TRIP REPORT: YELLOWSTONE – 2020 January – Winter Wildlife Photography
Trip report by Lee Hoy
The silence of the falling snow, steam rising from a small geyser, the clarity of the sound of rushing water…otters frolicking in rapids, bison rocking their massive heads back and forth to clear snow for forage…bighorn sheep clinging to hill sides, and Long-tailed Weasels darting in and over the snow. These are just a few of the experiences we shared on our recent winter photography workshop in Yellowstone National Park.
The weather provided a wonderful variety of photography conditions as well as very heavy snow at times, and then some sun as well. There is no doubt that winter in Yellowstone is one of the most special times to visit this normally heavy trafficked park.
After picking up our intrepid group at the Belgrade airport, we began the journey to West Yellowstone. The next morning would find us boarding a snow coach, which is one of only two types of vehicles that are allowed to enter this side of Yellowstone in the winter (the other being snowmobiles).
Jesse, our driver and local guide, was there before sunrise to make sure we were the first vehicle to enter the park! Jesse also informed us that Kevin and Wildside Nature Tours are the ONLY workshop company he knows of that provides a full row of seats for every participant to ensure there is more than adequate room for every participant and their gear!
Our first morning traversing the fresh snow-covered road with the coach found us stopping at a scenic location to photograph sunrise over the Madison River. While photographing, a Bald Eagle and some Cackling Geese made an appearance, but with wide angle lenses we weren’t able to capture any images.
Heading on down the road, little did we know just how incredible this day would become. Three different mustelid species would capture our attention before the sun would set behind West Yellowstone.
Our first quick stop was for a bull bison laying down in the snow, and this would be just one of many that captivated our eyes and our lenses for days to come. What would come next is certainly one of the top highlights of the trip.
Our driver and Kevin saw an animal crossing the road well ahead of us, and I got a relatively quick glimpse. It was Jesse who first suggested that it might have been a Pine Marten. This would be a fantastic creature to photograph as they are rarely seen, much less photographed.
Once the snow coach came to a stop, we all got out and I had my Olympus OM-D E-M1x with the Olympus 300 f/4.0 PRO + 1.4 teleconverter ready just in case. We found the tracks where it had crossed the road and I attempted to head off a bit into the woods, but the snow was too deep without snow shoes.
We stood studying the far hillside when suddenly I saw the Pine Marten in the open and I managed to snag four images, one with the marten looking directly at us! What an experience and a joy for all of us! This was my first sighting of the Pine Marten, and one I will never forget.
Little did we know that we would soon be entertained by not one, not two, but THREE River Otters as they chased, swam, dove, played and hunted along the Yellowstone River at LaHardy’s Rapids.
Jesse’s understanding of the park was crucial in getting us to the right location, and did it ever pay off! I have over 1,000 images of these otters as they spent at least 20 to 30 minutes with us. Many of the images are frame filling images of otters, as they were that close!
Prior to this we had been photographing coyotes at a kill and while it was a great opportunity, this moment with the otters took our breath away! You just can’t imagine the ability of these otters to slide, swim, dive, and run along the snow, ice and water. It will take a long time to effectively cull the images as so many turned out well.
This same day would find us photographing Trumpeter Swans, more coyotes, and, as we headed back towards West Yellowstone, most of us thought we were probably through for the day.
That is, until we saw another group of photographers out on the road and we caught sight of a Long-tailed Weasel coursing over the snow, and then disappearing in a flurry as it dove into the snow!
The low light and overcast conditions made for a challenging time in trying to acquire focus on a mostly white creature on a white background at high speeds! We all just missed some great shots, but our adrenaline was certainly pumping from the experience.
The following day found us again entering the park on the snow coach, with some heavy snow falling at times. Our group found a beautiful bull bison just on the other side of the Firehole River. We walked off the road, through the deep snow in a tree covered flat on the other side of the river. Kneeling behind a fallen tree and using it as a support for my camera, we photographed to our heart’s content and left with some spectacular images.
We came to a geyser basin where an American Dipper was feeding in the Firehole River. We got out and cautiously moved closer until we were well within range. I continued on a bit, crawling on my stomach in the snow. It was sure something watching the water pour over the dipper’s back, as it would dip its head underwater in pursuit of its invertebrate prey.
The day also provided an opportunity to photograph Cackling Geese and Barrow’s Goldeneye along the river, as they would swim up and drift back with the current. Another stop for waterfowl along the Madison River would wrap up our second day.
From here, the next morning would find us making our way to Gardiner, Montana which would be our base for exploring the Lamar Valley over the next three days.
The Lamar didn’t disappoint with some really nice Bull Moose, many more coyotes, and another Long-tailed Weasel which I managed to photograph, but the focus was just off a bit.
There was also beautiful scenery, a group of five bull Elk within 30 yards, two Red Foxes who were too far away to photograph well, quite a few Bighorn Sheep, and many more bison, including some youngsters who were playing and running full tilt in the snow!
We did manage to see the Lamar Valley pack of wolves, but they were too far out for photographs.
It was an amazing three days filled with exploration, a coldest day of -12 degrees, more snow, and wildlife that didn’t disappoint.
We will be back in Yellowstone National Park for the winter of 2021 and I wonder if we will find another Pine Marten, get a close up of wolves, or perhaps, we might actually get a great image of the wily Long-tailed Weasel after all!