by Stan Tekiela
April 30, 2012
Photo by Stan Tekiela©
I have just finished looking over all the images I have taken so far over the past week in Yellowstone National Park and I must say I am not impressed. An amazing place like Yellowstone in the middle of winter should produce some spectacular images, but no, not a single one. Snowy scenes of mountains and wild animals are always great subjects for a wildlife photographer, but not this week.
The week started out with four days of clear skies, which might seem like a good thing for a photographer but not in the middle of winter. Not when the air temperatures are in the teens below zero and the daytime temps only rise into the single digits. The problem is, the clear skies allow the sun to shine brightly. A massive amount of solar energy hits the thick blanket of snow and bounces off. The reflected solar energy produces a lot of air disturbance and show up in the form of heat shimmers just about the snow pack. The results are highly disturbed layer of air making it impossible to get a sharp image.
It snowed the last three days. This is normally a very good thing in the wildlife photography. However the snowflakes were huge and falling by the bucketful. Now the problem is we can't even see the animals we were trying to photograph.
To add insult to injury we had a couple bad events which added to the frustration factor. On one sunny day a couple of coyotes had cornered a young Mule Deer on a hillside. When the deer tried to get away the coyotes chased it and delivered several nasty bites to its hind legs. When speed doesn't work to avoid predators nearly all deer, elk, moose and pronghorn head for open water. This is what this young deer did. Even though the air temperatures were in the single digits the deer ran to a small icy stream and jumped right in. The coyotes stopped in their tracks at the water's edge. Even through the coyotes were within a few feet of the deer they were not willing to enter the water.
Feeling like they had the deer cornered, so to speak, the coyotes moved off about 100 feet and lay down. I am sure they were tired from the chase. The young deer got out of the water and stood on the ice. Let me tell you that this deer looked miserable. It was so wet that icicles started to form from its ears and chin. A small pool of blood formed underneath the deer from the bites to its legs.
Within minutes a large number of Common Ravens, Black-billed Magpies, Golden and Bald Eagles started to fly in and land in a near-by tree and on the ground. I am always amazed at how quickly the word spreads across species when an event like this occurs. All of these birds will wait their turn to get a meal.
My photo partners and I set up our cameras with our long lens supported by large tripods and got comfortable anticipating a long wait. Just how long of a wait we didn't know. We did know that it might take a while. As the hours passed we watched as a couple more coyotes joined the waiting game. Now there were four coyotes waiting. Now and then an individual coyote would approach the deer and without hesitation the deer would jump back into the icy stream. When the coyote would leave the deer would struggle to get back out of the water. The wet ice along the shore made it difficult for the deer to get any traction and stand up. Often it would just lay there catching its breath before getting back to its feet. The deer would stand there soaking wet in freezing air temperatures.
The sun was starting to set behind the mountains that surround the valley. We had been waiting now for 6 hours. The coyotes were all still bedded down and not moving a muscle. As we watched the deer looked a bit more perky and had dried off. It appeared that the wounds that were bleeding earlier were clotted. So the deer started to move. These were the first footsteps this deer had made in more than 6 hours.
I gripped my camera tightly and stared through the viewfinder watching the scene unfold. I know it sounds cruel but if the deer would walk to our left we would have an excellent vantage point and perhaps capture nature in the raw act. The life and death struggle between a predator and prey. However if the deer moved to our right a small pile of logs would block our view. We had a fifty fifty chance and we had our fingers crossed the deer would go left. As fate would have it the deer moved to our right. We were muttering under our breath "no, no, go the other way".
What was most interesting was the coyotes didn't move at all as the deer started walking away. The coyotes knew that if they got up the deer would jump back into the water and we would be right back where we started. Instead the coyotes waited until the deer got far enough away from the water before moving. As luck would have it the deer went right behind the log pile just as the coyote caught up to it and we missed out on capturing some amazing images. Unfortunately the deer lost its life but the coyotes had a much deserved meal which will get them through another harsh winter day in this mountain environment.
Not every trip results in amazing images. This is the life of a wildlife photographer. Perhaps next time. Until next time
Stan Tekiela is an author / naturalist and wildlife photographer who travels the US to study and photograph wildlife. He can be followed on Twitter and Facebook.
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