Archive for the ‘buffalo’ Tag

Friday Foto Talk: Video & Wildlife   8 comments

My blog series on video for still photographers continues.  It’s not been too popular, something I figured would happen because of the the nature of blogging.  The blogosphere is quite biased toward still photography.  Videos are very popular overall, but tend to be concentrated in other places on the web.  It’s sad to say but most serious photographers still don’t think video is worth doing, I believe because they think the learning curve is too steep.  But when you’re out shooting photos you’re also carrying a very good video camera around with you.  So why not add movement and sound, even if the results aren’t likely to measure up to those of a pro videographer?

Last time we looked at landscape videos.  Today let’s talk about critters, or animals.  Specifically wildlife.  Domestic animals have their own challenges.  Video of wildlife is not easy.  But it’s one of the few subjects that even non-video people think of shooting.  The reason is that wildlife often do interesting things that are very hard to capture with still pictures.  They also make fascinating sounds.

To view the videos don’t click the play button right away.  First click the title at top left, then the play button.

Shy Shy

Wild animals are generally shy and not easy to find.  In modern times there is a two-edged sword.  Plenty of roads and easy access make it a snap to go looking for wildlife.  But the same development and population growth that gave us those roads also causes most species to decline in numbers.  And the survivors normally become very shy and elusive.

A general truism is that the easiest critters to find also tend to have the fastest and most unpredictable movements.  On the flip side, leaving aside rarity, if they’re very difficult to find they tend to be slow and easy to follow.  Sloths come to mind.  But it’s not always true that the slow ones are hard to find.  It could be the animal is simply not afraid and instead looks on you as lunch, like the Komodo dragons below.

STRATEGIES

Location, Location.  There are just a few main strategies that will make it easier to find wildlife.  One is heading to protected areas.  Parks and preserves concentrate the wildlife that we have chased out of most parts of the world.  Some African parks even fence them in, which is actually to prevent them leaving the park where they can be poached.  Of course the poachers just go into the park to kill, so the fences are relatively ineffective in that way.  The fences do cut down on human-wildlife conflict, as well as reduce road-kill.

The Right Time.  Another strategy is to go out looking when animals are most active.  And I’m not just talking about dawn and dusk, when most (not all) animals are likely to be moving about.  I’m also talking season.  Fall is when many animals become active, and spring (or the start of wet season in Africa) is also good because many have their young and are thus forced to go out hunting, foraging or browsing to feed them.  Also, the babies are irresistible.

‘Tis the Season.  Seasonality also affects the ease with which you’ll be able to spot critters because of vegetation.  For example going on safari in Africa during the dry season is popular because the general lack of green leafy growth on shrubs and trees of the savannah makes it easier to spot wildlife.

Some wildlife during a specific season will ignore their natural instinct to avoid humans and come right down into our towns.  In late fall, the elk of several western U.S. National Parks (Rocky Mountain and Grand Tetons for e.g.) descend from higher country and congregate in gateway towns like Estes Park, Colorado.

Showing their Moves

Animals move (I know, duh).  And they move apparently without warning and in unpredictable ways.  But really not so unpredictable once you observe and learn about them.

STRATEGIES

Ready & Steady.  Be ever ready to move the camera instantly.  It’s a mindset that is applicable to still photos of critters as well.  Your positioning and stance needs to be such that you can swivel or pivot easily.  I liken it to when I was a kid being coached on how to take a lead in baseball.  You also need a way to smooth out your motions, covered in a previous post: Video on the Move.

Observe.  The most important thing in this regard is careful observation.  The more you learn about a species, the better you’ll be able to predict its movements.  But avoid the trap even experienced people fall into.  You can know the species but not the individual.  Like us, each one is different and unique, in ways that seem quite subtle to us (but presumably not them).  So even if you know the species well, a little pre-shooting observation goes a long way.

Chatty Critters

If you record the voices of animals (and why wouldn’t you have sound recording turned on?), you can be sure that even the chattiest of them will choose the time after you press the record button to give you the silent treatment.

STRATEGIES

Observe some More.  Same goes for sound as for video: if you have the opportunity, observe the animal for awhile before you press record.  You’ll gain a sense of the periodicity or patterns inherent in the animal’s vocalizations.  The keys, as it is in general nature observation and photography, is patience and timing.

