Driving north on I-15 the countryside slowly changed hues, from brown to green, to vibrant green. Through Utah, and then through southeastern Idaho into Montana the green only deepened, the grass was longer, the air crisper. By the time we got to Yellowstone a fresh, thick green carpet covered every meadow, valley, and mountainside. Nearly everyday thunderstorms built in mid-afternoon and washed and watered the park with rain. By early evening the storms broke and calm had returned.
I spent 11 days shooting in Yellowstone this spring – the day before the safaris started, two back-to-back four day safaris, another day with my wife, and one last day with two of my sons and their wives and families. By the time I left that final morning from Island Park, ID, to head home to California my spirit was certainly refreshed and my cameras had shot just over 11k images.
Over the decades of shooting in YNP I’ve learned to identify the common scenes quickly, scenes that will present themselves nearly everyday that can be passed by with little worry of not seeing it again, and anticipate the uncommon photo opportunities. We had some tremendous uncommon opportunities on this set of safaris, opportunities that I probably won’t photograph in such depth again. The pika images at the Hellroaring Trailhead, the harlequin duck in Soda Butte Creek, mallard ducklings in Lamar Valley, newborn pronghorn fawns in Little America, the sheer volume of black bears and cubs in the Tower area, the great gray owl in Island Park – to name a few.
The traditional subjects were all there, though we struck out on Badgers (extinct according to Gary) and saw and photographed few grizzlies. We shot traveling red foxes, mousing coyotes, and gray wolves on a bison kill, as well as spotted baby elk, excited red dogs (baby calf bison), and the always entertaining great horned owls around Mammoth. The trees were full of cavity nesting birds, like tree swallows and red-naped sapsuckers, and we saw grouse but never had a good opportunity to photograph them.
These images give you a taste of what we photographed over all those days in Yellowstone. I would like to thank Gary, Ron, Dave, Clay and Jody, Chris, and Box for their enthusiastic attitudes. We spend a lot of time chasing for those moments, we start very early each morning with sleep at a premium, and all of you really performed well. Also, thanks to old friends Butch, Karen, and Steve for spending some time with our safari groups as well.
We did have one experience that taught us all something about grizzly mace. In one of the vehicles a can was punctured by a power seat moving over it, leaking mace that caused quite a danger in that vehicle. While lots of water, towels, and some helping hands kept the incident from getting out of hand, it still incapacitated one safari member enough that they missed a couple days recovering. So for those of you with mace, especially the more powerful grizzly mace, take extra precautions in their storage.
Here are some more image from the Spring Yellowstone Wildlife Safari:
Over the years I have seen a few white-tailed deer in YNP, but never very many. So I was surprised when this spotted white-tailed fawn and its mother appeared suddenly in the meadow near the Petrified Tree road. After a few shots the mother laid the fawn down in some heavy grass and it literally disappeared from view.
For 9 days I looked hard to find an active coyote (and badger) den. Like needles in a haystack, at times they seem impossible to find – until you literally step on one. I found this coyote den on the last day near the Phantom Lakes, about 150 yards uphill from the road. There were four puppies playing and wrestling around the long grass and dirt pile, but never at once and never in the open very much.
We saw many eagles, including one Golden Eagle, as well as osprey in our travels around the park. One bald eagle flew by with a large trout in its claws, though I didn’t see it in time for images. And like all eagles and osprey, getting close is much more difficult than you would expect. These fish eaters are active throughout the park and along all the rivers and ponds.
Swan Flats, just south of Mammoth Hot Springs, is one of my favorite grizzly search locations because if you do see one they are usually pretty close. It is also the area where I photographed the quad cubs from 2010 extensively. We spotted this bear before sunrise a few hundred yards off the road -by the time we stopped and got set up he was moving across the flats and crossed the road on a run
We had four different opportunities to photograph the elusive and beautiful Pika, a chinchilla sized animal – the smallest member of the rabbit family. They love the piled up rocks on talus slopes, and one of the best piles of talus is found next to the Hellroaring Trailhead. On two of those encounters we had completely cooperative pika who didn’t seem to care that we were standing 15 feet away, photographing the heck out of them. We came to calling the slightly larger male pika – the “bull” pika. He ran around more, called out warnings to the other pika more, and seemed a bit more reticent. At one point the pika ate a dandelion (top photo of this article), slowly sucking it down like a piece of spaghetti – and providing us with one of the unique photo opportunities we had
As you can see from the images, we had some great wildlife moments. During the slower afternoons we shot landscapes, wildflowers, mushrooms, and chased songbirds. I did miss one spectacular morning light scene at the south end of Swan Flats while looking for grizzly bears on our first morning out. Layers of mist were rising up from the flats as the sun began to break the horizon line, shafts of light filtered through the mist turning it shades of gold and yellow, and a solitary cow elk stood silhouetted a hundred yards off the road right in the middle of it … and I kept driving looking for grizzlies … arghhhh. My bad.
My next safari to Yellowstone is October 1-4 for the fall wildlife and bugling bull elk during the annual rut. That safari is preceded by my southwestern Colorado Landscape Safari in the San Juan Mountains from September 27-29. Come on along for some great adventures, and moments never to be seen again. BRP