I’ve been to Yellowstone a few times over the years.
How’s that for an understatement? Okay, more than just a few times. I’m approaching fifty trips out there and can consider myself a part-time resident of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem at this point. So that means I’ve seen it all, right?
Far from it. One thing I love about the park, and other places around the world that are rich in biodiversity, is that I see something new every time I go. Maybe it’s not a new species… it could just be a particular animal in a new place, or new behavior I’ve never witnessed. Yellowstone never fails to bring something new to the table. Just last month, I was excited by some pretty common birds that I’d either never seen in the park before (at least three “new” species) or had never properly photographed (e.g., the Black-billed magpie). So yes, sometimes it’s the little things that get me pumped.
But there are still some big goals left on my Yellowstone wish list. Thirty years after my first visit to the park, and after nearly twenty consecutive years of Yellowstone photo adventures, there are still a few major species I haven’t seen, or haven’t photographed (though I may have photographed them elsewhere). In some cases these are extremely rare animals in the GYE. In other cases, they’re largely nocturnal or maybe I’ve just had bad luck finding them over the years.
My last “major” species I checked off the list was the Short-tailed weasel, and I didn’t even have to venture into the park to get it. It showed up on our cabin porch in Silver Gate one summer day!
Though I had seen a fair number of long-tailed weasels in the park (photographing only a few… these fast little predators are challenging subjects!), this was the first time a short-tailed had graced my presence. In general, it’s these types of smaller, more elusive mammals that remain on my Yellowstone wish list, as you’ll see below, but there are a few exceptions. Let’s start the countdown!
Honorable Mention: Fisher and American Mink
There are a couple of slithery, slimy characters I would love to see and photograph. The prairie rattlesnake is the only park snake species I’ve yet to see. In fact, I’ve never seen a rattlesnake period. They’re found on the far northern edge of the park, but I have yet to track one down. The western tiger salamander is slightly less dangerous, but a unique critter I’d love to photograph. Unfortunately, the only ones I’ve seen were half-eaten by otters. Given their aquatic nature, this is a more challenging subject to track down and photograph (though I know folks who have seen them out on dry land).
Still, neither of those critters will hold a candle to mustelids in my book. I love members of the weasel family, and get excited about photographing any of them in Yellowstone. They’re generally hard to find and difficult to photograph. Two species that I’ve never seen in the park are the fisher and the mink. There are questions as to whether fishers even actually exist in the park. While other mustelids are more prized (like the wolverine), I’ve at least heard of legitimate wolverine sightings. I have no idea when the last time was that a fisher was seen in the park, and its presence there may only be speculative based on a historical range (fishers have been reintroduced in other parks in the west in recent years… could it happen in Yellowstone some day?).
The mink is another mustelid that is a little less mythical than the fisher, but sightings are extremely rare. They tend to hang out in wetland areas, which is part of what makes them difficult to find in the park. I’m rarely even situated in what might be considered ideal mink habitat, so I don’t expect to see one any time soon. At least I have seen and photographed them a few times in other areas, mainly in British Columbia.
10) Northern Raccoon
Yeah, so what if it’s one of the most common and widespread mammals in North America? I have raccoons in my back yard pretty often, but believe it or not, I still don’t have any decent photos of them (though my shots of crab-eating raccoons in Costa Rica are a little better, even they aren’t anything to write home about). Something else that’s a bit strange is that raccoons are somewhat uncommon in Yellowstone. They’re almost never seen there. So the first time I photograph a raccoon in the park, I’ll be doubly happy, seeing a “rare” species there and undoubtedly improving upon my current raccoon photo collection substantially.
For the record, I’ve actually seen three bobcats on Yellowstone trips. Unfortunately, two of those were at night, so photos were impossible. The third—actually the first one I ever saw—was outside the park border on Highway 89. I managed to pull over, but the moment I stepped out of the vehicle to snap a picture it bolted.
In recent years, there have been short stretches in winter when the Madison River turns into a “reliable” spot for bobcats. Unfortunately, I never can get my timing down, usually exploring this area a week early or a week late each time. While many other photographers have had luck with the Madison bobcats, I’m waiting for my first opportunity.
Nonetheless, I’ve actually had my bobcat photo fix. I photographed several in and around Pinnacles National Park in California a couple years ago. So this species isn’t higher on my list… but it would still be nice to get one in a thick winter coat in Yellowstone.
8) Northern Flying Squirrel
Most park regulars are familiar with Yellowstone’s squirrels: the American red, the Unita ground squirrel and the golden-mantled squirrel. What many don’t realize is that there’s a fourth squirrel species that is rarely seen. Mainly because it’s nocturnal. Flying squirrels are almost certainly around us (perhaps even on my property in Silver Gate), but they’re likely to be tucked away inside a tree trunk during daylight hours. So unless you get lucky and run into a flying squirrel with insomnia, or happen to be out walking at night and catch one in your flashlight (remember, of course, that spotlighting animals in the park for photography is illegal), then you probably won’t see this aerial rodent.
