Monthly Archives: March 2011

So much more though…

Having waxed lyrical about the Bison that are undoubtedly the icons of Yellowstone it wouldn’t be right to simply leave my recollections of the trip at them alone; there’s so much more in terms of both wildlife and landscape and a sheer sense of awe that the Park creates.

The Park “enjoys” 3.5 million visitors a year – an amazing number that peaks in August with Old Faithful attracting some 25,000 visitors each day to see it’s regular spoutings. I simply can’t comprehend what that must be like as an experience, but as I prodded around in the snow surrounding it I found some of the benches that must be jam-packed every hour at that time of the year.  The winter months see only 150,000 of those visitors so when I watched this iconic geyser erupt there was only ever me, a dozen or so individuals dotted around and the occasional Bison wandering past too – much more my thing!

When it came to photographing the less regularly erupting Castle Geyser in the middle of the night, perhaps unsurprisingly we were the only people there at all!

The power of the geothermal activity in the Park, much of which is in fact inside the caldera of effectively a giant volcano, has a profound impact on the landscape and the life that exists around it.  Trees are literally dissolved through their root systems (the locals affectionately call them bobby sox trees), are killed by the acidic solutions in the thermal waters, and the vibrant colours of the calcium carbonate deposited on the surface in the dramatic terraces that can be found at Mammoth Hot Springs in particular are a sight to behold.

The wildlife in the park is not obvious in the still of a sunny winters day or the constant blizzards that alternate through this toughest of seasons, but it’s there to be found and nowhere more so than the dramatic Hayden and Lamar Valleys.  Besides the Bison the species that eek out a winter here are surprising in their variety – Bighorn Sheep clamber acrobatically around the steeper slopes where the snow struggles to settle in search of shoots, American Dipper find the odd ice hole in the otherwise frozen rivers to search for fry, Elk follow the Bisons trail in their own large herds and the wiley Coyote looks to pick up the scraps from those that don’t manage to survive the harsh conditions.

Winter is always a photographically fantastic season, especially in a place where snow is a given: here it’s piled high all around and with the almost constant wind that whistles through the valleys it’s always blowing and drifting too. Add into the mix some inspiring settings, some thought-provoking experiences experiencing the natural world coping with the conditions as it always has (even swathes of Loldgepole Pine, burned to a crisp in past summer forest fires can be seen regenerating themselves) and beauty in amongst the harshness too, perhaps personified by the winter visiting Tundra Swans who seemed as at home as any in this harsh but beautiful place.

Beautiful Bison

I finally feel as if I’m on top of things again after a frantic fortnight or so back from spending most of last month working in the USA. First on the agenda was running a trip to Yellowstone with my Natures Images colleague Danny Green, and after lots of organising and some high anticipation levels following multiple viewings of the winter episode of the BBC’s production it lived up to all expectaions and more.

The park itself was the first state owned national park in the world, and although it offers much in terms of variety for a nature photographer it’s highlight in terms of visibility has to be its Bison population.  In the winter months they tend to move away from their summer breeding grounds into the areas of greatest geothermal activity as the warmth from hot springs and geysers such as the famous Old Faithful above gives them more chance to find something to munch on for energy.

Watching these large and powerful beasts slowly working their way through the snow, their immense neck muscles working overtime to push the feet deep snow away to reach the poor quality grass underneath I could only wonder at just how they managed to find enough to sustain their massive frames.

As we spent more time in their proximity it was also clear that although they are more than capable of aggression, particularly in self-defence, and that Bison related injuries are the highest accident recorded in the park each year, there’s also a sense of docility and maybe even resignation to their life when you managed to look closely into their eyes.

 It was only as the trip wore on and the weather turned into the harsh heavy snowfalls for which the park is renowned (we had in excess of 18 inches in just one night!) that their resignation to the sheer challenges of their existence really became apparent though, and watching group and individuals try to stand sit or trudge their way through the blizzards as well as continue their relentless efforts in search of nutrition, my respect for these amazing animals just continued to grow.

These proved to be among the hardest conditions I have had to photograph in – not so much because of the cold as I genuinely don’t mind that but the sheer volume of snow falling was constantly filling up the lens hood, blurring my vision and meant the autofocus, as good as it is on my Mk4, was completely redundant! Manual focussing was the order of the day and it was a reminder of just what it used to be like in the days of split prism screens, and I was pleasantly surprised at just how high a percentage of my images were sharp – mind you it’s probably a good job they were a decent size subject and not moving too quickly!

Some of the herds we encountered were approaching 40 or 50 in number – impressive enough but not a patch on the size that there would have been here before western civilisation reached this part of the world: one can only imagine what these snowfields must have looked like 200 or so years ago.

My abiding memories of these magnificent animals though will be their resiliance; how they just seem to keep on going wherever they may be headed, whether it’s sun, snow or hot steam they are having to contend with they just keep their heads down and get on with life: a few lessons to be learned here for some others perhaps!