Examples.  At Yellowstone Park I went out in the very early morning to film the buffalo above.  On a previous morning I’d seen them crossing the Lamar River and figured they were sleeping on one side and eating breakfast on the other, with a bath in between.  Also the early hour meant only one other tourist, and he stayed up by the road.  A shotgun mic helped to capture their voices.  Below, on the Kafue River in Africa, I couldn’t get close enough to these hippos but their voices carry so well across the water that I didn’t need the shotgun mic.

That’s it for this Friday, thanks for looking.  Have an excellent weekend and don’t forget to press that record button!

Addendum:  Dry Run

Try is a dry run from time to time.  For example you could walk out into a forest in the wee hours to hear the dawn chorus of birdsong.  Try leaving your camera in the bag, at least at first.  The goal is to find the best locations and to simply listen.  Note when certain bird species begin and end (it’s strictly regimented), along with how long the singing lasts.  If you go out several times you’ll begin to learn how the weather affects timing along with other features of bird vocalization and behaviour.

Believe it or not I did this for a job one summer.  I surveyed forests in the Pacific NW proposed for logging, looking for evidence of use by endangered bird species.  Since most of the areas lacked trails, I would go out during the day with some white surveyor’s tape.  I’d find a good spot to observe from and then, on the way back to the road, flag a route by every so often tying a piece of surveyor’s tape around a branch.

Then in the morning, at “zero dark thirty” I returned with my flashlights (I recommend two, a headlamp and a strong hand-held) and followed the trail in.  White shows up in the dark a lot better than orange.  On the hike out after sunrise I’d remove the surveyor’s tape.  This is, by the way, also a good way to find and shoot out-of-the-way places at dawn, your “secret” spots that are away from roads and trails.

 

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Friday Foto Talk: Video ~ Sound, Part II   2 comments

The series on getting started in video is almost complete.  Last week’s post provided general tips on recording sound during video capture.  Let’s dive deeper into the subject of sound by looking at a few of the more subtle ways that it can mess up your video, and some solutions to help make sure that doesn’t happen.

The Ear vs. the Microphone

You’ll find that the way you process sound is different than what is recorded by a microphone.

  • Your ears are placed perfectly for detecting sound all about you.  But with those flaps they’re biased toward the front.  A mic. (or two for stereo) can be placed anywhere.  But if it’s a shotgun mic it will mostly pick up those sounds in the direction you point the mic.  Omnidirectional mics are the opposite (see below).  By the way, I saw a guy on the web who records sound using a stereo mic setup where the mics are worn like headphones and are even shaped somewhat like ears.  His goal is to record as close to what he hears as possible.  The rather funny-looking stereo mic setup was for sale, as long as you don’t mind some strange looks!
  • It’s not just your ears that cause microphones to record sounds differently than the way you hear them.  Your brain is involved too.  Thanks to evolution you can pick up distant sounds and magnify them.  And simultaneously in some cases, you have the ability to filter out loud, nearby sounds in order to better hear a faint, more important one.  These natural skills allowed our ancestors to hear the sounds of a predator while near a stream.  Of course mics don’t do any of this.  An omnidirectional mic, for example, captures everything around it without bias.  The louder the sound the more prominent it will be in the recording.
  • Why is there a significant difference between the way your eyes and your camera captures images?  The key difference maker is the brain.  Just as it does with your eyes, your brain works in concert with your ears to weight various sounds differently.  The brain also has the ability to make your head turn, like an antenna dish, to effectively corral those sounds you want to hear and at least partly block those you don’t.
  • Let’s take an example.  It took me awhile to realize that recording next to a stream is a mixed blessing.  If your goal is to record the sound of the water it’s usually fine.  But if you want ambient sound that includes birds, etc., the water can overwhelm everything else.  Even when you’re going for the sound of the water, being close can make it sound too loud and harsh.

