I start my journey around 6 AM. It seems warmer than yesterday. The sky is cloudy and when I reach Mammoth it looks as if all of yesterday’s snow had disappeared!
By the time I get to Tower the skies are clear. The moon is out; a thin, white sliver. That’s nice! It’s colder here - Suzy says it’s 20 degrees and the snow is crunchy and glistening in my headlights. By the time I reach Lamar a lovely sunrise has begun. The undertone is pink but the sky to the west seems a light green/blue. Druid Peak is outlined in cloud and a beautiful fog cloaks the river. Merry Christmas, Lamar!
I see elk on the hills west of the institute and in the hills to the left of Mid Point.
I hear on the radio that Rick has strong signals at Slough Creek but I want to spend the dawn alone in Lamar. I drive to the confluence, park and step out into the marvelously clear, chilly air.
I have the gorgeous confluence all to myself and I make some Christmas wishes, thankful to be able to enjoy such amazing beauty. I see a bald eagle in a different tree than where we had seen one yesterday. I bet it is the same eagle. I walk slowly along the roadside looking for otters and enjoying the sounds of this glorious morning. I see otter tracks in various places. I hear dippers singing and ducks squabbling.
As I turn to walk back, I suddenly see a large, dark bird gliding silently towards me over head. As it passes me it swoops low, aiming for the far riverbank. As it lands, I hear a strange sound and I see another set of wings under its feet and I think for an instant that two birds are mating. Then I realize the dark bird has just grabbed a smaller bird, perhaps a duck or a grouse. The victim bird has gray feathers but that‘s all I can see. It happens very fast. I can’t tell if the sound I heard came from the victim or the raptor. Then I see the large bird pick up its prey and hop up the bank into cover behind a willow. I hear sounds of some kind of tussle going on behind the willow bush.
Two magpies show up. Boy, are they quick! Then I see a large bird fly from the willow area up to a low branch in same tree as the bald eagle. I think there is still something in the willows. I wish I had my scope. I watch a while and see the spot where the kill happened and the left-over feathers. I can’t tell if the bird in the tree with the bald eagle is the same one that made the kill. It doesn’t look quite big enough.
Wow, that was cool!
I head back towards Slough Creek. There are elk in the rendezvous, perhaps some of the same animals that were in the herd I saw at the confluence two days ago. When I get to Slough, Chloe and Rick are already on top of Dave’s Hill and Becky is heading that way. I pack up to follow and smile as a nonchalant coyote crosses the trail right behind her.
When I get up to the top I hear sounds that Chloe tells me are elk calling. I find the wolves they have been watching, the Sloughs, at least some of them, near a bison herd about half-way up the slope. I see 490, 380, 377 and 489. I watch them proceed up a snow-covered hill towards their den area.
As they mill around, we periodically hear a lone howl coming from the right. Chloe finally finds that wolf, a gray. How I wish I knew what that lone gray was saying. (Note: I learn later that this gray is Sharp Right, a gray female yearling.)
I focus back on the Slough leaders at the den area. Suddenly I see one of them smell something on the ground that gets them very excited. Suddenly they are all nose to the ground and tails high. They set off to the west at a run, clearly following a scent trail. Whose scent?
Then we hear from Bob that he sees a wolf running in the flats, a very light-colored gray!
I scope that direction and find what Bob is seeing. A pale gray wolf is running all alone at the base of the hill, heading west and curving slightly towards the road. The gray stops and turns to look back in the Slough‘s direction, then runs again. I see the Slough leaders approach a rocky ridge and disappear over it - only to reappear several hundred feet west and slightly down slope, still running.
After Rick has a look at the running lone gray, he pronounces her the “white wolf“ of the mysterious Round Prairie Pack. Wow! No wolves from that pack have been seen for some time, so this is very interesting. As I focus on her I see a brown mark on her front leg that starts on her shoulder and goes straight down her left front leg, all the way to the paw. My first thought is that it could be blood from a wound on her shoulder. But of course, it could also be mud, or just an unusual marking. The rest of her coat is very pale gray verging on yellowish-white.
Then we see a black wolf running in the same area. Rick thinks for a moment that this could be the alpha male of the Round Prairie Pack but I don’t believe he confirmed that. I can’t help but wonder what these animals are doing in this area and worry that they are going to get into serious trouble with the Sloughs.
The Slough leaders come back into sight on the same hillside, but now they are moving back east. Then we notice a large gray wolf coming down the ridge from above. It joins the Slough leaders. Whoever this wolf is, (491?) it is part of the pack. Then a group of four black wolves comes up from below and joins these five. They make a happy dog pile of wagging tails and nuzzling snouts. Then they howl. The two Round Prairie wolves stop when the Sloughs howl. When I see them next, the white wolf and her black companion have changed direction and are headed almost directly for the road.
I have now seen 10 Sloughs. Rick puts the count at 11 (he always sees more!!!) After their howling session the Sloughs move back up the rocky slope and out of sight.
Before we can catch our breath from this excitement we hear answering howls from the left. Far to the west and way up on Specimen Ridge the sounds of howling come floating across the crisp air. It’s the Agates! Rick finds them first, of course, and we pick them up quickly after. They are moving on a far western slope of Specimen, right smack on the ridge top. I see them moving, um, south? What a sight! Five grays and three blacks. They move across the ridge, in and out of conifers, now running, now walking, now trotting. It is thrilling to see!
We have seen wolves from three separate packs all from the same hill, on Christmas Day. It sounds too good to be true, but of course, this is Yellowstone!
