Wow. That is the only word I could come up with to describe the 9 shooting days of safaris this spring, from May 29 to June 6 in Yellowstone National Park (YNP). The weather continually shifted from cold, wet, and blustery to warm, dry, and severe clear. As usual YNP provided the normal number of babies (elk, pronghorn, bison, coyotes, etc), but with a sprinkling of mature animals making cameo appearances. On the first full day, Sunday, May 29 we started off with a large billy goat (Rocky Mountain Goat) and transitioned straight to a grizzly sow and two cubs. On the last full day, Sunday, June 5 we hiked into a wet, muddy, mosquito infested set of meadows and had the finest photography encounter I’ve ever had with a great gray owl. I will caption the images, and I think they tell the story.
This is probably the finest great gray owl image I’ve ever had an opportunity to photograph. But for the rest of the safari images, I will go in chronological order.
While the safaris started on May 29th, I arrived in West Yellowstone around noon, but didn’t get into the park until after 1pm on Saturday, May 28th due to the most horrendous line of vehicles coming into the park that I have ever seen. Gary Kunkel was riding with me and doing all 9 safari days, and we both had flashbacks to driving on the 405 in Los Angeles at rush hour, which, of course, lasts nearly all day long.
DAY 1 May 28
Arriving in YNP is always a moment of high expectations … and anxiety – and my overriding thought is always “game on”. It wasn’t long before we rolled up on a great moment, two Rocky Mountain Bighorn Rams crossing a ridgeline near the bridge that crosses the Gardiner River, just east of Mammoth Hot Springs. We had already prepped our equipment and tripods, and we got out and started shooting immediately.
Nearly all the adult animals we photographed were in some state of shedding their winter coats. In some locations where the bison were present in large numbers their winter coats lied in thick mattes of fur on the ground, or caught among the green sagebrush. As the afternoon moved along we found a red fox moving quickly through the sagebrush near the road in Little America, close to the Yellowstone Picnic Site. This has always been a traditional place to find red foxes over the years, though we only came upon two.
Past Little America we were headed out to Lamar Valley when we came upon an Osprey nest that a client/friend (Karen Moureaux) had told me to look for in Lamar Canyon, just past the Slough Creek Road. Nearly every day we would stop by the Osprey nest at least once to see if we could shoot some action images of the parents bringing fish to their nestlings. Again and again we had great moments.
DAY 2 May 29
We met up with Box Leangsuksan, another client and friend, who had hired me to lead his group of fellow Thai photographers for four days. Gary had met Box on last years YNP spring safari and so it was a reunion for us. This first four day safari started with a bang when we encountered a large billy goat (Rocky Mountain Goat) near the Golden Gate, leading up to Swan Flats. While I’ve shot goats before, this particular goat put on quite a show for, slowly coming down the cliffs to forage only a short distance away.
The billy goat had a great beard and still wore the heavy fur of a long winter. I don’t think the photographers from Thailand had anticipated a billy goat, they seemed truly excited at the encounter. After an hour working the goat we moved up into Swan Flats looking for grizzly bears. Many folks had seen the quad sow with two cubs (this is the grizzly sow with four cubs I had photographed extensively from 2010 to 2013) recently, so it was our turn to look for her. No luck.
We headed back down the switchbacks towards Mammoth Hot Springs only to come across her and her cubs near the snowmobile fueling cabin (just above Mammoth Terraces). The sow put on quite a show destroying the seat of one snowmobile, tearing and biting at the soft material like it was a puppy chew toy.
She and her cubs put on quite a show for the safari group, crossing the road and working through meadows and forests, the cubs climbing trees and wrestling, the sow just kind of wandering around. There had been stories she had lost her cubs in a fight with another grizzly, but clearly she had won that fight and saved them. On her forehead she bore the bloody scar from that fight, a badge honor in protecting her cubs. While it didn’t appear to affect her right eye, it will leave a scar that will easily identify her in the future.
In the image above she walks towards the road. When we first encountered her she was too close for the 500mm lens and D4s body, so I used my 70-200mm f2.8 VRII lens on the D7200 (dx sensor) body. All these grizzly images are handheld, something I only rarely do in situations where I anticipate only having a few seconds to shoot, much like the lynx encounter I had in Colorado last September. And like that occasion with lynx, I ended up spending far more time with the sow and her cubs than I thought. That lens not only has shoot-in-the-dark speed (f2.8) but state-of-the-art vibration reduction when being handheld – and it performed on this occasion as well.