Solutions

Just as you learned to pay attention to subtle features of the light, you should start tuning your ears to subtle differences in volume, tone, bass notes vs. treble, etc.  But at the same time you need to factor in the above:  your brain filters and evens things out while the microphone records actual sounds, without bias.  Here are a few tips:

  • Move closer to that interesting but not very loud sound even if you can hear it just fine.  The old piece of photography advice, “if your photos aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough” applies to sound as well.
  • But depending on what mic you’re using don’t get too close!  Using the example above, recording next to a loud stream (a waterfall perhaps), and if you’re using a shotgun mic, avoid pointing it right at the water.  Try pointing it an angle or even directly away from the sound.
  • Adjust position to minimize loud sounds when you’re seeking balance and want to pick up more subtle sounds in the background, even if your ear hears a good balance.  Simply putting a tree or rock outcrop between you and a sound source that is too loud can make all the difference.  You can also use landscape features, such as rock walls, curved hillsides, etc. to focus and magnify key parts of the soundscape.
  • If you get more involved with audio, field gear can help greatly with all of the above.  For distant &/or faint sounds, a high-quality shotgun mic, along with parabolic reflectors, can make a huge difference.
  • For the ability to adjust the balance of tones, bringing out the sounds you want and minimizing those you don’t, consider upgrading to a system that replaces your camera’s sound-recording.  Basically a portable soundboard that mounts beneath your camera, it will allow you to adjust and equalize tones.  These systems are often used along with headphones.  They allow you to monitor the way the sound is actually being recorded, as opposed to the way you hear it.
  • You could also choose separate sound recording using a portable digital recorder.  You’ll have to sync the sound to your video later, but it allows you to focus on video and audio separately, thus doing a good job on both.
  • Remember:  all of this extra gear will only add to, not replace, what you can do in the field by changing position and using natural features, along with choosing the appropriate mic to use.

That’s all for now.  I hope you are getting more comfortable with the idea of doing videos, even if you’re an unrepentant still photographer.  Don’t be shy about asking questions or giving your two cents.  Have a fantastic weekend and happy shooting!

 

Wordless Wednesday: American Bison = Buffalo!   7 comments

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Single-image Sunday: Annoyed   6 comments

Bet ya think I’m going to talk about being annoyed.  No, even when I am annoyed I’ll try never to subject anyone else to my reasons for being so.  They only make sense at the time anyway.  No, this image is all about this buffalo (otherwise known as a bison) being annoyed with me.  If you’re familiar with American bison, you know they once roamed over most of the central parts of North America.  And that now they’re confined mostly to a few national parks, Yellowstone chief among them.

So you may think this shot is from Yellowstone, or possibly nearby Grand Teton National Park.  You may even know about the buffalo herd at Wind Cave, South Dakota, and think he lives there.

None of the above!  The truth is that I got a surprise when I visited the southern part of Oklahoma recently.  I had seen on the map that there was a wildlife refuge called Wichita Mountains NWR.  I also saw on the web that there were a small number of buffalo there.  Since it was a quick trip, I didn’t expect to see many buffalo, let alone get close enough for a good shot.

Towards dusk I happened to glance off into the trees while driving by and saw this youngish bull.  I stopped and walked around behind him.  Approaching slowly and watchfully, I kept some small trees between he and I.

Annoyed: check out his underside.

Annoyed: check out his underside.

I’ve learned to be cautious around buffalo, but how cautious often depends.  At times you can walk right up to them, drawing no more than a casual glance.  I don’t set out wanting to get too close of course.  But on several occasions while hiking in Yellowstone, I’ve rounded a corner and been confronted with one of the massive beasts lounging in the grass beside the trail.  If it is not autumn, this is not usually a panic situation.

I got close enough to this one to get his attention.  He immediately let me know that I had gotten close enough, thank you.  He turned and took a couple steps in my direction, fixing me with a glare.  If that wasn’t enough, he began to urinate.  That was my clue to back away.  There is a rule of thumb with any large (or even not so large) male animal.  Almost anytime you see them urinating, you can be sure it’s to send a definite signal: stay back!

There are other fairly obvious signals that buffalo give you.  One is when they arch their tail up in the air.  I’ve seen bulls do that during mating season, just before charging another bull.  Another clue is when they throw their huge furry heads about.  If you come upon a buffalo with an arched tail, who’s throwing his head around and urinating at the same time, you should definitely not approach any closer.  And strongly consider retreating.

Many tourists have been injured, some even killed, by bison.  At Yellowstone especially, people often approach too closely in an attempt to get a good picture.  They ignore the obvious warning signals that the bison (I think kindly) is giving them.  When questioned by rangers, some of these people don’t realize that they are wild animals.  And they seem to believe they are slow and ponderous.

