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Yellowstone fall Photo Tour 2017


One of our all-time favorite destinations is Yellowstone, especially in the fall. While most photographers go to Yellowstone for the wildlife, and that probably includes many who sign up for our photo tour, there is far more to Yellowstone than the animals. I've always been amazed when I've talked with photographers I'll meet in Yellowstone who will say they didn't shoot anything that day, or see anything, simply because they didn't open up their eyes and SEE all that Yellowstone offers.

iWe do just that. Every day, we headed out with the hope and intention of photographing wildlife, and we were quite successful in doing so. In the course of four days in the field we photographed Bighorn sheep, Elk, Mule Deer, Bison, Coyote (for some), Red Fox, Black Bear, Pika, Raven, and Pronghorn. But we also did a lot of landscapes, macros, exposure composites, water falls, foliage ... a variety of subjects that rounded out our portfolio.

pOne of the things we do that it a lot of fun is the 20 image 'shoot sheet' that suggests 20 different subjects that, if nothing else, will make a nice Yellowstone portfolio. Too often, photographers return from Yellowstone with nothing but animal images, and if the animals aren't cooperating, there isn't much to show for the visit. By shooting a variety of subjects, in addition to the wildlife that we're always looking for and spending time with, photographers get a great portfolio.

This year's trip was challenging in a way, as the weather always was threatening. In fact, the week before our Photo Tour most of Yellowstone's roads were closed from a snowfall. In our week, bad weather, ice, and snow was forecasted virtually every day, but as it turned out (as usual) the weathermen were wrong!

The road towards Norris and West Yellowstone from Mammoth was closed, and Dunraven Pass -- the highest road in the Park -- was closed several times, and was a risky, icey road that we avoided. Accordingly, this year we spent all of our time in the northern part of the park and perhaps because we didn't waste time driving long distances, we did fantastic with wildlife, and with noticing and photographing the subtle images that make Yellowstone so great.

We also were blessed by having a bunch of 'veterans' from past trips, so it was, as usual, a good time that was more a come-together of friends than a collection of photographers. Here's the report!

A note on the images: I did more video than still shots this year, so many of the wildlife encounters are not represented here as I didn't shoot stills. The group did, but perhaps seeing the other side of Yellowstone's wonderful opportunities will be refreshing!


Day 1. One thing you can be certain of about Yellowstone is you can’t predict the weather. Last evening’s weather report forecasted one to three inches of snow in Gardiner, and as many as eight in the high country of Yellowstone. Accordingly, we decided to have breakfast in our room at 7AM so that we could avoid icy or closed roads. As we went to bed it was raining, and far to the south we could see (before dark) snow masked the distant ridges.
So … we awoke to clear skies and a snow-free landscape! We ate and left for the park, meeting an old friend Ranger at the Park entrance. We headed into the park with sunrise just cresting the eastern ridges. At Blacktail Ponds we stopped for a reflection, as the ponds were mirror-still, and while we were there a chorus of Coyotes began. Three Coyotes were on a distant ridge, light spots against the dark grasses. Stopping at Lava Creek where I found a Dipper, but we continued on, hoping to find some mammals. Mary, meanwhile, had stopped for a Bald Eagle that flew off while they watched.
tNot far passed Floating Island Lake we met our first Black Bear, feeding in the willows about 70 yards off the road. A group of tourists were watching, and one videographer who was on the opposite ridge, still probably in the legal distance, but certainly potential Ranger reprimand material had one passed by. None did. The bear eventually walked up the ridge towards the videographer, who retreated, and the bear banked to the right, crossing in full view as it passed across a meadow.
We continued, stopping for a Pronghorn buck that grazed close to the road. Eventually the buck moved over a distant ridge, teasing us by cresting the hill too quickly for a nice shot that would include the snow capped ridges in the background.



Further along, we had a herd of Bison, framed against yellow-leafed Aspens, and a mountain ridge covered in snow. At the far northeastern end of the park we had lunch – nearing 2PM, where we practiced slow-shutter speed water shots in preparation for waterfalls and streams later.
We headed back, slowly, towards home, stopping for three Mule Deer on a ridge. While we watched, Jim spotted something – what turned out to be a Badger! Unfortunately after one brief glimpse the badger disappeared, and eventually we drove on.
As we headed east we stopped for another Black Bear which we thought would parallel the ridge and come into view for us, all waiting and ready. The bear didn’t move as planned, and instead headed uphill and out of sight. We returned home around 6:45.
Day 2
. Once again, we had breakfast in the room at 7AM as we expected poor weather, and once more, the skies were reasonably clear, but very cold. We headed up towards Swan Lake Flats, stopping along the way to photograph Pikas that were a bit shy but numerous along one of the pullouts. As we drove on, I spotted another as we passed, but we continued on towards the lakes.

