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Fall Photo Tour
September 2016
Trip Report

Although the weather was the rainy and cold weather as we flew into Bozeman two days before our Photo Tour began, our week in Yellowstone was spectacular, with warm but not hot temperatures, among the most pleasant we've ever had in Yellowstone. This was a great mammal week, with some of the best Bighorn rams we've had in years, and the first good Great Gray Owls we've had in several years. Sadly, as I post this report we've learned that this low-flying owl, that often crossed the highway to hunt different meadows, was killed by a car. Why the Park Service can't post signs or erect speed bumps at this critical area is beyond me.

Our days were long -- leaving at 6 or 6:30AM, depending upon our destination, and never returning before 7PM in the evening, except for our last day when a great Black Bear ended the day photographically, and our first rain ended the day officially. The following is our trip report, covering an extraordinarily great week.

All Photos by either Joe or Mary Ann McDonald.

Day 1.
Although ‘technically’ our tour started yesterday, with an orientation and an slide presentation covering our subjects, our shoot began this morning. We left at 6:15, heading to Swan Lake Flats for sunrise. Coyotes were howling everywhere, and perhaps a wolf as well. Elk bugled in the distance … a magical morning.
Fog shrouded the lake as the sun rose. Alpen glow bathed Electric Peak, with the sun slowly creeping down the slopes to finally illuminate the meadows around us. A pair of Trumpeter Swans floated along, with another pair of Western Grebes in winter plumage swimming by.
lWe headed to Sheepeater’s Cliff, where we had a small herd of Mule Deer crossing the river that flows by. Canada Jay, Least Chipmunks, and, surprisingly, a female Crossbill were other subjects. Afterwards, we did our second run down through Willow Flats to look for coyotes and moose, but found nothing. As we left the lake area we encountered a small group of Bison moving along the road. To eliminate that distraction, we moved down into the meadow and shot slightly upwards, framing the bison against mountains and sky.
gWe headed down towards Mammoth and the Chinese Gardens, where we hoped to find elk. In route, we stopped at another Pika area but we had nothing. We didn’t, but we did find a Dipper beneath the bridge. After lunch, we headed back to the Aspen Groves that line the road towards Golden Gate, where we shot a series of scenic that satisfied our ‘scavenger hunt.’ We moved on, driving back to Willow Flats again, and again without luck. On the way back, at Golden Gate, I spotted a Mountain Goat on a hillside, and we did fairly well with this, one of the best opportunities we’ve had with this species.
We were still hoping to get bighorn sheep, so we started back, but at Mammoth we had a great encounter with a 6x6 bull Elk on a hillside. It posed wonderfully, and as the bull finally descended the hill and disappeared into the pines we headed towards home, arriving at the lodge at 6:40, passing up Pronghorns along the road that were, now, in fairly dim light. It was a great day.

Day 2. Perhaps an even greater day.
lWe left the lodge at 6:15, heading to Bay Bridge and, hopefully, the Great Gray Owls. Just past the Calcite Cliffs overlook we stopped, with the fog-shrouded canyon of the Yellowstone below us.Tree-covered ridges sprouted like islands in a white sea in a landscape that changed with every shift in the wind. We stayed until the sun was just below the eastern ridge, although I did wonder what the foggy valley would look like when sun finally entered. I suspect it’d be a white-hot and formless cloud, and with that thought, we moved on.
We continued on, crossing Dunraven Pass as we looked for the Black Bear that had been seen frequently here but we were unsuccessful. At Otter Creek picnic area we had our breakfast, and some of us shot dew-covered spider webs on pine needles, or foggy scenes of the Yellowstone River as the last of the morning fog burned off. Traveling through Hayden Valley we saw surprisingly little, and we continued without incident to Bay Bridge.
Close to that turnout we had a gorgeous Red Fox that ended up trotting right through us. Mary’s van was in a better position, and I missed it completely, just catching a wonderful view as it ran by, just feet away. After passing through the crowd it slowed to a walk, and crossed the highway to continue towards Bay Bridge campground.
oAt the campground we did a quick drive-through along the marina’s roads, hoping to see the owl. Grover, a friend of our’s, signaled that it had last been seen deeper in the campground area, so all of us went for a search. I traveled alone, without my 800mm, so that I could cover a lot of ground, while the others carried theirs. As it turned out, those with their gear ended up at the vans while I was still looking, and as I kept searching I eventually found the Great Gray Owl.
I radioed Mary, and she brought the group, with their gear, to meet me, where I led them in to the bird. Two other photographers were there and they were fine with having our group arrive, and the five or six people that followed our group. We took control, and everyone behaved, and we ended up spending about three hours with the bird as it continually changed positions on a single fallen log, giving several different poses as the lighting changed from very poor and contrasting, to very, very good. When the Owl finally soared down for a vole, and then hopped through the grasses to a shady area we left it, at 3PM, to go to lunch!

