I wake to a beautiful morning.
There is frost in the high meadows, looking like icing on a cake. The cliffs of Abiathar are tipped with gold and the top of Baronette is painted a beautiful warm pink. I look forward to a leisurely day of wildlife watching.
My first stop is Round Prairie where I enjoy the birds all around me, singing like crazy. It’s so good to be here. I see no Druids, though, and my radio is silent.
There are plenty of bison in the valley and a large herd of the shaggy beasts graze the watery flats at the confluence. Then I turn the corner into Lamar proper and see a gorgeous fog hugging the river, cloaking the banks. I realize this will make spotting harder, but it is so beautiful I don’t mind it. As I approach Dorothy’s, I hear muted talk on the radio but no-one has any wolves in sight.
Despite this, Dorothy’s is jammed-full of cars, so I drive on to B&B (some call this Coyote Overlook). I set up Layla on the western end of the pullout and start to scope Jasper Bench. I begin in the area where I saw the Unknowns yesterday. Nothing moving there except more bison. I scan steadily west along the bench. Wisps of drifting fog make the trees misty. I see some shapes beneath a single conifer, near its trunk; two bison, resting under the boughs, heads low. The fog makes their coloring look a little odd, and they seem to be missing horns.
I am just about to step away from my scope to ask the person next to me if she notices those horn-less bison when ‘half‘ of one ‘bison‘ stands up and stretches! It’s a wolf! Hah! Each ‘bison‘ I saw was actually a pair of wolves, bedded together; the one higher on the hill looked like the ‘hump“. Silly Wendy!
Another wolf moves, and then another. There are five of them; four blacks and a gray. I reach for my radio. “Unit One, this is 35“ and relay the spot to Rick. It is pure luck that I just happened to be looking right at it when the wolf moved, but it is a very satisfying feeling to be the first to find them. And it makes Rick very happy when two pullouts full of early risers have their efforts so rewarded.
Laurie comes over and we chat. She confirms that these five are all from the Unknown Pack; four yearlings and one adult. This is a relatively close sighting of these still-mysterious wolves so I do my best to study them while I have a chance. Two of the blacks are chocolate colored; another is standard black and the fourth is a gray. The adult, which I learn is the alpha female, is the most distinctive. She has a dark face and dark legs but the rest of her body is lighter, with some gray mixed into the black.
One of the chocolate yearlings gets up and starts to stalk a lone pronghorn walking nearby. Most observers find this quite amusing, knowing an exercise in futility when they see one. The brash yearling charges forward, the pronghorn bolts in response and the chase is on! The pronghorn runs easily and steers towards a small group of its own kind, higher on the hill. This group “panics” and dashes off, which probably thrills the chocolate yearling to no end! The running herd seems to excite the other three yearling wolves. They all move up the hill to watch the chase. Then the antelope herd wheels and heads back down the slope, straight toward the group of wolves. Instantly the yearlings drop into stalking posture. As the herd approaches they all take off!
The alpha female, older and wiser, remains bedded by the tree, and if she could roll her eyes, she would.
The antelope avoid the oncoming yearlings with a quick group swerve uphill, and the gap between wolves and antelope widens. After a minute or so more the wolves give up. They re-group and come bounding back down to the lone tree and the waiting alpha female, wagging their tails, prancing and bouncing in a grand display of youthful exuberance. You’d never know their “chase” was a failure! It cracks me up. I can almost hear them boasting “Didya see me? I almost caught that one! Did ya see me?“
The alpha female yawns and stretches, seemingly un-impressed. The light gray yearling seems extra solicitous of her, nuzzling repeatedly and bending low on her tummy. Laurie says this could be an indication that the gray is a female.
The yearlings settle back down and bed. A black bear appears on the eastern end of Jasper Bench, about a mile east of where Chief and I saw him last night. Probably the same bear. He isn’t out very long, though, and soon disappears into the Amethyst drainage. The fog has burned off and the day promises to be quite warm.
A grizzly is spotted way, way, way up on a snowy slope. I have trouble finding him and by the time I do, he is just about to top out. Yep. There he goes!
I look back at the wolves and see they have gotten up again. Hey, this looks like it could be a rally. The yearlings gather around the alpha and they begin to howl! Woo hoo! This is the first howling session I’ve heard on this trip.
Some of them stand on all fours and some sit on their haunches, but every muzzle is in the air. Then, to my delight, there is an answering howl from the hills behind us, to the north. A lone voice. A few of the yearlings move uphill and re-bed in the sage. They howl again, and again a lone voice answers. This goes on for about a half-hour, with one or more wolves howling the whole time.
