This may be my favorite thing to see in the winter...a big bull bison covered in frost. The winter coat of a bison is so well insulating that there isn’t enough heat escaping their body to melt the frost. I’ve been able to photograph this bull several times over the last couple years. His exceptionally red coat, and the red patch on his face, make him easily recognizable.
Bighorn sheep are fairly elusive for most of the year, as they spend most of their time in the mountains. In the winter they are forced down to lower elevations to feed and become much more visible.
There are few things I find more visually striking than a red fox against the white snow. I found this fox as it was hunting for rodents under the snow. The fox will listen carefully for movement under the snow, turning its head back and forth to pin point the sound before leaping into the air and diving head first into the snow.
As winter settles and temperatures reach -40 degrees, perhaps no animal is as well prepared to survive in this unforgiving climate.
The distinct shoulder hump on their back, which is actually a protruding muscle, allows them to function as a 1 ton, living snow plow. Unlike other ungulates, such as moose and elk, which scrape with their front feet to access food under the snow, bison use this muscle to rock their massive heads back and forth exposing grass and sedge buried under several feet of snow. Some bison will opt out on this “snow-plow” technique, preferring to graze alongside thermal features where the warm steam from geysers or hot springs melts the snow on the surrounding grass.
When violent winter storms hit, prompting other wildlife to seek shelter from the chilling wind and blinding snow, bison just plop down where they are and wait it out. Their winter coats are so thick and well insulated that the falling snow doesn’t even melt on their back. In a heavy snow, you can watch the largest land animal North America vanish before your eyes in a matter of moments.
A humpback whale dives to begin bubble-net feeding in the Great Bear Rainforest.
While the cow elk are busy raising their young, the bulls stick together in small bachelor herds. Thanks to the nutritious grazing opportunities summer provides, their antlers, covered in velvet, begin regrowing up to an inch per day.
Coyotes are perhaps one the most underestimated members of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. This highly intelligent and adaptable specifies deserves a spotlight. Their success making a living on a harsh landscape is due to a remarkable resourcefulness. I recently watched a coyote over several hours fishing for trout in a river, ambushing waterfowl on the river bank, pouncing in the snow for small rodents, and stealing bites of bison from a recent wolf kill that the pack had left temporarily unattended. The variety of creative ways coyotes utilize to find food is impressive.
For the majority of the year most coyotes run solo, or in pairs as they raise pups, but in the winter it’s not uncommon to see them in packs with up to 5 or more members. This confidence in numbers allows them to take on larger prey, and maybe even to feel more secure as they traverse a winter landscape dominated by their larger not-so-tolerant relative, the wolf.
At first glance these slender weasels appear at a serious disadvantage when it comes to keeping warm in the winter. They have practically no body fat, and relatively little fur in their winter coats, but an ermine has several unique features and strategies to make up for it.
For one, their coat turns from brown to white each winter, allowing them to be nearly invisible as they move through a snow white landscape. Their tail has a black tip on the end, which functions as a decoy luring any potential predators to strike there, rather than a more vulnerable part of the body.
To make up for a lack of body fat and extra fur, they generate body heat with their cranked up metabolism. Essentially, they turn their body into a heater, eating up to 6 times a day. When ermines do take time to rest, it needs to be in an insulated location. The den of a chipmunk or vole they just killed fits the bill perfectly. Another tactic ermines are known to employ is actually lining the inside of a log or den with the fur of their victims to keep warm.
Winter in the Greater Yellowstone marries serene beauty and harsh realities in a way only an arctic like cold can. On some days you may be excused for mistakenly thinking you were located in the polar zone. Last January on my photography worksop we spent a day in the field with low temps reaching -40° F (40° C). Severe cold, blustering winds, and limited food resources present supreme challenges for wildlife to overcome. Nothing has kindled a deeper sense of respect for the fortitude and adaptability the inhabitants of this ecosystem posses than my time photographing them in the winter. The next series of posts over the coming days will highlight individual animals and their unique strategies for surviving, and even thriving in the gauntlet of winter.
