An incredibly destructive flood — the kind you might see once in 500 years — tore through Yellowstone National Park a few weeks ago, cutting off access to a wildlife hotspot popular with photographers. The park worked quickly to reopen other areas, but it’s not clear how long it will take to repair or replace roads that reach the Lamar Valley.
So what’s a wildlife photographer to do?
One option is to go to Yellowstone anyway. It’s a big park and there are plenty of places to find wildlife. And communities that depend on tourism will be happy to see you.
Another option is to visit less popular places, especially those close to home. Travel can be addictive and it’s hard not to be inspired in a place as majestic as Yellowstone. But wilderness areas close to home — even neighborhood parks — have a lot to offer. Here are some ideas for exploring the area around you.
A great place to start is along any body of water. Even small neighborhood ponds and creeks can be teeming with wildlife. If you’re after action, you can sometimes see birds of prey, including eagles and osprey, dive for fish. If you’re after cuteness, especially in the early summer you can often find mother ducks and their fluffy ducklings.
Along a larger lake, I got to watch a merganser try to herd 14 ducklings. A couple would ride on her back, more would follow her, and a few would get distracted and explore the lake shore.
I was sympathetic to her plight, but it was entertaining watching them interact and my time with the ducks produced some rewarding photos. I think too often photographers dismiss ducks as mundane subjects. They don’t know what they’re missing.
Neighborhood greenbelts and wooded city parks provide more opportunities. Within a half hour of my house near Seattle there are at least five parks that feature some old-growth trees, each of which has had nesting owls. I’ve had the best luck finding owls by listening for them. They start to get active just before sunset.
This year I got to spend quality time with a family of barred owls, including documenting early flights of two young birds. Since they were close to home, I got to observe them over several weeks, watching them grow and develop.
You might not even have to leave home to observe wildlife. I’ve photographed everything from hawks and woodpeckers to butterflies and dragonflies in my backyard. You don’t even need an especially large yard. I started by letting the grass grow tall in one corner and stopped aggressively pruning. One year, when I was slow to clear a downed branch from my yard, I discovered a pair of songbirds were using it as cover for their nest.
Whether or not you’re planning a big trip this summer, I’ve found it’s worth making time to appreciate the nature close to home. If you’re a photographer, the extra time that you’ll get to spend with your subject will allow you to make more creative images. If you just appreciate nature, the time will give you deeper insight into the animals’ lives, revealing much more than the first impression you might be limited to on a quick tour.