After a quick stop for an ice cream snack  we continued to an overlook of the Yellowstone Lake where we had lunch. By the time we finished it was 5PM, and we headed towards home, passing on obvious subjects as we hoped to encounter something good.
Nothing was at Dunraven, but down in the flats approaching Tower Junction h we passed two very good Bighorn Sheep Rams, but the light was poor and the rams were right beside the road, with no turnouts anywhere nearby.
We continued, and Libby spotted a small Black Bear running up a ravine and crossing over the top, where it disappeared. We stopped, and in my radioing Mary that a bear just ran up the ridge, her vehicle looked to the left, at THAT ridge, and not to the right, where the bear had gone. There was no shots and only a few seconds of viewing.
We continued to Petrified Tree, where I spotted another Black Bear after asking a tourist if they had seen anything. They had, a bear, but it had disappeared. Again, there were no shots, and oddly, the Bear ran up the hill and across the slopes with the same unusual speed of the first bear. We drove on.
mAt one of our Aspen groves a pile of vehicles had collected, for another Black Bear, a mother with a small cub. They were far off and offered no view, but while we were watching Shirley quietly told me that a Coyote was right in front of our vans. I passed the word and most of us headed there.
The Coyote had disappeared but I spotted it in the sagebrush and it seemed tame. It moved off, but seemed to be paralleling the road, so we moved to the road and moved ahead of the Coyote. Eventually the Coyote walked right into the open, straight to us, where it captured a vole, and where Randy, Marty, Arlene, and Ann all got frame-filling shots.
With that, and virtually no shootable light left, we headed to the lodge, arriving back at 7:45PM.

Day 3.
The day started and ended with a Great Horned Owl.
Hoping to catch some of the wildlife that we normally miss driving in the dark towards Tower, we left at 6:30AM, topped off with gas, and headed into the park. Dawn was just breaking when we stopped at the Child’s Walkway, where the wolf watchers were out in numbers. We stopped, hoping to see a wolf, and Mary did located two far in the distance, probably over two miles away. They were running, and she lost track of them, and with the absurdity of viewing an animal at that distance, we continued on. The western mountains were just glowing pink as we drove on.
sJust passed Floating Island Lake Arlene spotted Bighorn Sheep on a ridge. We stopped, and as we went to get out of the vehicles Mary spotted a Great Horned Owl perched in the open on a pine limb below us. Typical of this area, the owl was very pale, almost appearing whitish. Unfortunately it flew off as we exited the vans, and no one got a shot.  The cliffs on which the Sheep played was scenic, with deeply cut cliffs rising like a small butte from the ridge. 11 sheep were gathered along the top, with the young lambs often clambering to the very top of rocky spires, sometimes three at a time. The herd, framed against a cloudless blue sky, was an impressive sight. We climbed the hill below the cliffs for a better view, but were still over 100 yards away.
After the sheep, we continued on past Tower Junction and on to Tower, where we had our breakfast. That was interrupted towards its end by a doe Mule Deer and two fawns, one a young buck, that mowed through the rosehip bushes opposite the parking lot. The deer picked off the red berries continuously, until, we suspect, they simply went to sleep under the cover of the brush bordering the road.
bFrom there we headed to Little America, and to Lamar, stopping en route for several Pronghorns. We drove through Lamar to the Institute, where we photographed the Cottonwood trees around the facility. Most of the Aspens in the valley were past peak, and now the leaves hung lifeless and brown. While we shot Cottonwoods a wind kicked up, and many of those leaves cascaded to the ground. In a day or so, fall would be over.
We headed back towards the Yellowstone picnic area for lunch, stopping once more for a nice Pronghorn buck right beside the road. Afterwards, we continued without event to Blacktail Drive, where we did a minimal amount of shooting (bison in past-prime Aspen), and passing on a buck Mule Deer that retreated into heavy cover right beside the road.
As we headed west towards home we had another Black Bear, this one a little guy, and the group walked the three hundred yards or so back to shoot the bear. It was far off, and the light was poor, but it was a bear! We headed home afterwards, arriving at the lodge (after a supermarket stop) around 7:15PM.
Day 4.
Again, to capitalize on the potential wildlife richness of the Mammoth to Tower area we left at 6:30 and, once again, the plan was the correct one. As we headed East, Lynn spotted two buck Mule Deer near to the road. The two were eating rose hips and were in beautiful fall foliage, and the shots were wonderful.
sWe continued, and as we passed the general area where two magnificent Bighorn Sheep rams have been seen the last two days, Mary told her van to be on the lookout. She had turned to James as she did so, and in doing so, spotted the two on the forested bank. It was a very great spotting job! I’d already passed the area where Mary had pulled her van, but fortunately when I did a U-turn at a pull-off I was able to park in the same area. The Sheep eventually came to the road, then walked down the middle of the road, then one side of the berm, as we kept ahead of them. Finally sthe sheep moved downhill into a cattail marsh, where we shot some unusual images with the sheep amongst this vegetation – quite unlike the tundra-like high mountain vegetation we’d normally expect.
At Tower, the Park Service had closed the bathrooms, despite the hordes of people still visiting Tower Falls, and so we headed to the Yellowstone Picnic Area for breakfast. Afterwards, we headed east through Lamar Valley, hoping to see Moose. Lynn may have spotted two near the bridge crossing the Lamar River, and we went to investigate, discovering a series of small beaver dams in the willows. Before the wolf introduction beaver were rare, so it was great to see evidence of this changing ecosystem. Before continuing on, we backtracked to shoot a Bison herd, with many silhouetted against the horizon against a brooding sky – Bison as Icon.
bWe continued onward, and near Pebble Creek we had the largest Bison herd we’ve seen to date. Mary got a parking spot at the first pull-off, but it was bfull and I had to drive on, reaching the back end of the herd. There, most of my group climbed a hill to shoot down upon the large herd, getting a great aerial perspective. Afterwards, we headed back towards Tower for a very late lunch. We had promised the group we’d do Yellowstone Falls today, and so we headed over Dunraven Pass to arrive at the Lower Falls around 5PM, under a cloudy sky which eliminated any contrast problems. A good shoot.