True, buffalo go about most of their lives in slow-motion.  But that’s deceiving.  I’ve seen them run very fast and jump 6-foot high fences.  That’s 1500 pounds launching itself over a high fence!  When they want to be, buffalo can be very athletic and very cantankerous – a potentially deadly combination.  It’s amazing to me that more people aren’t rammed and gored, given how many apparently unobservant tourists visit Yellowstone.

So if you plan to visit one of the parks with buffalo, remember the signals, especially if it’s the fall mating season.  Stay safe, and have a great week!

Close and Low: Photography without Shame at Yellowstone   3 comments

White Dome geyser in Yellowstone National Park erupts into a beautiful morning.

White Dome geyser in Yellowstone National Park erupts into a beautiful morning.

While looking over the 10,000 or so images from this recent trip around the West, I’ve been finding little jewels in the heap of…well, let’s just say there are many photos not worth keeping.  Realizing that I already looked at these photos once, however briefly, I know they don’t necessarily have immediate impact.  Their charms are typically more subtle.  Best of all, many demonstrate important photography habits that I practice more or less naturally, and are worth sharing.

This photo I made while camping in a (very) chilly Lower Geyser Basin in Yellowstone National Park.  This is my favorite geothermal area in the park (with Norris being a close second).  I love photographing here in the evening (see image below), well after the sun has set, and also in the very early morning.  I was there in mid-October, so mornings were downright freezing.  This means plenty of steam, but it also means you will probably see buffalo rousing from their beds in the morning.  These iconic beasts often spend the night in thermal areas when nights turn cold.

Moonlight and steam on a cold night at Hot Lake in Yellowstone's Lower Geyser Basin creates a mystical scene.

Moonlight and steam on a cold night at Hot Lake in Yellowstone’s Lower Geyser Basin creates a mystical scene.

The concept that the photo at top demonstrates is this:  there is almost no photo, certainly no landscape or nature composition, that is not worth trying from a very low shooting position.  It is often the case where the lower the camera is, the better.  So you need to get down on your belly or have a tripod which allows you to set the camera very close to the ground.

Bison begin the day's grazing after spending a cold night in Yellowstone's Lower Geyser Basin.

Bison begin the day’s grazing after spending a cold night in Yellowstone’s Lower Geyser Basin.

The shame part of the tip comes from the fact that people will often stare at you while you’re in “strange” shooting positions.  I will usually start off shooting the composition from a bit further away, then move closer as I shoot.  Usually the best photos are the closer ones.  When I am very low, hand-holding the camera, I will often crawl on my belly towards my subject.  In the case of the photo at top, White Dome Geyser, I was doing my best imitation of “army guy crawling under razor wire” when I felt a rumbling in my belly.

The moon is enlarged through the steam over Hot Lake in Yellowstone National Park.

The moon is enlarged through the steam over Hot Lake in Yellowstone National Park.

At first I thought it was just my stomach telling me it was past breakfast time (I had been shooting for a couple hours, since before sunrise).  But the geyser quickly made it clear what the rumbling meant as it began to erupt.  I managed to get a few frames off before I started getting pelted with hot water and had to scramble away.

As I got up and looked around, there were at least a couple observers chuckling and nudging each other.  Sure, I felt a little embarrassed, but I also knew there was a good chance I got a nice shot.  Always remember this:  your photo will last longer than you, while your shame usually lasts mere minutes; you will have forgotten all about it by next day.  So go ahead, photograph without any shame.

Steam drifts over Yellowstone's Lower Geyser Basin on a starry evening.

Steam drifts over Yellowstone’s Lower Geyser Basin on a starry evening.

 

 

Yellowstone and the Park Circus   5 comments

At dawn in Yellowstone’s Lower Geyser Basin, Great Fountain Geyser blows off a little steam.

Yellowstone is the only National Park I have a love-hate relationship with.  I do not like so many things about this park, but I realized this time around that all of my disdain has to do with how it is managed by the N.P.S.  It’s not at all about the place itself.  I really love its unique landscape, its awesome geology, and (most of all ) its wonderful wildlife.

A frozen meadow at Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming, slowly thaws as the sun appears.