Like a slinky toy, the photographers (including my group) moved forward and back, side-to-side, as the sow and cubs moved through meadows and woods adjacent to the road. She was as calm as she had been in the 2010 encounters. While I captured hundreds of images of the grizzly family, the image above is my favorite. The image shows one of the cubs standing up against it’s mother’s rump, balancing itself for a look ahead, claws glowing in the light. We photographed 13 bears that day.
DAY 3 and DAY 4
These two days went by in a blur, blending into one another. We photographed another twenty bears and had numerous other encounters. While we photographed many black bears, the main target in all of YNP was the black sow with two cubs we shot on a daily basis between the Yellowstone Bridge near Roosevelt Junction, and the big curve just below the Calcite Cliffs, a distance of about two miles. She and her cubs wandered through this narrow band of woods and meadows providing tens of thousands with opportunities to not only see YNP bears, but spend time watching them. Happily, the cubs spent much of their time in the trees, above the grass, while mom snoozed below or grazed in a nearby meadow.
While we did see a dozen gray wolves over the trip, the closest encounter we had was one a black wolf suddenly appeared traveling parallel to us while we were just finishing up photographing a group of bison cows and calves. These animals are just amazing, and this wolf was probably a member of the Junction Butte pack that had its densite just a couple of miles away up Slough Creek.
Later we saw an encounter between the Mollies Pack and the Lamar Valley Pack, though at pretty great distances. The howling stand-off eventually led to a brief chase and retreat from the Lamar Valley Pack. The Mollies are known to take down bison in the main area they roam up the Pelican Creek drainage, and the six wolves we saw were all solid, large adults.
One of the group from Thailand had shown us some owls she had photographed there so on their last day with me we went after the great horned owls that nest in Mammoth Hot Springs. The nestlings were out on in the pine branches and we caught a rare moment when the female appeared with food and began to feed them. The next day they were out of range and had fledged onto some of the buildings in Mammoth.
DAY 5 to DAY 8
The weather changed abruptly from cool and somewhat cloudy to warm and clear. While we still had plenty of photo opportunities in the mornings, the afternoons slowed down under the intense sun and climbing temps (ok, climbing into the 70’s …. not really hot). The folks on the safari changed as well, as we said goodbye to the Thai’s and welcomed the others shooting with us over the last four days. Some were friends from past safaris, while others were new to shooting with me.
There were many great encounters, but one of the most interesting was seeing an adult coyote carrying one of its pups to a new densite, about 200 yards off the road in Lamar Valley. At first we thought it was carrying prey to its puppies, but then it became clear that it was moving this puppy to the new den. After putting it down at the mouth of the den the puppy ran around for a minute before heading into the den with its siblings.
Spring births, which start early with the bison in mid-May, are in full swing among all the animals and birds in YNP. Many of the prey species, like the elk, pronghorn antelope, and mule deer – will give birth closer to the roads (sometimes, thankfully for us) in the hope of repelling some of the many predators that want to eat their babies.
We started shooting more birds in the afternoons, waiting for the cooling late afternoon temps to bring the larger bears and prey animals out to feed. The osprey nest continued to provide great moments, and we sought out songbirds at Pebble Creek and in Little America. We also continued looking hard for badgers but the few sightings friends reported back to me were mostly of one second views of them crossing the road. By the end of the safari my unlucky streak with badgers was run to 18 days in YNP.
We had great moments with the birds. This yellow-bellied sapsucker (identifiable by the black border around the red underthroat area) was just one of many that were nesting in the conifers and aspens. Northern flickers and mountain bluebirds were active nesters in the soft wood of the aspens.
DAY 9 June 5
My plan was to go after the great gray owls sometime during these 9 days of safaris. I was worried that my Thai group might not enjoy the wet, muddy, and mosquito ridden hike into these meadows to look for the owls (no guarantee, kind of like badgers). It turned out that Sunday, June 5 was the day for the hike to go forward with myself, Gary Kunkel, and Loi Nguyen. The safari had ended for the others on Saturday, while one person chose to go out searching alone. Considering the shoot we found with the great gray owl, that was a mistake. As we travel around the park searching different areas it’s easy to think that success is completely random. Of course it is not. With over 700 days shooting in the park and thousands of wildlife encounters acting as data points, I try to put myself and those on the safaris in the best position at the best times, for particular animals … after that it’s luck. But being in the wrong spots, at the wrong times, and not knowing what to look for is a quick ticket to a long day of just luck. I have dozens of friends who give me wildlife location tips via e-mail, texts, and phone calls – and I do the same for them with their safari groups. The great gray owls were a target just waiting to be plucked, and on Sunday morning we headed in.
