500mm, amazement, awe, big horn sheep, borrowing a lens, Bozeman Camera and Repair, carcass, coyote, difficult circumstances, feeling discouraged, frustration, hunting, in the wild, kill, lamb, low light, my travels to national parks, national park, national parks traveler, nature photography, once-in-a-lifetime moment, photography, story, travel, true wildlife story, wildlife, wildlife photography, winter, writer, Yellowstone
When I made the decision to spend the Winter in Yellowstone, it was with dreams of capturing the perfect wildlife moment. In my imagination I saw wolves hunting in perfect light. After all, my main goal for spending the coldest season in the park was to learn about and photograph the wolves.
I have now been at Yellowstone for a little more than three months, since October 7, and have spent a lot of time looking for that moment while photographing whatever else has come my way. Must say that the lack of wildlife sightings, wolves in particular, that are most likely due to a mild winter with little snowfall, have been disappointing. But, still, I am here and have discovered that there is no other place that I would like to be.
About two weeks ago I took my camera to Bozeman Camera and Repair to have the sensor cleaned. While there the most helpful staff put a D600 on a 500mm ƒ4 lens and put the set up on a tripod and told me to play. Big mistake for me to see what life is like with a “real” wildlife lens. Life through that lens definitely looks brighter and closer. Total cost, without the camera body, a little less than $10,000.
To my amazement I took that lens home with me that day, mine to use for a week. My first shooting opportunity was of a golden eagle in flight and afterwards, while driving down the road, I kept saying out loud, “That was fun.” It was the first time that I had felt like a real photographer.
A couple of days later and I have spent about $100 in gas and explored the park from sun up to sundown and not had many opportunities. Over and over I repeated, “Wolf, fox, ermine.” Thought that if I put the vibes out there that the moment would materialize.
I put the snowshoes on, put the heavy camera and lens on the tripod and slung everything over my shoulders and went for a hike. The extra weight made me clumsy and I had to take a crash course on safely (for the camera and myself) hiking in deep snow without any unfortunate circumstances. I hiked and spent over an hour in 4 degree weather, sitting up on a carcass and hoping for birds or anything to shoot. Nothing.
The only thing worse than not having the proper lens for what I do is to have the lens for a defined period of time and not be able to find anything to shoot. I felt like this was my one chance to prove that my photography was worthy of better equipment.
I got into the car and left Baronette, where I had been hiking, and drove West. The frustration mounted and tears threatened to dampen my face. Everything felt wrong and I truly began to feel like this photography journey was not right for me. I was putting in the time, freezing my butt off, but nothing was happening, despite all of the effort that I could manage. Don’t laugh, I am not the only one who has had moments like this – maybe the only one who is foolish to write about them…
I drove out to Little America, the area between Tower and Lamar Canyon, and checked my email and voicemail, getting some news that did not cheer me up in the least. For some reason I turned around and drove back to the east.
It was late afternoon, dark and snowing with low fog obscuring the views. I drove only a short ways when, like right out of a movie, a big horn lamb appeared on the horizon. What the…? Big horns are never seen down in this area. The lamb crossed the road and continued along the ridge of a small hill. Not far behind was a coyote. Honestly, I could not believe the scene.
I stopped in the middle of the road, opened the window, grabbed the bean bag and plopped it onto the window sill and then grabbed the camera that already had the 500mm attached. Boy was I wishing that I had not taken the 1.4 teleconverter off that morning. The angle of the road and the car made it impossible to get the big lens past the rearview mirror and handholding or getting the tripod out was not an option. I rearranged the car slightly, without being in the other lane, flipped the mirror in, turned the camera to single point focus, upped the ISO to compensate for the low light, found my target and began shooting.
It was a miracle, given the low light, distance and pace of the action, that I could get any focus at all.
The lamb only ran a short distance more before it turned to face the coyote.
The coyote leaped forward and grabbed the lamb by the muzzle.
Honestly, I did not know what to think. When the action is happening I am trained to shoot and that is what I did.
Oh, there were thoughts like, “I can’t believe this is happening,” and “Why am I not freaked out by this scene?”
I came to Yellowstone knowing that I would witness survival and death during the park’s harshest season, and would learn to accept that as the way life was – not only in the wild but in the human world also. Every adventure that I have taken since this full-time travel began has resulted in big learning experiences that have begun to teach me to take the world for what it truly is, good or bad.
Once the coyote bit the lamb’s muzzle, in a last ditch effort to get away, the lamb turned to run once again but this time the coyote was at its side.
The coyote grabbed the lamb’s neck and began to guide it down the hill, closer to me. Honestly, much of what I tell you comes from the series of photos that I took because it was impossible to digest everything that was going on. But, I remember clearly when the coyote lost its grip for just a moment.
I remember because this is when, for just a second, I had the urge to jump out and scream at the coyote. But just as quickly as that thought came in I knew that interfering with nature would be worse than letting it happen naturally. I sensed that the lamb had already suffered enough and it was best for this ordeal to end. And so I kept shooting but will spare you the shots that followed to the death of the lamb.
My photos show that both the coyote and lamb were tired during the chase and after the kill was complete, the coyote chased away a magpie, stared a me for a few minutes and then curled up to take a nap before enjoying its meal. I stayed and watched, utterly fascinated by the course of events.
I am not sure how long the coyote slept or how long that it spent eating. By this time, actually right after the chase ended, I had put the Nikon 1.4 teleconverter on the lens in order to pick up more of the details of the scene.
At some point, after rolling in the snow to clean itself up and to celebrate its victory, the coyote left, looking back over its shoulder several times.
By this time a golden eagle had flown in and was waiting patiently. The golden was soon followed by a few other goldens, a mature bald and an immature bald, along with ravens and magpies. Within seconds of the coyote’s departure the first golden eagle swooped in to eat.
After a short while a bald eagle decided it was its turn. I wondered how this would play out and am happy to say that the bald was the boss because the golden did not waste much time getting out of the way.
The immature bald eagle was the most tenacious of them all – quite a beautiful bird – and the most fun to watch. In this shot it was chasing after a raven with some food in its beak. The raven dropped its treasure and the immature swooped in and ate.
Over the course of time, as it quit snowing and started again, as the light got better and got worse, and then finally as it grew dark, four more coyotes showed up, along with more eagles than I could keep track of and their ever present shadows, the magpies and ravens. No wolves came along while I was watching.
I eventually left, driving home in the dark. The scene played out before me time and time again. The idea that a coyote was powerful enough to take a big horn lamb down by itself was incomprehensible. The fact that I had been the only witness to the entire scene was baffling but reassured me that, for whatever reason, I was in exactly the right place, at the right time, doing the right thing.
Because of the weather with the snow and fog, the photos are not the greatest but they tell the story of the kill and they tell the story that, given the proper equipment, I am a true wildlife photographer.
Afterwards, as I recalled the story, the question was, “What was the lamb doing there?” I won’t ever know the answer to that but suspected at the time that the lamb was not well and that the coyote selected it for that reason. Just as I was beginning to work on my column for National Parks Traveler and to write this blog post, someone forwarded an article about how some of the big horn sheep in this area have pneumonia. Was this the reason the coyote was able to kill the lamb?
Will I ever know?
Several days afterwards, I put on the snowshoes and hiked out to the lamb’s carcass where there were all kinds of animal prints, ones that I did not expect to see. The lamb felt like mine, somehow…
NOTE: Needing better equipment has finally motivated me to get set up to sell my photos. You can order directly through me by contacting me at firstname.lastname@example.org or by ordering at these two sites: