, to Elk, Wolves, Bears, Weasels, the whole lot. It showed us that the week was diverse and covered so much that everyone had a different favorite. The karma for the group was outstanding, and we think that that accounted for our success, both with the weather and with all the subjects. Oddly enough, the only major animal we did not see was a Coyote! Wolves may have severely reduced their population, and I wonder if the most predation occurs at den sites, eliminating the young.

Our wildlife subjects for the week included: Grizzly Bear; Black Bear and cub; Moose and calf; Mule Deer bucks; Bighorn Sheep ewe and lambs;  Bison; Mountain Goat (no photos); Elk; Whitetail Deer; Wolf pack (distant photos); Red Fox; American Pika; Short-tailed Weasel; Least Chipmunk; Red Squirrel; Gray Jay; Stellar’s Jay; Common Raven; American Dipper; Mountain Bluebird; White-crowned Sparrow.


BWe covered Madison River, Hayden Valley, Mount Washburn; Lamar Valley, the Elk Creek area (most people’s favorite), the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, Mammoth Hot Springs area, and so many places in between.
The group’s portfolio depicted all of these subjects, and although it was a bit stressful and required some work – in getting images for the show, the Week Long Shooting Assignment was both fun and provided a multitude of subjects that people might otherwise have ignored. I think everyone enjoyed it.
Mary did a lot of IR shooting, and all of the Black and Whites shown here are from her IR camera. She has fun with it.


On this trip, I used the new Canon 100-400 and an 800mm, and Mary the same, with either a 28-300, 100-400, or her 500mm, all mounted on Really Right Stuff tripods. All of our gear fit easily inside our Gura Gear Bataflae bags. Our long lenses were kept up front with us, in the great Long Lens Bags made by Vertex Photographic. These bags are perfect for safaris and for shooting out of vehicles, acting like a holster, and making for very quick retreival whenever either of us needed our big lenses. We protect all of our gear when we have foul weather with great, inexpensive rain covers by FotoSharp -- check them out, they're the best covers out there for the money, by far! I used 64 and 32gb Hoodman Cards. I used a Wimberley Gimbal II head for the telephoto work, mounted on a Really Right Stuff Tripod. For landscapes, we used either a BH30 or BH40 RRS head. I've used the RRS quick release clamps so that I can, when necessary, change from a Wimberley to a
BH30, BH40 or BH55 head, and I would highly recommend anyone who plans on using two heads on a trip, like a Wimberley and a BH30, BH40 or BH55, use these plates. Just a couple of pieces are involved, and I've listed the pieces for this below, and I can't stress how convenient this system is for switching heads! The issue, otherwise, is the time involved in unscrewing one head and screwing in another, which certainly wastes time and also introduces the risk of stripping threads on the gear. With the quick release clamps, a simple shift of the lever releases one head and a reclamping mounts the other -- fast! easy! safe! This is THE BEST SYSTEM if you are using more than one head, as most folks do if they're using a gimbal-style head with a big telephoto and a ballhead for their landscape and shorter lenses. Check it out!

TA-LBC: Round lever-release clamp

Round lever-release style quick-release clamp

TH-DVTL-55: Round Dovetail Plate

Round Dovetail Plate

TH-DVTL-40: Round Dovetail Plate

Round Dovetail Plate

One of our assignments was a selective focus, and I had nothing by the last afternoon, until I posed Mary, and then the two of us, through some aspen leaves.

Most importantly, we had a great group. I was especially thrilled in having one of my oldest friends, my college roommate, Ed, join us on this photo tour. Ed astounded us with the camera phone shots he often made (he used a real camera, too!), and when Mary and I visited the Tetons I followed suit, doing several easy scenics with my phone! Additionally, we enjoyed our other old friends, Bill, Dick, Jim, Harold, Diane and Bill, and Romaine, and two new photographers, Glen and Randy. It was a real pleasure to share Yellowstone with these participants, and with our good friend, John Mullin, who joins us to help spot game, offer invaluable assistance with gear, and his helpful suggestions..

Join us in 2016 -- we'll be doing only one trip, just like the one described above.
Check out all of our other Yellowstone trip reports!

Read our 2015 brochure. Information applies for 2016,
for reference, although exact dates and prices will differ.

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