I worked a long time ago, for just one season, at Mt Rainier.  Many of us called it the Park Circus, and it has not gotten any better since then.  I know many people have pet names for the places where they work.  But it seems that when it comes to government agencies, these cynically funny monikers are especially apt.   The Farce Service, the Bowel Movement (BLM), the list goes on.

I visited Yellowstone late last August, and while (as always) it was pretty busy, I was able to actually obtain a campsite. Earlier in the summer it is very crowded, and I would avoid the place from about mid-June through mid-August.  I had hopes that this time around, visiting at the end of September, the park would be almost empty.

Unfortunately, it seems that everyone has been told Autumn is the best time to visit Yellowstone in order to avoid crowds.  As might be expected, this has resulted in a significant number of people visiting in September and October.  Add to this the fact that the Park Service believes it is uncrowded, and closes many campgrounds, lodges, roads, etc., and you have a bit of a squeeze.  They also cut back on ranger staff, which doesn’t break my heart at all.

I’m not saying that visitor numbers in fall approach those of summer, but I do know that it was plain impossible to get a campsite during the week I was there.  There is definitely a campsite shortage in Autumn at Yellowstone.  No problem for me, so long as there are not enough rangers to patrol at night.  I just pull my van off in a lonely spot once darkness has fallen, and at dawn I’m up and shooting, so I’m pretty much low-impact (if technically a scofflaw).

I noticed a big difference between these fall crowds and those of summer.  In fall, since it is cold, most people drive around and don’t hike.  This leaves the trails empty and the roads busy.  The Park Service encourages people to stick to roads at Yellowstone (I experienced this personally).  Their misguided belief is that this helps them to control the large number of visitors.  I had a ranger actually recommend that I drive up and down the Lamar Valley in search of wolves and other wildlife, which she thought were much better viewed from the roadside.  I wanted to tell her that, had I wanted to do the wildlife safari thing, I would have gone to the place a few hours from home, instead of driving two full days to visit Yellowstone.  I just smiled at her and kept my mouth shut.

Bison roaming the road at Yellowstone, and a tourist who had no idea they were that big.

And so during my recent week there, I ignored the standard advice, parked my vehicle, and walked some of the relatively short trails that I haven’t done before.  Last August most of my hikes were either longer trails or off-trail, to avoid people and have a better chance at wildlife sightings.  I think, what with the enormous size of this park, that there is already enough driving involved in simply getting across the park.

A male blue grouse displays in the forest of Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming.

Below are a few of the things I don’t like about Yellowstone.  All of these result from two things: (1) the high profile nature of this, the world’s first national park; and (2) the Park Service’s inability to see the forest for the trees, that is, it’s awkward attempts to “control” the admittedly large number of visitors.

  • For some reason there are many more “cop-rangers” in Yellowstone than in other parks.  Rangers you are likely to come into contact with at Yellowstone are actually law enforcement, not natural resources professionals.  They’re much more likely to be found inside an idling SUV (often barking at people alongside the road through a megaphone) than out on the trails.
  • Because these new-style rangers burn expensive fuel and wear out expensive vehicles, they’re naturally much more expensive staff to employ than traditional rangers.  Traditional rangers, that vanishing breed, can be found at points of interest, or out on the trails wearing out nothing more expensive than boots.  I believe the number of these police posing as rangers is overkill, a solution to a problem that doesn’t exist.  It’s also one reason why I think the Park Service needs to become much more efficient in the way it spends its limited budget
  • From the time they arrive until the time they leave, visitors are pounded over the head with rules and regulations.  Any natural history education is cloaked heavily in rules and regs., and I think this dilutes the value of that education and turns people off.  Also, their “education” regarding wildlife is almost exclusively fear-mongering, an attempt to keep people from approaching the animals and getting their dumb selves hurt.  I agree with some of this approach, having witnessed some incredibly stupid behavior, but I think it is way too much.  Don’t they know people start tuning it out if they get too steady a diet of it?
  • The staff, of course with notable exceptions, is generally more tense and less relaxed than in other parks.  They’re also less-informed.  This last thing is very evident in the person of the growing legion of volunteers, but also is obvious with full-time rangers.  These are tough things to describe objectively, but they lead, just like the above effects, to a diminished visitor experience.

    Dry grasses rooted in cracked earth and cut by buffalo trails are typical of Yellowstone National Park in late summer.

