I love to photograph in Yellowstone National Park, but aside from bison, my pictures have been of the landscape rather than the wildlife.
The couple of times that I have gone out to find animals, I was usually thwarted by a lack of animals.
So in the interest of bettering my skills as a photographer and videographer, I took a trip with Ken Sinay of Yellowstone Safari Co. Sinay has spent the past 20 years guiding people into the park and helping them find those amazing wildlife encounters.
He agreed to let me tag along with him to share a few of his tricks.
Before going into the park, you might want to invest in a few key items to better help you see the animals.
Spotting scope: You don’t have to break the bank on one, but if you want it to last longer than a single trip, then you might consider a scope that starts in the $100 range. The scopes are invaluable for getting an intimate look at Yellowstone’s wildlife. A wolf pack on the opposite range across a long valley looks like little spots with the naked eye, but with a good scope you can see all the action as the pack plays and hunts. Some wildlife watchers even use their scopes with their smartphones to capture images of far-off animals.
Binoculars: These are great for quickly scanning the landscape and spotting animals. Once you have spotted them with the binoculars, you can set up your scope to really get up close.
In the end though, your best tools for finding wildlife will be your own senses. Always be alert and listen for signs of wildlife. The howl of the wolf, the bark of a coyote or fox, or the call of an eagle will often be the first indicator to stop and start scanning with your eyes.
“Whenever we are looking for wildlife, we are always looking for the same three things: The odd color, the odd shape, or movement. And movement is the easiest thing to see on the landscape to tell us that something is alive out there,” Sinay said.
Plan your trip for winter
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Unless you absolutely have to see bears, then plan your Yellowstone Wildlife Safari in the winter, especially February around Valentine’s Day. Keying on the movement of wildlife is much easier against the backdrop of the white snow.
“On a snow-covered landscape ... several 100-pound wolves, many of them black, can be highly visible,” Sinay said.
The snow makes even neophyte trackers look like experts, as fresh animal tracks are impossible to miss. Fresh tracks in new snow indicate that animals are in the area, so you might want to take the time to stop and scan.
Winter weather also forces large grazing animals such as elk and bighorn sheep to seek easier grazing lands. Sheep descend from their lofty summer perches in Yellowstone’s Northern Range to the hillsides along Yellowstone’s roadways. Elk congregate into larger herds — sometimes into the thousands — in the valleys making for an impressive show.
Early bird gets the wolf
For the best opportunity to see animals while they are up and about, then you will need to be out from sun-up to around 10 a.m. After that, the animals begin to bed down for the day and finding them begins to become more difficult. When you do spot them in the midday, they tend to be more lethargic and less entertaining.
February gives wildlife watchers a bit more time to watch active animals, because many animals are in their mating season. Mating animals tend to be more active in the day during this time, and you increase your chances of seeing a mating couple’s interactions.
Scavenger birds as indicators
A carcass can be one of the best the places to witness animal interactions in Yellowstone. A wolf pack may kill an elk, but if the opportunity presents itself, then coyotes, birds and even a fox may try to sneak a meal. The easiest way to find a carcass is to look for large congregations of ravens. If you see a large group in the trees, there is a good chance you will find an animal feeding on a carcass below the ravens.
Watch for wolf watchers
If your goal is to find wolves, your best bet might be to seek out Yellowstone’s wolf watchers. They are an unofficial group of amateurs and professionals who make it their mission to find the wolves on a daily basis. If you see a group of people parked along the sides of the road with spotting scopes, high-end camera lenses, and large radio antennae extending from the tops of their vehicles, you have likely stumbled upon the wolf watchers. They are friendly group of wolf enthusiasts who are happy to share their wolf experiences with tourists in order to promote a deeper appreciation for the wolves.