June 2-9th Wildlife Love Affair Again

by brentawp on Mon Jun 11, 2012 9:57 am

There are many thoughts that come to mind for these eight shooting days, not the least of which is rain. But during these two four-day photo safaris I was leading we came away with amazing experiences and some great images. Not all experiences lead to photos, but most in Yellowstone do.

The number of black bears from the Blacktail Lakes to above Tower was impressive. No one in Yellowstone failed to see bears if they wandered up this road during any particular day at any particular time. The male Cinnamon black bear was a true actor and seemed to perform best when more folks were watching him. I shot him standing, scratching, stretching, strutting, rolling, eating, mating, and running. While everyone calls the black sow near Rainy Lake “Rosie” – the real Rosie died decades ago – so she would be more aptly named “Rosie’s Granddaughter”. Her and her cubs put on a great show for us, though we never crossed passes too closely, and never got any stunning images. On one pass around the Big Curve near the Calcite Cliffs we couldn’t spot her, but her cubs were fifty feet up a pine tree doing some death-defying, branch balancing, wrestling moves.

As usual for the past three years the Quad Sow with her surviving two cubs were ever-present on Swan Flats, with other grizzlies putting in occasional sightings as far south as the Twin Lakes. We saw more distant grizzlies in Lamar and Hayden, but on our final morning the Quad Sow and Cubs put on a show we will never forget on Swan Flats. As they approached the road a cloud rose up from Mammoth, passing through the Golden Gate and out into Swan Flats, eventually obscuring the bears as they closed to within a few feet. The cubs (as they did the previous day to the trail sign farther out in the flats) took great exception to the Bear Warning Flyers and ripped them from the posts a few feet away from us.Grizzly Cub destroying the offensive flyer.
This cub tore the sign down, broke the supporting 2×4 from the post, ripped the duct tape off, then stood up against a white Sedan, putting its paws on the hood and playing with the hood ornament. When the ranger on the other side of my vehicle (who couldn’t see what the cub was doing) asked me what the cub was doing, I told him it was standing up on the hood of the white sedan. He grabbed his whistle and charged (walked straight at) the cubs and sow, driving them back into the cloud mist and out-of-sight. He never pulled his mace and was incredibly calm, and his calmness led to a calm encounter where everyone acted like the ranger. He was a big ranger and my group, and the other photographers standing nearby, were so excited by this happening right in front of us, that when I went over to tell him what a great job he had done (anybody that knows me knows that this is out of character for me) he high-fived me. Even Rangers know a great event when they see one. This was one for the books. My 500mm lens was too much for anything but the head/claw/flyer shot above and the 80-200 was in the camera bag. We were all laughing about it and it came to be known as the “grizzlies in the mist” moment.

Coming out of the mist.

Fifty yards off the road the bears disappeared back into the cloud mist and we began to wonder exactly where they were. Twenty minutes later the cloud dissipated and the bears were a couple of hundred yards farther down the road. The cubs wrestled and played right in front of us, the sow eventually joining in the fun. After twenty minutes of this they crossed the road, and with their mother playing tag as well, then loped across the eastern half of the meadow swatting at each other and playing … for more than a half mile. The photographers were quiet and well-behaved, the big ranger was cool, only shouting instructions “should” the bear come closer, and the experienced sow kept her distance.

Grizzly Cubs Playing.

Grizzly Sow.

The eight days of shooting kind of blend together now. On Sunday, June 3rd we photographed the ermine at the Soda Butte Picnic Site. I’ve never seen an animal move faster and be more difficult to photograph. The adult squirrels attacked him and drove him off a couple of times, once into a pine tree, but he succeeded in his hunt. I’ve seen photographer jams before, usually on bears, but this photographer jam was unique because the subject was so small and the area he was hunting was minuscule. In one hole, out another, under the walkway one second, racing across photographer’s shoes another second. A young ranger arrived to order everyone to back-off 75 feet from the weasel, which would have put us outside the picnic area and in the middle of the road. Apparently 75 feet was the order for the weasel but it was okay to be closer to the squirrels. Anyway, after a couple of minutes the ranger just up and left. He left it to the ermine to decide.

Ermine hunting.

Ermine chased up tree by squirrels.

Ermine with newborn Uinta Ground Squirrel Young.

On Thursday, June 7th we crossed tracks with a Gray Wolf, later I was informed by Dave Collins that this was wolf 271M. The next day we found him drinking from Soda Butte Creek and I had about 20 seconds with him face-to-face before he moved from the rivers edge back into the forest. We photographed wolves in Hayden and near Round Prairie, but this was much closer – even though it was in high contrast, full sunlight.

Gray Wolf 271M along Soda Butte Creek. JUNE 12 UPDATE Mortality Signal Picked up from Wolf 271M’s collar. He looked emaciated when I photographed him on June 7th, and was moving very slowly. This might be the last photograph of him.

As usual, Yellowstone’s baby animals were the main subjects in the park. While I didn’t see a lot of calf elk, we ran into the usual players – especially the baby bighorns in the cliffs near Gardiner and the baby pronghorns near the Gardiner entrance to the park. I took so many baby bison images that I still haven’t gone through them all yet. How can you not love the red dogs of spring?

Baby Bighorn and Babysitter Ewe.

Pronghorn Antelope Twins.

In Hayden Valley, south Swan Flats, and Lamar Valley I photographed mousing coyotes, as well as badgers out hunting on the flats. The badger den at the top of the long straight-away above the Blacktail Trail head was inundated with folks wanting to photograph the family. We shot moose near Indian Creek and in upper Soda Butte Valley.

Mousing Coyote.

Hunting Badger.

While the bears and wolves were fun, my favorite subject of the eight days were the mallard ducklings I photographed in a small (60 feet wide) pond just before the entrance to the Blacktail dirt road. I shot them on Sunday, June 3, June 5th, June 6th, and June 8th. They had doubled in size by the last day. The hen would be very protective for the first few minutes, huddling the ducklings under the big bush in the middle of the pond. But after a bit the ducklings began to fidget, and would get busy playing and eating, wandering away from the bush, forcing the hen to follow after them. Again and again people would pull up to our vehicles to ask what we were shooting (5 or 6 big lenses around small pond draw attention). When they heard we were photographing ducks there was always some kind of derisive laugh and they sped away, seeking the real wildlife of the park. Little did they know they had passed up some of the best wildlife in Yellowstone.

Hen Mallard and her ducklings.

My personal favorite shot from the entire 8 days of Safaris.

Four days of travel and eight shooting days has worn me and my cameras out (12K images). I led a photo safari to Yosemite the day before heading to Yellowstone and I feel like my car seat has become part of my body. When folks ask me about the excitement of shooting in Yellowstone, or about wildlife photography in general, I tell them the same thing – “It’s a chase.” You either love it or not. I love it.

Lastly, hats off to that awesome Ranger on Swan Flats on Saturday (June 9th) morning. He revived my belief that all rangers don’t have a god complex and have to act heavy-handed at all times, both with the visitors and the wildlife. I missed getting his name, so if anybody knows him, give him a shout-out here. Big guy (6’3 to 6’4′) maybe 230-250 pounds, about 50-55 years old. Mustache. Wish there were more old-school rangers like this guy.

I will continue to add photos to this blog (first there was 21, now 25, more to come) as I have the time and editing capacity to move through the images. You can also see all the images I post in my Facebook album:
Brent Russell Paull
Photo Safaris in the American West

Facebook Album: http://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.4213639582958.274160.1344095022&type=1&l=21401fc700