An ermine takes a brief moment to stand up and take in it’s surroundings before resuming the frantic hunt for prey at what appears to be lightspeed. It’s near impossible to keep track of these weasels for more than a few moments. They trade a brown summer coat for a white one each winter. Their cranked up metabolism allows them to keep warm by compensating for their lack of body fat.
Shortly after I photographed the ermine, I located a family of river otters, which are also a member of the weasel family. We tend to have negative connotations with the word “weasel”, but some of my favorite animals to spend with and observe are weasels.
“In part because bears can be so dangerous, they force you to pay attention. The awe of being in their presence strips away the chaos of thoughts and distractions that normally dominate your consciousness. They focus your attention on the moment. They flood your blood with adrenaline and endorphins…. They introduce you to terror, awe, amazement and ecstasy. They connect you to the deepest pulses of life. This is their gift. The power to take your life, or to renew it; to re-create who you are, if only for a moment, and perhaps for a lifetime.” - Dr. Stephen F. Stringham
With population estimates at one point as high as 50 million, it is hard to believe that in 1902 there were only a couple dozen bison left in the lower 48. If those few survivors were not protected from poaching in Yellowstone, this iconic species would be missing from the Greater Yellowstone landscape.
I caught this large bull, weighing close to 2000 lbs, as he wallowed in the dirt and marked it with his scent. As he shook the dirt off his back the area surrounding him faded into a cloud of dust.
Observing and photographing this skilled huntress work the shadows of the forest is always special. This Great Grey Owl may strategically and silently watch her prey for an hour before moving in for the kill.
The male dusky grouse is unquestionably one of the most beautiful birds in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. Unlike many species that winter in lower elevations and lighter snowpack, dusky grouse head to the high country to wait out the winter, where they feed primarily on conifer needles.
Hibernation is one of the most remarkable adaptations in nature. Imagine the effects on your body if you were confined to a bed for 5 months, and then imagine you did it without food. That's what this bear just did. Grizzlies are able to rely entirely on fat reserves during this time, and don't deplete any of their muscle mass.
“All I can personally but crudely attest is that there is something fundamentally different about a land roamed by big meat-eating beasts, a sense that becomes forcefully apparent in a solitary walk through their realm. And I can only believe, from somewhere deeper than any logic center of the brain, that a life of incomprehensible loneliness awaits a world where the wild things were, but are never to be again.” William Stolzenburg - Where the Wild Things Were
A rare glimpse of a leucistic Great Grey Owl. This anomaly is caused by a lack of pigmentation. This was the male owl of a nesting pair. I had photograhed the females and two chicks for a couple weeks, but had not seen the male, who was typically off hunting, until this day. Just prior to the taking of this image I witnessed the most unique wildlife event of my life, a black bear and two cubs had attempted to climb the nest tree and eat the chicks. The female let out distress calls which prompted the male to come to the nest site, where they both repeatedly dive-bombed the bears until they retreated. After the whole ordeal, the male was tired and rested on this perch for several minutes.
Throughout the year my time is mostly consumed with various photography projects and specific image goals. In these instances I know what subject I am photographing, and even the exact shot I am going for, such as the elk crossing the stream in the fog, or a Great Grey Owl flying in the snow. These images require excessive time scouting in the field to get one shot. I call this style “proactive” photography. In this proactive mindset I envision a scene I want beforehand and then go after it. I may not have control over all the elements, but I use research and knowledge to reduce as many variables as possible, and so increase the chances of making a truly remarkable image. However, this thoughtful approach to photography requires a lot of time, and some days I find myself playing catch up in the office and may only have a couple hours at the end of the day to get out in the field. Plus, there are times I just like to get outside with my camera and see what I can find. There is something about going out to photograph the unknown with an open and creative mindset that is relaxing.
On these days, while I may not have a specific subject in mind to photograph, I do have a plan; I listen to the squirrels.
Red Squirrels spend the summer and fall months harvesting pine cones and storing them in a cache known as a “Midden”. The Squirrels, being highly territorial and intolerant of any other creature in the vicinity of their middens, and also very small, resort to the best defense they know, an incessantly loud and obnoxious chatter. I realized the relevance of this knowledge for photography last year when I was looking for Great Grey Owls. I had just about thrown in the towel when I heard a squirrel alarm call which led me directly to the owl. Then it dawned on me…squirrels will bark at anything. If I simply wandered the woods following the sound of squirrel chatter I would likely have a higher success rate in locating owls, but I wonder what else I would find?