sThe landscapes were grand at Swan Lake Flats, and we shot scenic images that included the snow capped mountains in the distance. A shy pair of Trumpeter Swans eventually took off and flew by us, while Mary scouted ahead and found a cow Moose and a bull Elk close to the road. She raced back but by the time we got everyone to the site the animals were gone. As we drove up, the swans had taken to flight once more, circling overhead quite close to the road as we passed by.
cAt Sheep Eater’s Cliff we photographed the basalt columns and fall foliage, before continuing along Willow Flats where we hoped we’d spot moose. No luck.
Afterwards we headed to Lava Creek for lunch where I looked for the Dipper I’d seen yesterday morning. It wasn’t there, but when we drove by at the very end of the day I spotted the silhouette of a dipper in the stream – with too little light remaining for photography.
At Little America we had a nice herd of Bison, and a trio of bull Bison at Petrified Tree, giving us great opportunities for ‘Bison as Icon’, one of our shooting assignments. On the way home we missed a bear by minutes, and we did spot the Bighorn Sheep on the cliff edge near Gardiner, but the sheep remained high.
We arrived back at the lodge shortly after 6:45, with the temperature around 37 degrees. The day was cool, and towards the end of the day a breeze chilled us even further.


rDay 3. Although bad weather wasn’t forecasted, we played it safe, and had breakfast in the room before heading out at 7:45. Shortly after passing through the entrance station we had a bull Elk against the horizon, with cows on the slopes below. Later, we learned that the elk had been drinking at the river, in predawn light, and we caught the tail-end as they headed over the ridge.
Continuing on, we headed towards Tower Junction, discovering the Coyotes near the Blacktail Lakes again. We were expected the Coyotes to continue walking along a swale towards us, but they did not, and so I walked back to see where they were. They were gone, we thought, and Mary radioed me that the Coyotes were on the top of the ridge. I started headed back when the Coyotes began to howl, and I discovered that one was in the sage brush nearby, probably close to where I had walked. I headed back, and the Coyote didn’t care, settling down in the sage and periodically lifting its head to look about. I radioed Mary to bring the group, but before they arrived a snow plow came by, scraping and clanking, and spooking the Coyote who ran uphill and was gone.
bA herd of Bison had moved down the hill to drink, and the snow plow spooked them as well, with the entire herd running off, some actually stotting! When the Coyotes howled, the Bison had bunched together, and we suspect they feared wolves. The Bison ran for over a mile, where we discovered them later high on a hill.
We continued on, descending the two very long and rather steep hills that lead to Tower. To our surprise, snow apparently fell last night and the shaded portions of the road – sometimes very long stretches – were icy. The road was cindered but still very slippery, and we were very glad that we did not leave before sunrise as now, at least, some of the stretches were dry and ice free. Coincidentally, at the end of the day when the air temperature was at least 42 degrees, some stretches of the road were still covered in ice.
bHeading out towards Lamar Valley we had several buck Pronghorns, a few does, and some subadult males that were quite close to the road and performed wonderfully. The subadult males sparred, the adult bucks chased off rivals, and all milled about during the hour or more  we watched. Eventually, as a buck with a very wide spread of horns appeared over a hill and advanced towards the others, and we left them as the herd wandered over a rise and disappeared.


In Lamar we had a huge herd of Bison, and the landscapes, the rolling adults, the sparring subadults … it was a nice performance. At lunch we had a great Common Raven, and later, at the same location – Yellowstone Picnic area, a Red Fox wandered quite close to the picnic area. We missed getting shots … seeing it too late, but when we drove out the fox was back, close to the road and attracting a lfarge crowd. We stopped, and followed the fox, and ended up getting some great shots when the Red Fox hunted along the shoreline of a marsh.
Another highlight, prior to lunch, was the small herd of Bighorn Sheep ewes that eventually moved down to a waterhole, where they joined three Pronghorns – giving us a novel shot where both Pronghorns and Bighorns were in the same frame!
We headed towards Tower where we stopped to shoot the basalt columns along the Yellowstone River canyon, and where a Black Bear (that we missed) passed by just down the road from us. Heading home we stopped for another Coyote that foiled our efforts, and at Mammoth we tried getting some shots of the large bull Elk that was in the picnic area, but try as we might we couldn’t isolate the elk against a pleasing background.
As we headed back to the motel we stopped for a Y buck elk, and for some cow Elk that were silhouetted against the horizon. Tonight, one night premature, we had our farewell pizza party, as we showed everyone’s portfolios. There were some spectacular images, and at 9PM we adjourned for the evening.

Day 4. Today the dawn weather finally cooperated, with clear skies and bright stars greeting us as we loaded the vehicles for our drive up to Swan Lake Flats. It was cold, but not as bad as we anticipated, and the shooting around the lake, with Electric Peak catching the first golden light of dawn. Frost iced the tall grasses lining the lake and, across the road and facing into the eastern sky, a herd of elk and a very nice bull Elk bugled eerily, a sound we hear too rarely anymore. Coyotes yodeled as well, giving us  a great dawn chorus.

We headed down to Mammoth for breakfast and some time at the terraces for some geothermal shooting, then headed back up to the high country where we spent an hour or so in the aspen groves, trying slow shutter speed zooms and pans – fun stuff.
Blacktail Plateau drive was open and we did  that dirt road loop, stopping for some Bison and, by doing so, probably missing a Black Bear that walked across the road and right beside a vehicle. We continued on toward Tower where we stopped for your best Elk yet, a large herd that stopped and headed in another direction – we were ready for frame-filling shots! As we continued to Tower it began to rain, and it probably snowed in the high country around Dunraven. The weather looked miserable and after a very late lunch we headed back towards home, stopping en route a few times.
The  weather was still dull but right outside the Yellowstone northwest entrance we had our best Elk herd, with a fairly good bull, and  we stayed with the herd until the elk settled down into a wallow. With that, our shooting was completed.

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