Someone up on Cardiac spots the lone howler from a distance; a collared gray. Most likely this is the alpha male of the Unknowns. Hmmm, they could be moving soon. And no sooner do I think this but the alpha female leads the group higher on the hill and then I see her set off at a determined trot to the west. It seems to me that wolves have several ways of traveling. Some are casual, some are serious. This one looks serious, as if she knows exactly where she is going and will keep going until she gets there.
I lose the group in timber at the top of Jasper, aiming in the general direction of Crystal Creek.
I chat with a “bear guy” I recognize from past trips who tells me he’s noticed the change in elk behavior since the return of the wolves. I ask him if he thinks the elk are in trouble, will the wolves kill so many of them that they will disappear from the Park? He looks at me like I’m crazy. He says “just cuz you can’t see ‘em doesn’t mean they ain’t there.” I smile and tell him I agree with him but that I know someone who doesn’t. LOL
I decide to head to Trash Can to see if I can find the coyote den Laurie told me about. I do! It can be seen from the Picnic pullout or from the little hill north of Trash can. That’s where I am now, training Layla on a spot of excavated earth about half-way up a sage slope. First I see only one bold pup sitting on the “porch” of the den. Oh! How cute is that?
Then a full-on show of Coyote Cuteness begins. One, two, three more pups pop out of the den opening. First they look straight ahead, sniffing, then one reaches up and bites the ear of the one next to him, then that one turns and jumps on the first, knocking him down and they wrestle, rolling down the lip of the den. A fifth pup comes out to join the fun!
They seem less interested in exploring their home than in exploring each other - mostly they seem to want to bite and jump on a brother or sister. At the sound of a car door slamming all five dash back to the den and disappear inside. Wow.
After a minute or so, the pups come back out and line up right outside the den opening. One of them stands on his hind legs so he can rest his two front paws on his brother’s shoulders as if he is trying to “pin” him. I watch the pups a good half hour from this spot. I suppose since I don’t have wolf pups to peek at, these little darlings are filling that bill.
I am a little concerned that I don’t see any adults, but then again, maybe they are close by and I just can’t see them. I would estimate that these pups are about two months old, still highly vulnerable to a variety of predators. But they also seem pretty wary on their own. Every time a car door slams they dash back inside the den. Then after a minute or two, one will poke his head out, then another and another, and then they all come back out and start to play again.
I turn my scope toward the river and watch the group of elk mothers and their calves. One calf nurses while two others test their legs. It’s been such a long time since I’ve been in the Park during springtime. I just love seeing all the babies. I move to Dorothy’s for a closer look at the elk calves. Then I notice a small herd of bison on the far side of the river, moving quickly downhill. Hmmm. I think they are going to cross the river.
The Lamar looks deep and fast to me, and I worry for the tiny calves. I would have thought a bison mother would place herself downstream of her little one to prevent its being swept away. But in fact, the opposite occurs. Each bison mom enters the river with her calf on the downstream side, and they move through shallow water together with just the barest hesitation upon entering the deep channel.
As the adult bison begins to swim, the current pulls her in a diagonal line toward the shore. Her calf swims too, and only its little orange head pokes above the water. The current is strong but the calf is not helpless against it. It swims strongly, making steady progress in a long diagonal. The adult crosses quickly to the shallows where she stops and turns toward the calf, no doubt calling to it. The calf keeps its eyes and ears trained on mom and keeps on swimming, drawn powerfully to the sound and sight of its mother. Even as it is pulled further away from the adult, the calf never stops making headway.
My heart is in my throat, until finally the calf's tiny legs touch bottom, and it heaves itself through chest-deep water in mighty lunges. Heave, heave, heave, each full-body effort achieves slightly shallower water. And the less deep the water, the less drag the calf must fight, so the faster and farther it moves. Finally it reaches ankle deep water and the calf accelerates, splashing the rest of the way to momma’s side.
After a moment of calm reassurance, each pair moves together up the bank. The little ones shake off and then go galloping, sprinting or kicking in triumph. Then they settle down to nurse or graze or collapse in a heap for a nap.
I move down to Slough and find Calvin and Lynette. They say the five Unknowns did appear on this side near the Crystal drainage, but they are not visible now. I wonder if I might get a better angle from Long pullout, so I go there. Boy, has it gotten hot! I change into cooler clothes, glass the hillsides and see lots of bison and a couple of folks hiking up the Specimen Ridge trail. I don’t find the wolves, and given how hot it is, I figure they are bedded under cool branches.
