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Yellowstone Fall Wildlife and Nature
Photo Tour 2009

Trip Report

We only had one good encounter with a pronghorn, but framed against the deep shadows of a hillside at dawn the image was striking. We found the most cooperative dippers we've ever had, and while we filmed one captured a large minnow which it eventually swallowed.

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The weather was unusual.  And like the weather, our photo subjects this year were almost the opposite of what we’d normally expect. We encountered rare animals more frequently, and common animals less so. It made for an interesting week!

Throughout the summer, the high country of the Yellowstone was  cool and often rainy, and for many, it didn’t seem as if there had been a summer in Yellowstone. In mid-September, however, when we conducted our Photo Tour, the long-missing summer weather had finally arrived. In fact, on the day Mary and I arrived in Bozeman there were record high temperatures, in the low 90s. In Yellowstone, where the elevation creates lower temperatures, the highs still reached the low 80s.

Although a windy, stormy front blew through the area on our first day of our photo tour and deposited a light veil of snow in the high country that disappeared within hours, the remainder of the week stayed warm and approached record temperature.  Additionally, road construction closed the road that lead from Norris junction to Madison junction, so our normal routes, covering virtually the entire northern half of the park, were compromised. Combining the two, the warm weather and the road closure, created interesting conditions for our photography. Despite
all this, we had a great trip with tremendous luck with several species of wildlife.

pine martenpika
pine marten
Both Terri and David Norris did quite well with our pine marten
and American pika. The marten was hunting chipmunks and
pika and, while David watched, the marten captured a chipmunk!

On our first morning, while we had breakfast near a large talus rock pile, someone spotted a bright orange spot among the lichen-covered basalt rocks.  An on-looker thought it was a yellow-bellied marmot and called my attention to it, but, with shock, I realized that what they had spotted was a very rare Pine Marten. I’ve only seen martens, large arboreal weasels, here in Yellowstone one other time, at this very rock pile about three years earlier. Yellow-bellied marmots, large groundhog-like rodents, are common in these areas in summer but by early September, regardless of the weather, the marmots retreat back into hibernation. Oddly, the marmots reappear in early May, regardless of how cold or snowy the conditions may be, and one has to wonder why they just don’t sleep later in the spring to avoid the cold and sparse food, and instead stay out longer in the fall while it is still warm and there is still plenty of food. The answer is the photo period, the length of daylight, which governs their activity, regardless of the temperature which can, and does, vary from one year to the next.
Martens, known as sables in Russia and long coveted for their fur, are fast-moving weasels that are as  likely to chase red squirrels through the pines as they are hunting the rock piles for chipmunks or pikas. Our marten posed atop a flat basalt boulder for nearly a minute before zipping through the rocks and heading down the ridge line. I followed, along with one of our participants, who later encountered the marten again and caught a series of wonderful close-up, full-body shots of this beautiful, elusive predator.

Pikas, chinchilla-look-a likes that resemble rodents, are a type of mountain rabbit found in talus slopes, and this year we had some luck on two different days. Unlike rodents, which usually hibernate in cold weather, pikas, as a relative of the rabbits and hares, do not hibernate and instead are active throughout the winter. To survive through the winter, when deep snows cover the vegetation, pikas feed on hay they’ve gathered and stored during the warmer months. We watched several pikas as they gathered grasses and other vegetation to store beneath large boulders as a food cache.

bison gold water
While we waited for the wolf a bison entered the river and crossed towards
us. Later, the wolf reappeared, and Randy Johnson got this shot.

Each year, Yellowstone offers new treasures and photo opportunities, and the abundance or availability of species we expect to see always changes. Last year, one of our tours had only one close encounter with bison, while this year bison seemed everywhere. Our highlight encounter with bison occurred at a most unlikely time. We had staked out a wolf kill, an elk the wolves had taken down the night before, and as the afternoon progressed and the light grew golden, a bison appeared on the river bank opposite from where we sat. The bison grazed along the shoreline before stepping into the river and we expected it would just take a drink. Instead, the bison stepped in and walked across the river, directly towards where all of us were sitting. While that action in itself was interesting, it was the setting that made the image striking, for the hillside in the background glowed gold in the late light, and the water that surrounded the bison reflected this color magically. Back in film days this magical moment would have been lost, for the bison was in shade and the water glowed brightly because of the reflections from the still sun-illuminated hillside. The contrast was terrible -- black bison, bright water, but by using several of Lightroom's or Photoshop's ACR RAW converters, we rendered the image as our eyes truly saw it, and a wonderful image resulted. You can learn how to do this in any number of our Digital Courses, including our Complete Nature Photo Courses we hold in Arizona and in Pennsylvania.

To top off that encounter, a few minutes later a black wolf appeared at the edge of the forest and trotted down to the carcass to feed. Later, it too followed the shoreline and walked towards us, and we were treated to great views, and some nice shots, as the wolf drank at the river’s edge.

