Guest Blog – Winter Wildlife in Yellowstone
As his up and coming “apprentice” (according to him), Andy has decided to recruit me to write a guest blog this month.
I was easily bribed with the promise of a nice home cooked curry…
Andy’s real passion is landscape photography, but he rarely gets to show off his landscape photos in these blogs which are more geared to his commercial work.
On Tuesday 3rd March it is also World Wildlife Day, celebrating the world’s biodiversity. I therefore thought I’d take the opportunity to write about our recent winter holiday to Yellowstone National Park, where Andy got to indulge in his landscape photos and I was able to enjoy trying to photograph the magnificent wildlife.
Yellowstone National Park
Having visited Yellowstone National Park in September a few years ago and seen what it looked like at the end of summer, we were both keen to return in winter.
The place was virtually unrecognisable, being blanketed in a thick layer of snow and receiving a fraction of the tourists that visit in the summer months, meaning that we rarely passed anyone else on the road. In winter, only one entrance is open for normal traffic – the north – and only one road is able to be driven – the Lamar Valley. Luckily, this is one of the best locations for wildlife. All other parts of the park must be accessed in specially designed bright yellow ‘monster truck’ style snowcoaches or by snowmobile.
Yellowstone in Winter
Having arrived in Bozeman, we drove the 90 minutes to the park and spent the next six days staying just outside the north entrance in Gardiner. We had arranged for an independent wildlife guide to take us around for the first three days – the excellent ‘Wolftracker’ company – followed by three days of driving independently.
A 6:30 am start each day meant an eerie drive in the dark up steeply winding ice covered roads from Gardiner into the park, but also meant that we were able to catch the dawn light and early wildlife sightings.
Gray wolves were reintroduced into the park in 1995, having been driven to extinction 100 years previously. This transformed the entire ecosystem, helping to increase beaver populations and bringing back aspen and vegetation. This video explains how this can happen: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lloe8y8rwJQ
Photographing the wildlife
We had been lucky enough to see the wolves during our previous visit in summer – an exciting moment on our last morning, after five days of waiting at both dawn and dusk. The sight of them devouring a recent kill on a distant hillside and the sound of them howling together sent shivers down the spine. It is something I will never forget.
Our views of the wolves in winter were also quite distant, which is what we expected. It meant I was unable to get any photos even with my 100-400 lens with a 1.4 extender. However, we watched through the spotting scopes as a pack of 15 of them leapt and played together in the snow. The next day, the same pack had made a kill and so spent the following three days in the same spot, not moving around much, having stuffed themselves silly (a bit like I will shortly be doing with my home made curry…).
Plenty of other wildlife was spotted in other areas whilst the distant wolves digested their meal. We saw a beautiful close up red fox walking across the snow and nestling into a rock crevice. Bison, moose, elk, big horn sheep, coyote, mule deer, bald eagles and golden eagles were seen on most days.
We also exited the park through the north east entrance, where the road ends at Cooke City (it crosses a high pass which is completely snow bound in winter). We visited a gallery which had bird feeders, attracting many different brightly coloured North American garden birds.
One afternoon was spent exploring Mammoth Hot Springs terraces, where a series of boardwalks gave access to the large complex of hot springs on a hill of travertine. The cascading waters and thermal formations were absolutely spectacular in the bright afternoon sunshine.
After our six days roaming up and down the Lamar Valley, we had booked snowcoaches to take us into the interior of the park to visit the Old Faithful area for two nights, so that we could see some of the other thermal features there. Here we did a full day’s photography tour which was excellent for both landscapes and wildlife. This was where Andy really came into his element and captured some amazing landscape shots.
After our return snowcoach journey, we spent a final night in Gardiner before heading back to Bozeman via a grizzly bear sanctuary. The sanctuary cares for both orphaned grizzly bears and adult bears that had previously been kept in poor conditions. As both grizzly and black bears are hibernating in winter, we hadn’t seen any in the park, so it was a fantastic end to our trip to watch Max, the orphaned grizzly bear cub, happily playing in the snow.