It was an early rise for us, but we left Gardiner at about 5am for the hour drive to the meadows the owls had been reportedly photographed in. My last contact about them said they hadn’t been found in the previous days, though they had been photographed a week earlier. On our way south through Swan Flats we came upon a large boar grizzly near Indian Creek, an area known for its high grizzly population … and the perennially closed Indian Creek Campground. It was too early to shoot well in the near dark, and we continued on.
We parked alone around dawn and girded ourselves for the sloshy hike in. I know these meadows well, having hiked into them dozens of times to photograph the great gray owls – and found success about a third of the time. There are really five meadows inside this forest area, about 3/4 mile on each side. It is an area heavily used by grizzlies, and is one of the few areas I get regular reports about run-ins with pine martens in YNP. I numbered the meadows 1-5 as we travel counter-clockwise from one to the others, and I’ve shot owls in all 5 meadows, though meadows 2 and 4 have been consistently the most productive. These meadows range from large (2 acres) to small (60 feet by 20 feet).
We quietly approached each of the first three meadows looking for owls on the bare branches of fallen logs, a favorite owl hunting spot. Nothing. The walk to meadow 4 was about 200 yards, twisting south from the north west corner of the woods, and crossing back into the heavier pine forest. This meadow, unlike the others, had smaller areas of mixed meadow and pines along its northern edge. Immediately upon approaching the edge of the meadow I spotted a great gray owl sitting in a pine about eight feet up. I thought that was odd since they usually hunt from bare branches.
We maneuvered quietly to the left, trying to get the sun at our backs. The owl was partially lit by the first rays of sunrise, but as we continued to move the light improved. After a few minutes the owl coughed up an owl pellet (the remains of its last meal). The pellet was very small, not unlike those I’ve seen great horned owls cough up.
It flew down the meadow 30 yards and landed in a pine for only a few moments, before heading to a bare branch, sticking straight up from a fallen pine trunk, to hunt from. Within just a minute or so it launched into an attack about 25 yards away into the northern edge of the meadow, capturing a large vole and swallowing it. Wow. Shooting wildlife behavior like this doesn’t happen very often – so when it does you have to take advantage of it and photograph everything.
Over the past 32 years I have probably photographed around 40 great gray owls. Most of the time the owls was badly positioned for photography in terms of light, in deep forest shadows, or so low to the grass as to be obscured. There were times I had a few minutes to work the bird a little, but most of the time I never got any behavior images like these.
After swallowing the vole the owl flew back to its perch, then awhile later went on the attack again. While it didn’t appear to be successful, it did provide us with more flight image opportunities. With each flight, hunt, and return to its perch we three photographers did some silent fist bumps and high fives. It was just amazing. After about two hours we decided to step away and let the owl hunt by itself. At no time did it seem the least disturbed by our presence, and at no time did it move because of us – it simply continued hunting. Here are some of the flight images.
We hiked out of the meadows riding a photographic high. We changed shoes and socks and settled back into the truck, drained by the awesome experience of photographing this owl in all its splendor. The rest of the day was kind of a blur – more osprey, black bear, and songbird images.
DAY 10 June 6
More black bears, osprey, and songbirds for our last half day. We had lunch at Canyon before splitting off from Loi and heading for home. I’ve been home for a couple of days now and found I shot 13,060 images. The edit to find the best, followed by hours of image processing, are still to come – but the excitement of a great safari has stayed with me.
Every year is different. The subjects we get change, the opportunities change, the weather is different, but the grandeur that is Yellowstone remains as impressive as ever. Even though we were there over the Memorial Day Holiday traffic in the park seemed normal (except entering on May 28), and dining seemed normal as well, crowds but no long waits. Getting out early, covering the best wildlife areas with multiple passes, stopping to photograph some less popular subjects (sandhill cranes, squirrels, marmots, dusky grouse, ducks, songbirds, etc) kept each day fresh and exciting.
2017 Yellowstone Spring Safari: Tuesday, May 30 thru Tuesday, June 6. Like this year I expect this safari to fill up, so book early for a spot.
Here are a few final images from the safari.