Yellowstone, USA. A vast area of grand vistas and photogenic wildlife. It is one of those iconic places I’ve always wanted to visit.
This year I booked on a trip to photograph the autumn colours and wildlife. Elk and moose were a prime target as were bison, bald eagle and, if extremely lucky, bear, wolf and coyote.
Wildlife photography is subject to the whim of Mother Nature and she has an evil sense of humour. This year I’ve been plagued with unseasonably warm weather when trying to get to somewhere colder. This trip was no different with temperatures during the day soaring to the 30 degree Celsius mark and no frosts overnight. This meant the wildlife wasn’t playing ball as the elk didn’t think it was cold enough to come down and start the rut that we were hoping to see and photograph.
Undaunted, our guides worked their backsides off, going beyond the call of duty, trying to find us opportunities for photography. Flexibility was the key here with a large amount of driving around scanning the surrounding scenery for photogenic subjects.
It takes hours to drive across Yellowstone and you are rewarded with breathtaking scenery, wildlife, geysers and the occasional overriding smell of sulphur.
I’m not much of a landscape photographer and most of my landscape shots are made with a 500mm lens, but there was plenty of opportunity here to practice along with help from one of my fellow photographers (thanks, Sam!). I found it difficult to convey the expanse of the place in a single image as the eye scans the scenery to make up the picture in your head. But it would have been rude not to at least try.
So what wildlife did I get to see? I know you’re itching to find out. Well unfortunately there was no wolves to be seen and the only bear was a black bear at the information centre that was driven out of her habitat by a grizzly bear. This gave me the first real appreciation of what happens at Yellowstone when something interesting appears.
Picture this. Somebody sees something interesting as they are driving along. They park their car off the road, get out and take a closer look. If it’s good they might start taking pictures. This then opens the honey pot as other cars slow down to see what they are doing, they also stop, get out and start taking pictures. Repeat until mayhem ensues. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you the circus.
It isn’t so bad if they are people who know how to behave around wildlife as this can all be done in a respectful way without causing stress for the subject and allow everyone to get an image. There are rules in Yellowstone about how close you are allowed to get to wildlife, 25 yards for things like moose, elk and deer. 100 yards for the more dangerous inhabitants like wolf, bear and locals (OK, maybe not locals). It is also good practice not to block off any form of exit the animal may have. This is put in place to protect the wildlife and those watching it. A buffalo is a heavy unit that can run faster than you, think of a small, angry family car chasing you down with the intension of grinding your bones into the dust, backing up and making sure the dust is ground into a fine powder before sprinkling onto some grass, eating it and passing said morsels in a few bowel movements. Probably not a car that would sell terribly well, I grant you that, not much boot space.
Unfortunately the need for these rules was brought home whilst I was there. Mid week, a bull moose was chasing a female near a campsite which is a popular place to see moose. It is reported that a bus load of tourists turned up and that they along with the others there, photographers included, effectively corralled the animals chasing them wherever they went. The female panicked and ran into the campsite falling over a BBQ stove breaking her leg. The rangers had to make the difficult decision to put her to sleep, leaving her calf without a mother. They are doubtful the calf will last the winter without her. No photograph is worth that cost.
This was very bad news and I am very glad I was not there to witness it. It is worth pointing out that thousands of moose are hunted and killed for sport each year. So whilst the story is a sad and entirely avoidable one, it is worth putting it into perspective.
So you can imagine that hearing about this sort of occurrence can make one uncomfortable around these circus events. It is always worth remembering that when a large number of people gather around a wildlife spectacle that you aren’t witnessing the circus, you are part of it.
But anyway, I’ll get off my soap box and get on with the blog. There was plenty of buffalo. Generally we saw them in ones and twos, but one evening we came across a large herd which must have numbered over 200. The light was very good and our small group had them all to ourselves. This is one of those situations you don’t quit until you run out of memory cards or light. The herd kept moving across the road we were parked on so great care was taken not to get in their way, nobody wants to end up as buffalo manure. The sound of them moving past, bellowing and grunting added to the spectacle. We didn’t leave until the light did. A magical encounter.
Elk were few and far between unless going to the town of Mammoth where there were plenty laying around on the manicured grassy areas of the town centre or football field. This didn’t lend to many good photographic opportunities but it was still great to see. Lady luck didn’t elude us completely, though. There were a few good encounters, the best one was one rain soaked morning when an impressive male elk decided to give us a good show.
Pronghorn were fairly plentiful and there were a couple of decent photo opportunities with these flighty mammals.
There were also a couple of decent encounters with mule deer. One of these was the day after the Moose incident and a local resident got very upset with us, shouting that we were too close even though we were a good 50 plus yards away from the deer and were behaving very respectfully, as always. Her shouting was causing the animals more disturbance than our presence and she called the rangers on us who promptly turned up, wished us a pleasant evening and left us alone to continue our photography without further comment.
I did manage to see a few juvenile bald eagles, but they weren’t photograph-able. And on the drive back to the motel one evening we spotted a coyote in the dark by the side of the road.
A trip to Yellowstone isn’t complete without visiting the touristy areas. Old Faithful geyser was very popular, unsurprisingly, with the viewing benches filled for its regular ejections of steaming hot water. Whilst it’s fairly large and reliable (hence the name) it isn’t the most impressive geyser photographically. The rest of the enjoyable afternoon was spent walking 5 miles around the area looking at and photographing the geysers and hot water pools. As the afternoon turned to evening we could here coyotes calling in the woods.
So did Yellowstone live up to my hopes and expectations? It’s a pretty tall order given the coverage in mainstream media is so impressive (I’ve watched the BBC’s Yellowstone series many times) and expectations need to be tempered with the reality that I only had a week whereas the big media productions would have had years to create their footage. Also against us, as mentioned earlier, was the weather, making wildlife much sparser than normal for this time of year. Having said that, even though it was hard work with lots of driving and the circus making things difficult, I have to say that as I type this on the first of my 2 flights home, I have a big smile on my face reliving the experiences and flicking through some of the pictures.
I want to say a big thank you to our guides, Danny and Kevin who worked so hard to get us to positions to get some nice images. And thanks to the rest of the guests Sam, Richard, Marion, Matt, Helen, Charlie, Allison, Ellie, Jim, Morag and Emilia for the company and laughs.