We headed towards home, and near Petrified Tree we had a distant Black Bear, quite near to where Libby had spotted the one yesterday, and folks shot some distant views. Near Blacktail Ponds there was a group gathered, land a Grizzly! I’d passed it, and when Mary called me back I passed her, as she continued on, resulting in me parking where Mary had been, and she ending up where I did a U-turn. Today was Mary’s lucky day, as my group had distant back-end views in the miserably fading light, while Mary, in the other parking area, had nice views as it walked across the distant sage meadows, visible via James’s spotting scope.
We drove home in the darkness, with one flash of lightning lighting up the western horizon. We reached the lodge at nearly 8PM.


rDay 5.
We left the lodge at 8AM this morning, after having a breakfast in the room and looking at the portfolios of everyone, enjoying spectacular shots covering a wide variety of subjects. We left late so that we’d be passing through the Chinese Gardens while there was light, although no elk caught our attention.
We drove directly to Canary Springs in Mammoth Hot Springs, photographing the hot springs, steam, and dead trees. We planned on an hour and that time passed too quickly, when we then headed to Golden Gate to look for Pika. We had no luck, so we continued down to another pika location, where again we had no luck. By then it was nearly lunch time, so we headed to Lava Creek and to look for Dippers. We had one, bathing and climbing along a log.
sAfter lunch we headed to still another pika location, and although Mary saw three and I found one, none were habituated and none followed a pattern that made calling the group down for shooting. En route we found the same herd of Bighorn Sheep that Arlene had spotted earlier in the week. They were on the same hillside, but heading downhill for a drink. Directly below them there was a pull-off, but it was full, and that was probably fortunate as the sheep dislodged rocks that could have damaged a car. We were lucky in finding another pull-off a two hundred yards further uphill, which gave us several perspectives as we moved down to be directly below the Sheep. Hoping to find another Black Bear, we drove to the ravine area near Petrified Tree where we’d seen several bears over the last few days. Mary parked near the intersection, and I walked up to the spot where we’d seen yesterday’s bear, and after a 20 minute wait I spotted one climbing a distant hillside. We assembled the group and shot distant shots, but a barking dog in one of the dozens of vehicles we attracted spooked the bear, which ran over a hill and disappeared.
Another bear with a cub had been reported near to the area where we’d had the Bighorn Rams, but with the traffic, and knowing that parking in that area would be very difficult, I decided to head west. By Lava Creek, we spotted a Mule Deer and two fawns along the creek, so we did a U-turn and did a minimal amount of shooting until the deer disappeared over a hill. While we were packing up to leave I spotted another Black Bear, dropping down off the bank, emerging from the willows next to the stream, which the Bear crossed, and walked along the stream, paralleling the road. Other cars stopped, and the Bear turned and walked across a log, then climbed a hill and paralleled the road. We had a good final view when the Bear climbed to the horizon, then disappeared.

b As we headed towards Gardiner storm clouds gathered, and it began to rain as a new cold front ushered in what would be a cold week ahead. With rain ending our week, with our best Bear capping off a great shoot, we ended the tour, finishing with a pizza party in our room where we reviewed the highlights of this very diverse week.

Our wildlife subjects for the week included: Black Bear and cub; Mule Deer bucks; Bighorn Sheep rams, ewe and lambs;  Bison; Mountain Goat ; Elk; Mule Deer; Red Fox; Great Gray Owl.

On this trip, I used the Canon 100-400 and an 800mm, and Mary used her 100-400, all mounted on Really Right Stuff tripods. 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 retrieval 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

Join us in 2017 -- we'll be doing only one trip, just like the one described above.
Check out all of our other Yellowstone trip reports!

Read our 2016 brochure. Information applies for 2017,
for reference, although exact dates and prices will differ.

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