It’s still early, though, so I think I might try to catch the Rosie bear and her cubs. This proves to be a good decision. But before I get there, I watch a different black bear wandering between the Roosevelt cabins and the Ranger Station. It has drawn a huge crowd. I watch him for a while and then head up the road.
I park at Calcite and walk to the next pullout where I find today’s show in full swing. The Ranger in charge is a burly guy with a beard whom I recognize from the Old Faithful visitor center. I hear him tell a visitor that this assignment is considered a “promotion”.
This year‘s Rosie bear is going about her business on the hill opposite the pullout, grazing, grubbing and occasionally sniffing. Her two cubs, both black, have no interest in food and are seemingly on a quest to wear themselves out. I first see them racing each other through the grass and around the trunk of a large tree. One catches the other and they roll in several somersaults, biting and grappling and wrestling so vigorously I laugh out loud.
Then, as Rosie wanders through a patch of sun to a tasty looking group of plants, the two cubs gallop straight up a huge tree. Man! They climb up SO FAST and SO HIGH you‘d think they have wings! I think they are 30 feet off the ground! Cameras click all around me.
A woman says she wishes she had half of their energy! Oh how true!
The cubs are in a big Douglas fir, about five feet apart. The higher one starts to climb back down, butt first, raining bits of bark on his brother’s head. The lower cub finds some protection from the barrage by scrambling onto a pair of short branches growing out from the trunk, thick with needles. He scuttles around in these branches a while until his brother backs down right on top of him.
Now they wrestle each other in this precarious (to me!) spot, grabbing and scraping at each other, and at various times hanging from branches, sometimes with just one paw like little monkeys, which draws gasps from the crowd. In between fighting, they also nibble on the needles, or at least taste them. It goes on like this for a good 15-20 minutes with only the barest of pauses for breath.
Then suddenly they’ve had enough of this tree. The little fuzz balls start to back down the full length of the trunk, leg by leg, paw by paw, very, very carefully. Carefully, that is, until they get about 5 feet from the ground, where they seem to abruptly run out of patience. The cub just lets go and drops PLOP down, disappearing into high grass below. In another second he is up and racing across the grass, tumbling headlong into mom.
The second cub drops from the tree in the same manner and also gallops right into mom. Now we see them sprint across the grass to the next tree. This time they choose an extremely skinny aspen - a trunk perhaps only 3 inches in diameter. They are at the top lickety-split and the tree begins to sway with their weight. When the cubs find this tree is all trunk and no branches, they back down quite quickly. Again, they seem to use a great deal of caution in their backwards descent until about five feet they PLOP to the ground. Next they go dashing over fallen logs.
Then one cub runs to Mom and tries chewing on her. Mom responds playfully and the two of them roughhouse for a while. She flips the cub on its back which the cub seems to love. Then cub # 2 comes galloping over. Mom rolls away from the first one and flips the second cub on its back and wrestles with it. Now both cubs attack mom. She indulges them a while and then moves away. The cubs, undaunted, dash headlong for the next tree.
It’s an idyllic sighting, but it actually wears me out watching them!
Our Ranger can never rest either. Cars periodically stop in the road to take photos, unmindful of how their vehicle blocks the view of everyone in the pullout.
The Ranger is quick to suggest options that help keep the cars moving. Every once in a while a visitor will walk into the road to “get a better shot” until he is stopped by the Ranger. One belligerent fellow, upset because he can't find room to park just gets out of his SUV and marches in front of it with his camcorder, blocking both lanes of traffic, and all of us! The Ranger has to get quite stern with him, blocking the lens with his hand and raising his voice. The rest of us are on the verge of adding our support but luckily, the belligerent man backs off.
I notice a fellow in the pullout with his scope trained on a spot opposite the bears, on the cliffs above the Yellowstone. I ask if he sees a nest and he says yes, sort of, peregrine falcons. He lets me look and I FINALLY see what people have been mentioning to me all these years. I see a shallow ledge within the cliff and right on this ledge are three falcon chicks! There is barely any “nest” at all - no sticks or twigs or leaf-litter padding, just a few scattered downy feathers. The chicks look scrawny and forlorn, except for those formidable beaks.
For years when people mentioned seeing “the peregrine nest” I thought they meant the osprey nest visible from a pullout further south, closer to the Tower store. But now I know the difference.