The next day I entered the woods armed with my new tactic. Eyes closed, I stood in silence and listened. No more than a minute had passed and I heard it. The angry squirrel. I followed the sound to the scene where I discovered two squirrels fighting. Entertaining to watch, but not what I was hoping for. A few moments later the sound of another defensive squirrel came ringing through the woods from the east. I arrived at the scene and found the squirrel barking up a storm from its lofty perch in a lodgepole pine, but was clueless as to what set it off. As I spun in another circle scanning the area, the culprit emerged from behind a log. A pine marten! The initially timid weasel was now overcome with curiosity and began to approach me. I stood still until it was comfortable with my presence and resumed the evening hunt.
After an hour of tripping over logs trying to keep up with the marten, I decided to put the last hour of light towards finding another angry squirrel. I slowly walked along a stream bank about 300 yards, and heard another alarm call to the south. The call led me to the edge of a small meadow where I found a Great Grey Owl intently focused on a light rustle in the grass.
Here are a few other recent highlights from my outings in the woods following squirrel chatter:
The past few days have brought the first taste of fall to the Tetons. The occasional bull elk can now be heard bugling, and sporadic stands of aspens have already transformed into a blazing yellow and orange. I photographed this bull elk with clients the other day during one of my Grand Teton photography tours.
We didn't just luckily stumble across this bull elk standing against the skyline at sunrise. As I have talked about before, the best images are the result of a plan and much thought. We set up on this elk herd in the dark while they were still a long ways off, but I knew, based off of typical elk behavior, that the herd would soon leave the open sagebrush flats and head into woods for cover. They do this every morning around sunrise. So, we positioned ourselves to the west of the elk herd and between their current location and the woods, so that they would pass by us as the rising sun illuminated the clouds in the background. Of course, there were variables out of our control, such as the exact timing the elk would move and the precise path they would take.
Sure enough, the herd began moving towards the timber as the sun broke subtly through the clouds. We had our eye on the bull. As he followed behind cows he began walking this small ridge. One last minute thought played the final role in the making of our image. I needed his whole body to be isolated against the sky, and at first it was only his head and antlers. The mountains were behind the rest of his body. We quickly scrambled down into a ravine in front of us and fell on our knees. Just in time for the bull to pause and turn his head.
You may be asking: “Why would I look at paintings to improve my photography? Wouldn’t I be better off drawing inspiration from other photography?”
Yes, drawing inspiration from photography is important, but not at first. Photography is too easy to copy without much thought. The value in drawing inspiration from a different medium is that it is not immediately replicable. Much thought is required to incorporate elements from a meaningful painting into your own photography. The process forces you to be creative.
Remember, we want to be creative, not merely emulative. I could spend all my time giving you technical advice, camera settings and photoshop tips (all of which we will get to), but it would be in vain without first cultivating your own creative vision and artistic eye.
I mentioned earlier that my time in the Wildlife Art Museum challenged me on a fundamental level. Few, if any of my photographs evoked emotion, told a story, or conveyed a mood like these great paintings. Sure, there are obvious differences between photography and paintings. One of which is that the painter has total control of the elements and creates art from a blank canvas, while the photographer is often reacting to the elements unfolding before them. Truly, what the painters envision they create. As photographers we don’t always have this ability, at least not fully.
But rather than allowing that to become an excuse, I let it be a challenge.
What if I envisioned the scene I wanted beforehand and then went after it?
What if I poured my time into making a couple images of wildlife on a dramatic landscape that told the story of where they lived and evoked a mood?
What if my approach to photography was proactive, not merely reactive?
What if, accepting I may not have control over all the elements as a painter, I use research and knowledge of my subject and setting to reduce as many variables as possible and so increase the chances of making a truly remarkable image?
These were just a few of the take-aways from my time in the museum, and in the weeks that followed these thoughts produced some of my best work.