Best of the Tetons


Wintering Trumpeter Swans Along Flat Creek:

Dependable subjects in Jackson Hole during the long Winter months.

Trio Taking Off

Flat Creek runs along the west side of the National Elk Refuge, through the Town of Jackson and eventually into the Snake River. A few resident Trumpeter Swans make their year around home along it, but beginning in the early part of November and into May, regional Trumpeter Swans also share the valley as their winter home.

On Parade

Each year is completely different. Swans find open water on the Snake River, along Flat Creek, and some of the aerated ponds around the valley. At times, temperatures drop well below freezing for several days in a row. Slow moving Flat Creek can freeze over completely and the Swans are forced to the other areas. They are quick to return once openings reappear following a day or two of warmer temperatures. I normally look forward to shooting opportunities beginning sometime near the end of the first week of November.

In Flight

When conditions are right, Swans fly into Flat Creek from either end of the valley. Of course, they also take off from Flat Creek.

Take Off

It takes a Trumpeter a fair amount of water or ice real estate to fully airborne. They appear at times to dance or walk across the water just before take off.

Water Dancer

Look for the observation deck along Flat Creek a few hundred yards north of the Visitors Center on North Cache. There’s normally room for at least half a dozen photographers at a time.

Ice Skaters

Normally, Trumpeters will move to one end of the creek’s straightaway to begin their take off. They become more vocal and bob their heads in unison for a minute or two before they take off, so you often get a chance to make adjustments in the camera. I like to shoot at 1/800th second or above. That’s not much of a problem during the winter along Flat Creek. They always take off into the wind.


With so many Swans occupying the same areas of the creek, squabbles between families are fairly common.

More action

Loose feathers and occasionally blood can result. I’ve never been able to tell, but I have a feeling some of the action is instigated by the resident pairs trying to protect their area.


Victory celebrations can break out between pairs.


Winter nights can be brutally cold. Especially in the early mornings, swans rest with their beaks tucked between their wings.

Swans and Otter

At any particular time, you might see a few Swans feeding, a few still sleeping, and a one or two looking around if a loud cycle or truck drives by. I took this photo a few years ago, then noticed the River Otter on the distant shore after downloading in to the computer. It is fairly easy to get shots of one or two swans swimming by, preening, or sleeping. Mirror reflections of the same scenes are possible on still days. Once you fill up a few cards with these types of shots, you start looking for opportunities showing behavior and action.

First Stretch

Once the light begins to hit the valley floor, the Trumpeters begin to wake up and become active. It is not uncommon for them to stretch as seen above.


A stretch, or wing flap, almost always follows a period of preening. They often flap right after they get out of the water and on the ice. Biologists might have specific information, but it always appears to me they are doing it to realign and straighten their feathers.

Tight Quarters

Occasionally, the stretch happens in tight quarters. Nearby Swans just duck their heads until all of the action is over.

Another Stretch

I have hundreds of photos of Trumpeters stretching. Some are better than others, of course. I am partial to the back lit shots, as seen in the photo above. Typically, they signal a stretch by projecting their chest as they pull their head back.


The stretching sequence lasts several seconds, and normally includes a two or three each of the wings extended fully forward or back. The two extremes are usually the most dynamic, with various wing positions in between. The image group above shows just a few positions. For Swans, I like to shoot with my Nikon D4. (I’d use a Nikon D4s if I had one!) The images above were taken in 2011 with a Nikon D300 body. A D4 can take around 90, 14-bit images before hitting the buffer. At roughly 10 frames per second, I know I can capture a full 2 to 5 second wing flap. I could capture a full 9 seconds if necessary. The D300 only had a 12 shot buffer (or so) in 12 bit mode. I often filled the buffer before the flap sequence was completed—not a great option if you realize the best stretches (both forward and back) are near the end of the stretching sequence. Shooting at 10 FPS also gives me chances to capture the optimum reaches. Maybe others can do it, and some can get lucky, but I find it close to impossible to time shutter activations to only the best positions. With my D4, I can begin shooting when I see the initial indication, then hold down the shutter release button for the entire sequence. Some people call it “spray and pray”. This is one time I feel good about having that option. A fox or coyote “mousing” is another example of taking advantage of a quick Frames Per Second and a large buffer.


The stretching sequence includes reaches towards the front and also reaches to the back. It is easy to chop off one or the other.

Stretch - Reach

The two shots above were captured near the end of a stretching sequence. By then, the head is lifted high and the wings are fully extended.

Tundra Swan Adult

Most of the Swans you might see on Flat Creek will be Trumpeter Swans, but watch for an occasional Tundra Swan. They have the distinctive yellow patch just in front of their eyes. While I didn’t include them in this post, you can also see and photograph a variety of other waterfowl while photographing Swans. Mallards, Canada Geese, Mergansers, and Golden-Eyes can hang around through parts of the Winter.

Swan Platform

The Observation Platform Along Flat Creek: Sometimes it’s nice to have an idea what the environment looked like as I took many of the images. This platform deck rests close to the water, but elevated about 5 feet above the water. I’d love to be closer to water level, but a fence along the river prevents that from happening. I am wearing my typical mid-winter garb. The hood is up more often than not.

Additional Shooting Notes: Depending on how much open water is available on Flat Creek, it is possible to have Swan action at about any time of the day. That’s not as much of an issue in the Winter with the sun so low in the sky. Unlike many of the game animals in the region, much of the best Swan photography happens in the middle of the day once sun hits the valley floor and before the sun disappears behind East Gros Ventre Butte. Since the area is so close to town, I can stop by when I have to go downtown or after lunch. Exposures can be tricky on some days. A white swan can pass through areas of dark and then immediately into areas of bright water or ice. I tend to underexpose slightly to give me some highlight exposure “elbow room” if the Swan flaps its wings in back light conditions. With all the white snow, ice, and sky, it is possible to get fast shutter speeds and decent depth of field without having to bump the ISO up too much. I also tend to be in Continuous Focus mode most of the time in case birds fly in or out or if a squabble breaks out.

The images on this page were captured over the past few years along Flat Creek. I’ve created two additional pages about valley Trumpeter Swans. Besides the observation platform along Flat Creek, I like to go to Boyle’s Hill for a completely different look. Swans often fly directly towards you on take off there.

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Comments (2)

  1. Maurice Horn

    This is an awesome post, Mike.

  2. Lowell Schechter

    Hi Mike
    wonderful trumpeter Swan images. A lot of times I have a problem photographing white birds because I worry about blowing out the highlights. The birds certainly are beautiful .

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