Trip report: Yellowstone Photo Journey (Oct 2016) by Tropical Birding

Guided by Nick Athanas, Iain Campbell and Sam Woods.

Yellowstone National Park is a place that encourages superlatives, and is defined by extraordinary statistics; it was the world’s first national park when established in 1872; spans across three US states (Montana, Wyoming and Idaho); is located in the Rocky Mountains and is therefore packed with geological features (it is home to the World’s largest caldera, and contains 300 geysers), and dramatic scenery; and it is home to a staggering variety of animals – over 300 bird species and nearly 70 species of mammal are found within the park. This tour formed a scouting trip for the Tropical Birding team, in preparation for annual fall tours starting in September 2017. The timing of the tour was strategic; the fall is a great time for mammals in particular, and is also when visitor numbers are considerably lower than in the summer peak, which all lends itself to an excellent photography tour.
Ironically, as this tour was timed and focused on large mammals rather than birds, (as bird diversity is low in this season, once migrant species have departed for their wintering grounds elsewhere) it was a bird that stole the show. A Yellowstone stalwart nicknamed this the “Year of the Great Gray Owl”, and after spending more than two straight hours photographing a particularly friendly and confiding individual, we could not agree more. This was the clear highlight, in spite of many other “Yellowstone classics” performing for our lenses too: We had many long observations and photo shoots with the local Bison, both in snow and in glorious sunshine; Grizzly Bears featured on several memorable occasions, when excellent photos were obtained of two cubs in particular; America’s fastest animal, the Pronghorn, presented itself too, with the last male of the tour showing exceptionally well; and our final session inside the park saw us spend a lengthy period with an imposing stag Elk, sporting an impressive rack that measured the width of an SUV! The tour also managed to see eight Wolves and a single Black Bear, although these latter animals were not within photographic range, unlike the others. Along with these animals were other photogenic species, like Gray Jay-often referred to as the “Camp Robber”-which also makes them an ideal subject for a nature photo tour; an eye-catching ram Bighorn Sheep captivated us for some time, with a headdress that rivaled the stag Elk in its grandeur; and a bold Coyote that allowed is to follow and photograph it for some time. Of course, we also visited some of the remarkable geological features while in the park – Old Faithful, the World’s largest geyser was a must visit location, alongside other iconic sites like the Lamar Valley and Mammoth Hot Springs. Yellowstone has been a long-time favorite for the nature photographer, and it very easy to understand why; nowhere in North America offers the “African Serengeti safari experience” of big fauna at close range, making it an idyllic destination for a photo tour. The only downside is that one visit does not feel anywhere near like enough…

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