I really believe the Park Service is shooting themselves in the foot at Yellowstone.  The agency’s budget is in truly sad shape, and the public face is all about rules and control, not about the wonders of the park.  A very big percentage of the N.P.S. budget goes to Yellowstone, whose roads are excellent, while those at (very busy also) parks like Mount Rainier fall apart.  Rangers patrol the roads in the middle of the night in Yellowstone, when there is nobody out – only wildlife which is at risk of being killed by the rangers who are paid to protect them.

The white mineral terraces at Mammoth in Yellowstone National Park glow under a partial moon and the summer stars.

The N.P.S. needs good will in order to keep their budget from pulling a vanishing act.  They need people to actually donate to the foundations created for the purpose.  I’ll give you a couple examples why I will not support increased funding to the Park Service until I see major changes.

Just outside the northeast entrance to Yellowstone is one of America’s most beautiful drives, the Beartooth Pass. This picture was taken on a hike near the pass, as a late summer thunderstorm threatened.

Last year I was watching, at sunrise with just one other guy, a buffalo herd cross the road to reach the Lamar River.  Along came a cop-ranger who leaned on his horn, blared through his megaphone at us to move our vehicles (we were off the road but our tires were touching the pavement).

I watched him actually bump one buffalo cow, who scurried off the road while her calf was left on the other side.  I was shocked, as he got out of his SUV and said he was trying to clear “his” road, and didn’t have time for this.  I got into it with the A-hole, but it was very apparent that he would have found some way to fine or even arrest me if I didn’t retreat immediately.  So I left.

Those buffalo, which were the target of this Police Academy refugee’s disdain, are the reason he has that job.  Their protection is the reason the American people pay his salary.  Those buffalo were simply trying to get a drink, in their home, not his.  What a jerk-off.

Another less-dramatic example: At a popular viewpoint, I asked a “ranger” (clean-cut and too chubby for being young and working in the outdoors) about a trail that took off from the paved path to the viewpoint.  He gave me a dumb look, and I volunteered a guess.  “Maybe it’s just a couple hundred yards to a different viewpoint?”

I noticed he had been reading a text, and he was stealing glances at his phone.  He seemed distracted as he said yes, I was right.   After he was gone, not trusting his answer, I went and found out that the trail was about a half-mile one-way to a very different and very cool lookout.

This post has grown too long, and it seems now that I’ve begun to whine too much.  So I’ll stop and make a promise.  My next post will extol only the glories of natural Yellowstone, which despite the pressure of visitation and the arrogant mismanagement at the hands of the Park Circus, remains a unique and wondrous place.

Yellowstone I: Wolves and other Critters   2 comments

Part of a small herd of bison begin to feed on a frosty morning in Lower Geyser Basin at Yellowstone National Park.

I visited Yellowstone again this year.  I spent a week+ there last August, and returned this year for late autumn there.  I spent a chilly first first week of October.  Mornings were icy, afternoons sunny and brisk.  Plenty of people were there, considering the season, but almost exclusively on the roads.  Trails were almost empty.  This post will focus on the wildlife.  I’ll post later on the (sorry) state of the Park Service, as well as the geysers & other thermal features.

Last year was the first time I had been to the park since the reintroduction of wolves in the 1980s.  Yes, it had been a long long time.  I saw some wolves on a kill last August, but they were so far away that no pictures were possible.  I went back this year, to try and get closer.  And boy did I!  Of course buffalo, and also elk, are your most likely large wildlife sighting in this park.  Also, recent times have seen an increase in fox.

The setting sun illuminates a resting pronghorn in the lamar River Valley of Yellowstone National Park.

 

A bison grazes the late autumn grasses on a cold sunny Yellowstone morning.

I started in the northern part of the park, concentrating on the Lamar River Valley.  This area is an excellent place for wildlife, and feels pretty wild compared to, say, the Old Faithful area.  My first morning in the Lamar I woke at sunrise and quickly found a sizable group of wolf-watchers parked at a picnic area in the upper valley.  They all had their spotting scopes, their long glass, etc. etc.  I normally don’t like these gatherings; I want to photograph the people’s behavior rather than the wildlife.  But this time, since it was quite early, there were no tour buses (beep beep beep backing up) or other nonsense going on.  So I went for it.

