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The Fall: Yellowstone & Grand Tetons

Trip reviews | Posted on October 18, 2013
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After my Alaskan adventure I then went down to Yellowstone National Park with my friend Kev Bedford to experience the fall colours but also to try and capture the dramatic annual Elk rut. I have been to Yellowstone before but my visits have always been during the winter months. It is a fantastic location for photography during the winter but I wanted to increase my portfolio of this location at other times of the year. My main target during this trip was the Elk rut. I have been photographing the Red Deer rut for many years here in the UK and I was keen to witness the American equivalent as the two species are so similar.

My time was short in Yellowstone as I only had 6 days to try and capture images of this iconic species. I based myself in the town of West Yellowstone which was perfect for exploring the Madison River. The Madison River attracts small numbers of female Elk during the Autumn as they feed in the meadows during the night and early morning. The Madison is also the perfect location for encountering the Elk because it really is a stunning location. Like most river courses in Yellowstone the river is heated by the geothermal activity and if the conditions are right at dawn the mist just hangs over the river, producing an ethereal backdrop.

These conditions were what attracted me to the Madison river basin and on our first morning we got lucky. A small herd of female Elk was feeding in a meadow and was being shadowed by a large Bull Elk. They were the wrong side of the river so it was difficult to get into a position to shoot towards the rising sun. Then a young pretender walked out of the forest and headed straight towards the herd. The sun was just rising over the horizon and bathed the whole scene in the glorious red light of dawn. It only lasted a couple of minutes but the timing was absolutely spot on and I managed to grab the images that I had in my mind. I thought then it was going to be easy but the following five days never produced the same opportunity. What a start though.

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After a couple of minutes the intense colour was over and so I switched to the more conventional images. The large Bull had by now noticed the young pretender and had risen to challenge. Bulls have a loud vocalization consisting of screams known as bugling, which can be heard for miles. This call is one of the most evocative sounds to be heard in Yellowstone. The Bull came over to warn this young male and so gave me opportunity to capture this behaviour. He was really impressive and much bigger than the Red Deer Stags that I encounter at home.

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Bull-Elk-in-a-meadow

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After a couple of hours the females would then head into the forest and of course the male would follow. They would then return in the afternoon and so the show would start all over again. Over the next few days I followed the same pattern. I was desperate for the misty conditions again but alas it never materialised.

Once the Elk started to wander off into the forest I then headed out into Yellowstone to look for other subjects to photograph. Driving along the Madison river we encountered Osprey’s and the iconic Bald Eagles which perch in the trees looking out for a fish along the river.

Bald-Eagle

I was really hoping to encounter Pronghorn too on this trip. The Pronghorn are mainly found in the Lamar or Hayden Valleys which meant a long drive from West Yellowstone. Pronghorn are exceptionally fast, it is often cited as the second-fastest land animal, second only to the cheetah. It can, however, sustain high speeds longer than cheetahs over a greater distance. I had photographed this species before during one of my winter trips but that encounter was brief so I was hoping to spend more time doing so on this one. These next few shots were taken in the Lamar valley. We had been driving for most of the day and never even spotted one. We started to question whether they were here when we spotted a male by the side of the road. At first he wandered off keeping a safe distance. I got low to the ground to get a better angle and this kind of intrigued him because I must have just disappeared. He just kept coming back for a closer look which was great for getting a series of intimate portraits.

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Pronghorn

My next destination was to head down to Grand Teton National Park. I am running a trip here next year which incorporates the two parks and I wanted to check out some of the locations. Grand Tetons is a landscape photographer’s haven and so we headed to some of the more classic locations to try and capture the beauty of the place. Now I have never confessed to being any good at landscapes but I tried my best and hopefully you get a feel for the place.

Rainbow

This first location is Oxbow Bend and it was good to incorporate the moon into the image. I also preferred the shots before the sun actually bathed the scene. The second shot is of the Morman Barns in the south of the park, again another classic location.

Oxbow-Bend

Morman-Row-Barn

Tetons is famous for the Autumn colours but like everywhere else everything is slightly late this year, so we were just a tad early for capturing the glorious colours. I was also mainly looking for Moose and like the Elk it is their rutting season. It was much harder to find Moose than Elk but during my five days here I did get one or two encounters. We came across an area which was popular with a couple of females so we staked it out for most of the time whilst here. This is probably the best way in finding the ultimate target, a large male.

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Female-Moose-and-calf

After the first three days are only sighting was of females so I was getting anxious of seeing a male. This animal is so impressive and I have wanted to photograph a large bull for many years. Eventually our strategy of staking a certain area paid off as we finally got the sighting we were after.

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It was an amazing experience seeing one of these impressive males. Although the pictures are not great it was still a nice feeling to capture them. From photographing the largest animal to one of the smallest in the park as there was opportunities for seeing other species. Chipmunks were great fun and I also managed a few images of the elusive Beavers. This animal is very easier to spot the signs but it only usually comes out at dusk.

Chipmunk

Beaver

Beaver-1

We also had a bit of luck as someone mentioned an opportunity of seeing Grizzlies. A dead moose was close to an off road track and had attracted the attention of three young Grizzly Bears. These were siblings that had been abandoned by their mother and were still hanging around each other. It was good to see a Grizzly here as it is quite a rare sighting.

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Grizzly-Bear

So after my short duration in the Grand Tetons it was then a case of heading back up to the Madison River in West Yellowstone. I was hoping for another early misty morning like the first one I encountered and on my last morning before flying out I got lucky. This time a large Bull Elk was in the distance and it nice to incorporate him in the context of his environment.

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So there you go just a small selection of my stint in Yellowstone and Grand Tetons national parks during the Autumn. I was a little bit early for the colours but the Elk proved to be very productive, especially along the Madison. It is not any easy place to work and is very different from the winter. There are more people around that’s for sure and at some places it was borderline silly but it is such a big place you can find your own spot. It was a trip that has been on my mind for a long time and I am looking forward to going back next year. Hopefully it will be a normal year and I get to witness the colours. I am now just gearing up for the annual Red Deer Rut at my local place and I am looking forward to spending the whole of October at home, I am not sure Liz is though. Anyway I will leave you with my favourite image of the large Bull Elk.

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Danny

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