My favorite place to watch and photograph wildlife is Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming/Montana. It provides me with the best opportunity to see a wide range of wildlife in the same area. In Yellowstone I have photographed: Black & Grizzly Bears, Bison, Elk, Pronghorn “Antelope”, Bighorn Sheep, Mountain Goats, Mule Deer, Moose, Wolves, Coyote, Foxes, Badgers, Ground Squirrels, River Otters, and Marmots. There are also many birds: Sandhill Cranes, Trumpeter Swans, Bald Eagles, Golden Eagles, Ravens, Osprey, Clark’s Nuthatches, Stellar’s Jays, Mountain Bluebirds, Geese, hummingbirds, numerous types of ducks and other water birds, and numerous songbirds. Yellowstone is also home to mountain lions, lynx and bobcats, but I have not had the pleasure of seeing any of these in Yellowstone.
Yellowstone has a varied landscape and elevation which provides habitat for all of the wildlife above. In addition it contains more than 10,000 thermal features, including the world’s greatest concentration of geysers as well as hot springs, mudpots, and steam vents. There are mountains, grasslands, rivers, streams, and lakes. These provide dramatic backdrops for landscape and wildlife photography.
Each season of the year provides different opportunities. Spring is the time to see baby animals. Until the snow melts, bears hang out at lower elevations and are more visible from the roads. Animals that migrate are returning to the park, waterways are high due to snowmelt, and flowers are beginning to grow and bloom. Summer affords lazier days for the animals. Food is usually abundant. The days are long. Mid summer through fall features the rutting seasons of the Bison, Elk and Mountain Sheep. Fall showcases plants and trees turning vibrant colors. Winter is coming, and the animals need to prepare. Winter snow and ice create stunning changes. The geothermal features also vary with the seasons. I have had the fortune of experiencing all of the seasons and enjoy wildlife watching and photography during each season for different reasons.
One question I repeatedly get asked is how do I find animals to photograph? The answer has several components. I have spent many hours in Yellowstone, in all sections of the park and different times of day. My first factor is to decide what animal I would like to try to photograph. I say try, because I can go out with one target in mind, but another opportunity will present itself, so I switch gears and take advantage of the new opportunity. Once I have picked the animal I would like to photograph, in order to determine where to look for the animal, I answer the simple question, what is the animal eating this time of year? Food sources vary with the seasons, weather, temperature, etc. In the simplest form: find the food source, find the animal.
Some animals, like Bison, Elk, Mountain Sheep, and Pronghorn “Antelope”, are fairly predictable and easy to find. Larger animals are easier to spot than smaller animals. With some knowledge of food sources, learning about animal behavior and experience (time) spent in the park, I have become fairly good at finding many of the parks residents and you can too. The best time of day to look for animals is early morning and evening, especially in the hot summer months. But animals can be viewed throughout the day. When I am planning to photograph animals, I usually get up at least an hour before sunrise and head into the park to be where I want to spot/photograph animals by the time the sun is rising. To figure out the exact timing, I determine the time of sunrise and the amount of time it will take me to drive to the area I want to be from where I am staying. Fortunately, lighting is best around the same time.
As a rule of thumb, any first time park visitor will have solid chances of seeing animals in two areas: Hayden Valley and Lamar Valley. You won’t see every animal every time, but you will see some animals. These are good starting points. Rather than try to include specific information about all animals in this post, I have decided to break this up into posts about each animal. Please click on the links below to read about that animal:
- Black Bear
- Grizzly Bear
- Pronghorn “Antelope”
- Bighorn Sheep
- Mountain Goats
- Mule Deer
- Wolves, Coyotes and Fox
- Small mammals: marmots, badgers, beavers, pika and ground squirrels
Anyone visiting Yellowstone needs to be aware of the guidelines surrounding proximity to animals. We are to stay 100 yards away from bears and wolves and 25 yards away from all other animals. They are wild animals and as such are unpredictable and potentially dangerous. More tourists are attacked each year by bison or elk than any other animal. In all of these situations, the tourist was closer than the guidelines. In order to get good animal pictures, a good zoom lens is beneficial but not mandatory. Binoculars and Spotting Scopes provide better viewing opportunities.
My favorite time of year to visit Yellowstone is the spring. All of the animals are having their babies or introducing them to the world. There are less people than in the summer. There are two things to keep in mind when planning a spring photography trip. First is the opening of the park roads which are staggered over several weeks, with the road that goes over Dunraven pass (between Canyon and Roosevelt) being one of the last to open. This is the most direct route between Lamar and Hayden Valleys. Road opening dates are available on the park website. If I come before that pass is open, I may split my lodging between two places, with one half being closer to Hayden, the other half closer to Lamar. The second consideration is lodging. Inside the park, the lodging opens also on a very staggered schedule, which can be checked on the park website. While park lodging may start you closer to the action, it is expensive. I usually stay outside of the park. In our RV, we stay at Yellowstone Grizzly RV Park in West Yellowstone, Montana or Rocky Mountain RV Park in Gardiner, Montana. Sometimes I travel by car and stay at a hotel in one of these areas. We have also rented a cabin through VRBO.
If you do not want to spend the time learning about the animals and where to find them, there are guides and tours available. For me, the finding of the animals and spotting them on my own is part of the excitement. Another option is to talk to other people viewing/photographing. It is very common to share information about what people are watching and what else they have seen that day/day before and where they saw it. If you do not own a spotting scope, many people who are out watching will offer to let you look in their scope. That is how I first experienced a scope and became hooked.