We had another wonderful wolf encounter as well. On our last morning we left our lodge long before dawn, and as we drove across Swan Lake Flats in the dim light of predawn we spotted two black shapes moving through the sagebrush. They were wolves, and as we watched we spotted two more black wolves, and as the light increased, three gray wolves that trotted almost unnoticed alongside. We kept pace, paralleling the wolves for several hundred yards before they headed away from the road. We moved on ahead, hoping to intersect with them if they crossed the road. They did not, and we were left only with memories.

bison elkelk

Nearby, however, there were two frost-covered bison to photograph, and while we were shooting, a herd of elk, the first good group we had encountered all week, and including a great 6x6 bull, stepped out of the tree line. We had some decent shooting before they moved off, and we followed, hoping to close in on them again. In the backcountry we found another herd and a challenging bull, and although there was much bugling and screaming, the harem bull was not seriously threatened and ran off the smaller bull when it grew near. On our way back to the road we surprised ‘our’ herd again, and several of us got shots close up as the bull and the herd ran passed.

aspen right aspen abstract
Ok, maybe you like it and maybe you don't, but the shot on the right was done by using a slow shutter speed and purposefully moving the camera up and down at
the moment of exposure, creating a painterly look. Even when all the shots seem to have been made, there's still the fun of experimentation and trying to create a new look that keeps the shooting fresh.

For a very strange portfolio (actually, some really neat abstracts),
see the end of this trip report for a Portfolio of a few of Mary's landscapes

aspen terracetravertinetravertine 2
bison pano
Participant Randy Johnson loves to photograph birds, but his creative blurs, telephoto extractions, use of a blue/gold filter, and panorama composite shows he might secretly enjoy the landscape opportunities of Yellowstone, too!

Some of our most rewarding shooting occurred at our scenic locations, including a side-lighted aspen groove that occupied our time for nearly three hours, and the glowing, ethereal  and continually changing landscape of Mammoth Hot Spring Terraces.  On our last two days inside the park an ominous smoke cloud  rose each afternoon as a lightning-generated wild fire gained strength in the heat of the afternoon. On our last day the fire had intensified to the point where the only road to the Tetons, from the northern and eastern entrances, was closed.

A few days before this photo tour began I received my new photo backpack, a Kiboko pack by Gura Gear. This was my first field test with a pack that, at home, I felt would be the ultimate photo backpack. In the field, I was not disappointed, and I still appreciated all of the features that I profiled in my Question of the Month. The pack has two major divisions, and on one side I had my 28-300, mounted on a 1Ds, a 70-200mm zoom, and a 16-35. The other half, which would fit my 500mm with a camera attached, I kept empty, storing a boom microphone, digital tape recorder, and a small video camera. For our Yellowstone trip I keep my 500mm up front with me, in the space between the driver and passenger seat, and for this I use my safari long lens bag.

mary coyote 1mary coyote 2
We just missed a close, road-side coyote, and Mary walked out into the field to see where the coyote had gone. While there, apparently, she was struck by the coyote's spirit and began to leap, mousing unsuccessfully as she hopped about the field. Passing cars slowed down, but we never asked what in the world they may have been thinking!

terraceterrace 2
reflection pool
The terraces at Mammoth are incredible, even though over the years the water table has shifted and much of the travertine mountain has dried up. Still, at dawn the mist rising in the cold air creates a wonderful, ethereal landscape where one can spend hours.

mule deer buck bison lake
Participant Terri Norris framed this buck mule deer against the sun-lit hillside, while I framed this bison cow against a distant lake.

We were unsuccessful in finding a cooperative coyote, although we saw many. Nor did we film a bear, although we stopped for a grizzly that had been along a roadside in the high country, and I had a non-photographable view for a brief moment. Big horn sheep were no where, and we suspect the unusually warm temperatures kept the sheep up high, were to blame. Pronghorn antelope were scarce as well, but one morning, when we started late in order to photograph the hot springs, we found a cooperative male. In the course of an hour or so this buck antelope traveled several miles, and fortunately we had decided to drive ahead to intercept it. Had we tried to stay apace by walking, we'd have lost it in minutes.

But despite the lack of some of our usual subjects the shoot was a successful one, with a great group that had a wonderful spirit and enthusiasm, and who kept their energy despite the longest hours we’ve ever put into a tour. One evening we didn’t return to the lodge until 9PM, and the evening before not until after 8, so morning departures came way too early.
On our last evening, we gathered for a ‘late lunch’ in our room, since our breakfast was so late, and we had missed our lunch and replaced it by a snack break at 3, and we concluded the Photo Tour with a wonderful show of portfolios that everyone had brought along. The images, ranging from knockout underwater photography to landscapes to macro insects and birds, and everything in between, was a great way to end, showcasing the talent of a great group of photographers that made up the tour. Thank you, everyone!

mammothmammoth 2aspen 1
abstract pondaspen 2
sheepeaters aspen twirl
Mary's portfolio of abstracts and telephoto extractions. All of these were done in-camera, and not using PS. Mary will show you how on the Tour!

Check Out our 2010 Brochure

To get the absolute most out of these photo tours, or any of our
offerings, consider taking one of our Complete Digital Nature
Photo Courses
, in either Pennsylvania or Arizona next summer!