There are few things I look forward to as much as the autumn elk rut in Yellowstone National Park. While my home in California is still hot (though cooling, especially in the morning) the long drive north brings higher elevations and changing colors. With the Colorado Autumn Safari coming days before the Yellowstone Fall Safari – I’ve had at least a few days to acclimate … and it does feel good. No matter how many great landscapes I shoot in Colorado, and the wildlife, Yellowstone is the best….the best.
My anchor image of a bugling bull elk in a snowstorm was taken last year in the park, just north of Mammoth Hot Springs near the campground. The weather report had predicted a snowfall of 4″ to 6″, but the snow didn’t stop until there was 12″ on the ground – and the common yellow fall grass had been morphed into a winter wonderland.
This image was a flashback to all the years when snow fell during the fall elk ruts. If I had to guess I would say I saw snow at the end of September or early October about every 6 years – so over my 35 years of Yellowstone photography its only happened 6 times. Sometimes the snow would close park roads, like it did last year around Mammoth. It wasn’t until the afternoon when the plows had cleared the roads enough for them to open back up.
I’ve done blog articles about how to know the size of an elk’s rack (LINK) and have talked at length about the marvel’s of Yellowstone’s fall, especially in 2011 (LINK) but the snow and cold makes such a difference in elk rutting activity for photography. One of my first photography targets when I was starting out in the early 1980’s was rutting bulls, the bigger the better. This image (above) shows one of the best rutting displays I have ever seen The bull crossed a meadow in the Madison River Valley on a frigid morning, constantly bugling, tearing up the fall grass, spraying urine on himself – all to make an impact on a small herd of nearby cows. Other bulls moved away from him, not willing to meet him head-on in a fight, relinquishing the cows. Between bugles he did an inordinate amount of grunting and bellowing.
With cold weather not just the elk rut increases in activity, but also the other animals preparing for either their rut, or for winter survival. Bears enter a phase called hyperphagia where they eat and drink non-stop, putting on needed fat to survive their coming hibernation. Other animals like foxes will cache food, remembering each spot when hunger or lack of hunting success strikes during the winter. Ungulates like elk, deer, and moose live on dried out autumn grass and shrubs, like willows and aspens.
Another bull (above) moves out of a forest of pines to challenge for the rights to breed after an autumn snowstorm in 2012, about a mile west of Canyon Junction. This guy, for all his bravado, retreated from the cows when approached by the dominant harem bull – which unfortunately, also approached through the pines blocking my angle for images. Sometimes the best shows (and bugling) are put on by satellite bulls that have to try to pick off cows from the dominant bulls harem. It’s all about rack size when it comes to dominance. However, since elk can’t count points and only estimate the size of their own rack – I’ve seen small 6×6’s run off bigger bulls because of their aggressive display and willingness to fight.
This image (above) is mis-labeled as a winter image, but actually it was shot on film in the fall of 1996. It was later published in BUGLE Magazine. I know it was fall because it was shot along Indian Creek south of Mammoth Hot Springs, when that road south would have been closed in the winter. I especially like the background river, his trail in the snow, and the bull’s shadow on the snow revealing that it was shot in the late afternoon, since I was looking north when I took this image.
Besides the show being put on by the bull elk, strong fall weather also makes for dramatic landscape images as well as increased animal activity. After a long summer season there is finally an edge of cold weather seeping into the park’s valleys, and in the mornings it can have quite a bite to it. Even without a large snow storm the nearby peaks will get a dusting of snow from passing fronts.Cooling temperatures throughout the Yellowstone Plateau means morning fog along the rivers and around the lakes, like in this image of a 7×6 bull elk drinking in morning light along the Madison River. The fog, like shallow snow, melts quickly when the temps begin to rise later in the morning.
Never let the weather stop you ……… never. The only weather I’m not inclined to leave my truck to shoot in is a torrential rain – and that’s mainly to protect my camera equipment. Severe cold, snow squalls, sprinkles or light rain, snow on the road, thunderstorms, even high winds can add an interesting element to otherwise ordinary images. When clients ask me about the potential weather for a Yellowstone safari, I tell them it will possibly snow (fall and winter and spring) daily, rain daily, and there will be thunderstorms daily – but there will also be blue skies and perfect conditions everyday sometime – so never worry about the weather.This grizzly image was taken on spring day in early June. A quick moving storm front dropped about 4″ of snow overnight in the Soda Butte Valley near the Trout Lake trail head, and just as quickly melted by 11am – showing only green grass. One of my personal favorite images because the grizzly is watching 3 of my sons run to my left to shoot video from a slight hill. Fun. Only a lush, green Yellowstone spring offers better wildlife photography than a chilly, possibly snowy, Yellowstone Fall. Irregardless, I will be there. BRP