7) Striped Skunk
Yes, a skunk! Sure, I’ve seen plenty of dead ones on the highways, especially during the drive south on Highway 89 toward Yellowstone’s north entrance. But I’ve never seen, much less photographed a live one. Every few years, folks report a random daytime skunk sighting in the park (there was one living under the Buffalo Ranch buildings last winter), but like the flying squirrel, skunks are primarily nocturnal, so sightings are rare.
Fortunately, I got my skunk fix in Chile these last couple years, when I photographed the Humboldt’s hog-nosed skunk on a few occasions. But I’m still waiting for my first North American encounter.
Update: Check! In January, 2021, I finally saw my first Yellowstone skunk!
6) Northern Saw-Whet Owl
Probably my favorite owl species. They’re tiny and adorable. The tiny part makes them very hard to find, so very few sightings are reported in the park. The only reason this species isn’t higher on my list is because I have seen it a few times. Though I’m still hoping for better images, I at least have a few photos from Canada.
5) American Porcupine
I’ve only seen one porcupine in all my years exploring the park. The encounter occurred during my second trip ever, in the late 90s. And of course it was at night. We caught a brief glimpse of the porky in the headlights as it was ambling along the road. This rodent is nocturnal, but it’s large and somewhat unique, which places it high on my list. People sometimes get lucky and find them walking around during the day (most daytime sightings involve one sleeping in a tree), but I’m still waiting for my first good photo ops.
The last couple years I’ve seen several porcupines in eastern Idaho, outside the park, but they’ve all been resting in pretty thick foliage, making clear shots hard to come by. This is my best photo to date.
4) Boreal Owl
The top bird on my list. Of course it’s an owl. But it’s also a species I’ve never seen anywhere. I do love owls, so any first sighting (and photo opportunity) is bound to be special. The Boreal is pretty tiny, like its cousin the Northern saw-whet, so finding one in the thick forests it calls home remains quite a challenge. I’ll probably need some help in the form of other alarm-calling birds (a great way to find owls) if I ever hope to see one in Yellowstone.
3) Mountain Lion
I’ve seen a lot of cougars in the last decade, including three different subspecies from the Rockies to Costa Rica to Patagonia. But I’ve only seen one North American mountain lion (in Utah), and have never seen one in the park.
They pop up in Yellowstone from time to time. Recent sightings have usually been through a scope, but sometimes they cross the road in front of vehicles along the northern range. In the past dozen years or so, there have only been two instances I can think of when a lion provided an extended photo op for photographers.
After attending a recent lecture on Yellowstone’s cougar population, I know the odds remain slim (though not the slimmest of Yellowstone’s cat species) given that there are only a couple dozen individuals estimated to live in the park. So it would still be extremely special to see my first, and to get pictures.
There are two species I consider to be the “Holy Grail” of Yellowstone wildlife… probably the two most elusive large predators reported in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. I’ve never seen either one in the wild anywhere, and chances are I will never see them in the park.
One is the wolverine. Again, I love mustelids, so of course this would be high on my list. But the wolverine has become almost a mythological creature in some places in North America. They are actually seen on occasion in Glacier National Park, and I know at least two people that have seen wild wolverines in Alaska. And of course, anyone can get wolverine photos at the baited hides in Finland. But Yellowstone is another matter. Legitimate sightings of the Glutton in Yellowstone are extremely rare. That’s not to say encounters aren’t reported each year. I recall one year when at least four different wolverine sightings popped up in the GYE. One was even confirmed by a ranger… except that it was actually melanistic marmot in the Tetons. Most of the other sightings were marmots too. One was a wet badger.
So yeah, they’re reported, and the few verified sightings prove that they are around (usually up on the high peaks in the park periphery), but I have yet to see a photo of a wolverine taken in the park. So there’s a goal to strive for…
1) Canada Lynx
So what’s the other Holy Grail Species? The lynx! Unlike the wolverine, Yellowstone lynx photos have made the rounds in the last decade or so. Twice, that I can recall. If the information I read in an article accompanying one of the sightings is correct, fewer than ten lynx have been photographed in the park since 1970.
And maybe that’s why it’s my number one. Any Yellowstone cat sighting is special, but to be one of ten people to ever get pictures of this species in the past fifty years would be an amazing accomplishment. No, I don’t expect it to happen, but they have been seen near the northeast entrance, where I drive in and out each day from my property… so you know I’m keeping one eye on the woods as I drive through.
In terms of my worldwide wishlist, the lynx is also number one, since I have an affinity for wild cats and have never seen this species. There are other places in North America where sightings are more reliable (though not necessarily common), and I may make the pilgrimage some day soon. In the meantime, I’ll have to live vicariously through the sightings friends and peers have had in the upper midwest recently.
Update: In early 2020 I finally landed my first wild lynx sightings, but I had to travel to Canada to do so. Still waiting for better photo ops too.