Besides all the wolf activity, I also see several bull elk high up on Specimen Ridge, moving slowly from spot to spot, up to their bellies in snow, seeking a good place to graze. The winter view from Dave’s hill is stunning, with its curving ice-laden river and small frozen ponds and layer after layer of snow-draped hillsides. There are bison all over and several ducks in the few open-water sections of the Lamar.
While this is going on I take out my cell phone and quietly call my two sisters to wish them a Merry Christmas. Unfortunately neither was home at the time but each told me later she enjoyed getting my message. Slough Creek is one of the few areas in the Park where cell phones work!
The Sloughs must be satisfied that the interlopers have gotten the message because they now head back to their den area. Again I enjoy seeing them regroup in a big dog pile of wagging tails. In the meanwhile, the Agates have disappeared over the ridge and the two wolves from the Round Prairie Pack have stopped running and are bedded on a Little America hilltop.
Eventually the Sloughs go back to the den area and bed there. We pack up and head down the hill to our cars.
I follow Chloe and Becky to Aspen where we hop out for a closer view of the White Wolf and her black companion. They are both bedded on a hill and resting fitfully. The white wolf is indeed a beauty. I see her raise her pretty head, sniff and look around in many directions, then lower it to rest on her paws again.
Many tourists stop by to ask what we’re seeing and we happily oblige them with a sight through our scopes. These two wolves are actually close enough to be seen with the naked eye but so well camouflaged we let people look first, then point! Most folks are happy for the sight although a few let their diesels run noisily.
Marlene shows up and so does Ballpark Frank. We chat a while and then decide we ought to head east to try to find the otters again. I’m game and so are Becky and Chloe.
We park at the confluence and Becky decides to take a nap. So Frank, Chloe and I stroll along the roadside, watching the river. We see a bald eagle (probably still the same one) in yet another tree. The confluence is always good for wildlife watching; there is always something to see. We see dippers and ducks and even a stick, wedged in place and coated with an Elizabethan collar of ice, protruding above the water-surface, shivering in the current.
On our way back we see bighorn sheep up on Jackson Grade. First we see a small animal, fat and sleek, probably a yearling lamb. Then we find a second animal, a ram, grazing near the lamb but higher on the slope. Then we see an adult ram with a great big curl resting on a ledge. Only his back and his great horned head are visible.
I tell Frank and Chloe about the “bird murder” I saw this morning and Chloe wants to see if we can find the raptor that did it. We continue walking past our cars to the east along the edge of the road. Chloe scans the trees and sure enough, finds a big dark bird perched on a high branch in a conifer. I can barely see it so I go back to retrieve Layla from my car. Once I have the scope set up I do see the bird Chloe has spotted. It is huge! After much discussion and consultation we pronounce it a golden eagle. Chloe listens to my description and feels that this could very well be the bird I saw this morning.
We also see beaver tracks but no beaver and we explore the river bottoms a few feet from the road, which are pocked with elk and bison prints. The grasses here sticking up above the snow look just like straw.
Then we hear a call from Becky. She sees an otter!
Woo hoo! We tip toe back and look where she looks. There! A dark wet animal is gallumping across the snow-covered river flats. Its arched back gives it away. The otter reaches a crack in the ice, stands a moment, looks at us, then looks around, then dives in. A moment later we see it pop out of another hole. I watch in delight as the otter rubs its whiskers furiously on the ice edge and then dives back under.
After another few minutes it surfaces in a stretch of open water with a fish! It chomps and swallows the fish really fast and dives back in almost instantly. Since so little time passed between the dive and the re-surface, we begin to suspect there may be two otters here, or even three. Then we see one pop up out of the second hole and scamper to a spot by a gravel bar. It stops here and sits to groom itself. I watch it rub its whiskers on the ice, roll, scratch its back and then sit on its butt. It uses its mouth and front paws to groom itself then proves itself even more flexible than a cat when it reaches around and itches the base of its tail with its teeth!
We are just delighted with this sighting and it keeps up for a full half hour. Eventually we see two otters on the surface at the same time. They are so animated, there is something naturally comical about them. While one sits near the farthest hole, a second otter pops his head up from that hole and looks around in a sort of “dum dee dum dum” way. I especially enjoy watching them run across the white flats in their ungainly gait. They are so much fun to watch.
Dan Hartman drives up and stops to watch the otters with us. I ask Dan about the whisker-rubbing thing and he says he thinks they are cleaning off the fish-oil. The sun comes out full and makes the confluence look its wintry best. This is Christmas Afternoon in Yellowstone.
Now the large bighorn ram gets up and walks down below his ledge. His presence is enough to shoo the other two sheep away. Eventually the otters head further upstream and disappear. So we pack up and head back west.
We stop at Aspen and check in with Marlene. The two Round Prairie wolves are still here, bedded on a slightly further hilltop. The Sloughs have been visible in their den area, but moved off to the northwest just a little while before we drove up.
I can’t figure out why the Round Prairie wolves remain in this area, except that perhaps they are between a rock and a hard place: Sloughs on one side, Agates on the other. A parade of bison moves past us while we are scoping and I worry that it is a harbinger of what’s to come on our road back tonight.
We have dinner reservations in Mammoth so we set off to keep them. We get lucky and find the road home to be relatively bison free. We pass the Big Boys at Lava Creek and two bison bulls just below Undine. But they move over to let us pass!
This wonderful Christmas Day ends with Chloe, Becky, Frank and I talking politics and wolves in the Mammoth Dining Room. And we splurge on one of those yummy chocolate mud pot dessert things.
Merry Christmas to all!
Today I saw: bison, 1 coyote, dippers, ducks, a bald eagle, a golden eagle, elk, magpies, 2 otters, 3 bighorn sheep, a trout, 20 wolves (including 10 Sloughs, 8 Agates and 2 Round Prairies), 4 Loons and the spirit of Allison