It was a month ago, so winter is close to setting in now, but this past Yellowstone safari was an incredible success. The safari officially started on Sep 29, but I arrived on Monday, Sep 26 with Dave Collins and Bill Singleton for a few extra days of shooting. The weather was beautiful, too nice as a matter of fact for great animal activity, but, as usual, we worked hard at finding animals and got lucky.
We made it from California to Alpine, Wyoming on Sunday, September 25th – a drive of about a thousand miles. The next morning we worked the Moulton Barn on Mormon Row in the Jackson Hole Valley. Some rain fell, as shown in this image (below), and the sunrise color only lasted for a few minutes. By the time we hit Yellowstone’s south gate the weather had cleared.
The colors in Yellowstone were awesome, with the cottonwoods in Lamar Valley really putting on a show. We went from wildlife, to landscapes, back to wildlife as we traveled throughout the park. Cold in the mornings, the weather warmed to comfortable (for us) temps during the day. This was not a safari where we hit a lot of bears. While I’ve shot them many times in the fall, spring is really the best time for bears, when they are the most active with cubs and moving more. Our trips over Dunraven Pass turned up a single black bear working the white bark pines for nuts, but that was it. Instead we hit the jackpot for red foxes and bull elk.
The red fox that we spent the most time with (we saw two others) was at the Yellowstone River picnic site just over the bridge, about a mile northeast of Roosevelt Junction going towards Lamar Valley. Like a precision timepiece, the fox showed up around 8:30am each morning, hunted briskly for about an hour, then vanished. He was an excellent hunter, catching about 7-8 voles or gophers during each visit.
There were lots of photographers working this fox. Most folks had smaller lenses and appeared to be excited tourists. This kind of close encounter was probably thrilling for them and the (unless they got a grizzly close-up) highlight of the trip. But others weren’t excited about this unique experience. There were probably 20-25 people shooting the fox each morning we were there. After posting some images online to a major Yellowstone reports site, there was quite a flare up over the ethics of shooting this fox at close range. To not shoot the fox would have been ridiculous, why else are all these people in Yellowstone? The fox wasn’t begging food from humans, he was hunting in an area in which he was very successful with natural prey. I was amused by some who stated that the group of photographers (photographers and tourists) ruined the experience for them … which only begs the question that if they had arrived first, they would have been shooting the fox themselves when we arrived.
The reality is the fox could have ditched the photographers in seconds. Instead, he ignored the humans, like he would have ignored a herd of bison, and continued his hunt. He moved around the meadows quickly, not giving some folks time to get out of his way as he trotted by, moving through all of us quickly, irregardless of keeping a respectful distance from him. Shooting a 500mm lens requires distance, and I was constantly moving back and forth trying to keep him well framed in his environment, like I would do with any wild animal. If the fox is habituated to people, is he also habituated to the bison? or to cars? or to traveling on roads in winter? I am not a believer in the commonly held idea (by some) that humans are interlopers in nature.
Between the great landscapes and amazing red fox, the elk were putting on their annual show during the rut. The two prime locations were in the Madison River Valley between West Yellowstone and Madison Junction in the mornings, and at the south end of Swan Flats, just south of Mammoth Hot Springs about 5 or 6 miles, in the afternoons.
There is just something amazing about the sound of a bugling bull elk. It’s kind of a whistle, mingled with a grunt, and belted out with a primordial aggression that sends the hair up on the back on my neck.
These morning and late afternoon elk encounters were opportunities for me to test out the high ISO abilities of my new Nikon D3s camera body. This image (at right) was shot at ISO 3200 in near darkness. The tight grain pattern and careful image processing resulted in images that look normal, shot in normal light without any of the harsh effects of low light and high ISO settings. All I can say is wow!
We worked our landscape photography skills during times when we weren’t on a good wildlife subjects. The colors got better as the week went along, particularly those cottonwoods in Lamar Valley.
We had opportunities to shoot other animals and birds, such as bald eagles and osprey. Coyotes made themselves a good subject near Dunraven Pass, while eagles and osprey were along the rivers.
On Sunday we drove down to shoot sunrise at the Oxbow on the Snake River. Fires in the valley had smoked up the area, though the Oxbow was clear of smoke at sunrise. Clouds began to pile up and storms were on the way.
There were a great number of photographers in Grand Teton National Park that day. I would estimate that just at the Oxbow there were at least 120 folks shooting up and down the river and on the side hills.
Finally, as we drove south towards Jackson we came across the horses of the nearby dude ranches in a pasture with the towering Tetons in the background, covered with storm clouds. It made a great subject and provided many memorable images for all of us.