There were four wolves not too far away, and they were prancing and playing.  Still, they were a bit far for my 400 mm lens, so I just enjoyed watching them through binoculars.  As they finally departed, the lead wolves howled for the others to catch up.  The howling, echoing off the cliff walls that border the Lamar Canyon, and with the crackling cold air, was just plain magical.

There were plenty of pronghorn in the Lamar.  During one hike, three of them jogged over to me in the wide open valley, curious as to what this creature was.  Since these animals can run at over 60 mph, much faster than any predator, they can afford to indulge their curiosity and get pretty close.  Pronghorn are a unique animal, the only species left of a group that evolved in North America millions of years ago.  They are NOT antelope (a creature of Asia and Africa), though they resemble them.  When they evolved, the now-extinct American cheetah still prowled the west.  This accounts for their speed being ridiculous overkill for today’s predators.

I camped two nights in the awesome Lower Geyser Basin, taking star pictures at night.  I woke one morning a frigid steamy atmosphere, and soon spotted a herd of buffalo emerging from a hollow in the hills where thermal features were particularly concentrated.  They had obviously spent the night on the warm ground there, and now wanted to enjoy the rising sun’s warmth (which I certainly couldn’t feel!).  A few of the big bulls were last to emerge, one by one, and I got some good shots of them.

I saved the best for last.  Now there was an occasion a very long time ago, in Alaska when I was in my early 20s, working in the interior on recon expeditions looking for gold.  I was climbing a bare tundra hill, a stiff wind in my face, when I crested the hill and stopped short.  At first I thought it was a stump, but I saw that 25 yards or so ahead was a sitting wolf, facing away from me.  He was enormous, the biggest wolf by far that I’ve ever seen.  He was light colored with a beautiful coat that was flecked with red in places (like the tips of his ears).  He was scanning the valley below.

I made a small noise while reaching for my camera and he whipped his head around.  I’ll never forget his surprised look!  He immediately ran down the far slope, onto a small saddle several hundred yards distant.  He did not run like a dog, but sort of glided, not appearing to exert himself but covering the ground very quickly.  He sat down again, looking up at me, and let out the first wolf howl I had ever heard (to that point).  After he tipped his snout back down and quieted, I tried my best to imitate him.  We spent about 15 minutes howling back and forth before he just turned and trotted away.

On a frigid morning at Yellowstone National Park, a big bull bison emerges from his warm geothermal bed for the night.

Back to Yellowstone.  I stopped, just before noon, at a nondescript wide spot in the road just south of Madison Junction.  There was an old disused powerline right of way (no more line though).  So I took my little dog Charl (a shih tsu), who had not been for a walk yet that morning, and we went for a short stroll.  I grabbed my camera as an afterthought, which had the 24-105 mm on it.  Nobody stops here, so I didn’t bother with a leash for Charl.  Rangers will definitely ticket you for an unleashed dog, but he’s old and always stays close.

A large bull elk appears to be just as surprised as the photographer upon bumping into each other in the forest of Yellowstone National Park.

We were heading back to the van, only about 100 yards from the road, when we turned a corner and saw him at the same time he saw us.  A black wolf, obviously not young with his gray highlights, stopped short, surprised by our meeting.  He stood for a moment, looking back and forth from me to Charl, then back to me, then more intently at Charl.  My poor little half-blind partner did not even realize he was less than ten yards from his wild brethren.  But I certainly was, and quickly took a couple steps forward, scooping up Charl.  This got the wolf moving, but he didn’t leave right away, giving me a chance to snap a few shots.  At 105 mm there is no reason to expect a decent shot of a wolf, but mine aren’t too bad.  After he trotted away, I paced off the distance that had separated us; it was about 12 yards, and Charl was closer!

An older alpha male wolf in Yellowstone National Park is unsure how he happened to get so close to the human.

I was on a high all that day, so much so that I walked into the visitor center at Canyon and told the young female ranger what I had seen.  She wasn’t too interested, strangely,  but as I described him she brought out pictures and we identified him as the alpha male for the Canyon Pack.  He was an older wolf, not all that big, and had been alone inside another pack’s territory.  I suppose there is more to being the alpha wolf than brawn.  He has years of experience on his side, wisdom.  I take much encouragement from this encounter.  I’m not a spring chicken anymore, and just like him I need to rely more on my experience than my strength.  This is not a bad thing.

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