Note: This pullout will also now be known, sadly, as the spot where a mother & teacher from Michigan lost her life in a tragic fall about two weeks after my visit. When I heard this horrible story, I remembered the day I was watching the Rosie cubs, and specifically that I saw several visitors climb up on the stone wall border and walk along it in order to see over the heads of people in the pullout, or to get shots of the bears. I was quite concerned that they were not paying attention to what might happen should they lose their footing. I don’t know if this is actually what happened to the poor woman, but it seems likely to me. My heart goes out to her family.
Eventually Rosie and her cubs move out of view so I move on. My next stop is the osprey nest pullout. I find one adult on it when I arrive, and while I am watching, the second adult flies in! The nesting adult stands up and to my delight I see three speckled eggs! Also, I notice a significant size difference between the adults: the one that had been nesting is larger. I love seeing this bird’s pantaloon leg feathers and wow, what powerful-looking talons!
The smaller one stands at the edge of the nest and lowers its head. It’s turning the eggs with its beak! Gently, gently. The larger one moves to the other side and begins some nest-mending. It picks up a large twig and tucks it into a slightly different place. The smaller bird now stands over the eggs. The large one flies off, and the small one settles its feathered body over the eggs until they are hidden again.
Next I head to Floating Island Lake to see the sand hill cranes. I have heard they have abandoned the usual nest but are still in the area. I find the empty nest but not the cranes. I spot another nest with a Canada goose sitting on it, and a third nest with a mallard on it. Hmmm. Then finally between the lake and the talus slope I see the distinctive head of a sand hill. And there's the other! They are feeding on a narrow strip of land full of high grass. They may have chicks at their feet but the grass is so thick it hides them completely.
There are also two little mule deer grazing on the far side of the lake, a buck and a doe. Sweet! This pullout also offers an excellent view of yellow headed blackbirds, which perch among the reeds that circle this pond. Today I see two of them. I can never get enough of their strange squeaky-hinge call.
And finally I watch a lone bison come down for a drink. He steps into thick mud, sinks in up to his knees and lowers his heavy, shaggy head to lap up the pooled water. When he’s finished, he has some trouble pulling his feet back out. I worry for a moment that he will remain stuck, but he manages to yank himself out of the muck and plods away with a grunt.
It has become a quintessential Yellowstone day: bright blue cloudless sky, hot sun, cool breeze. My hankering to see the Druids is growing, though, so I decide to head back Round Prairie way. Maybe I‘ll take a nap in that area and just hang out until Rick comes down for the evening session.
I have a leisurely drive through all my favorite places and eventually find myself the only car at Pebble Creek. The campground is not yet open so it’s very quiet. I take a delicious two hour nap, lulled to sleep by the rushing water.
Once I rouse myself awake I decide to explore the campground. It looks like it’s been underwater. I see left-over debris from rushing water and a web of now-dry water channels. The creek is full to the brim but running pretty clear today. I can see multi-colored pebbles beneath the inviting water. I step in to cool my feet for a moment. Ahhhhhh!
Then I head over to glass Round Prairie, hoping to will the Druids into view. I have daydream fantasies of their coming out from the trees, with pups, of course, romping and cavorting. But they don’t. LOL.
Welp, if I can’t see Druid pups I’ll try the next best thing. Coyote pups! I set up at Picnic, right in the pullout and find the den quickly. A family from Oregon stops by and I show them the pups. They love it! There are two adults with the pups at the moment, including the mother. She trots downhill, stops just to the side of the den and nurses her babes standing up, in the wild-dog way. She looks around the whole time, checking, checking.
Once they are finished nursing the other adult starts to wrestle with them. The pups love it. Mom moves a few feet away and lies down to rest on her side. One pup comes up to her and she puts a front paw over it, pinning it, and licks it all over. The pup squirms all around trying to get away, reminding me of a human youngster at bath time!
I hear a shout from the far end of the pullout. Someone has spotted a grizzly way up above the coyotes. Wow. Cool! I take a break from the puppies and watch the big bear for a while - only a while, since he tops out quickly. Nice! Thanks for the spot!
Watching the coyote pups is supposed to alleviate my wish to see Druids, but it has the opposite effect! So soon I am driving east again, back to Round Prairie. I stop just west of Trout Lake to see if I can find the other coyote den I’ve been told about.
I scan the sage slopes, looking for the disturbed earth sign of a den. Suddenly I see something white and wonder if it might be a piece of old hide left near the den. As I stare at it, the something white grows legs and a face - dark round eyes looking right at me. It’s a mule deer, in fact three of them, lined up in a row, faces turned back, staring me down. Three faces, three backs, three sets of legs and three white rump patches.
I move on to Round Prairie where I find Anne, Laurie, Calvin and Lynette. I can tell from their posture that they are not seeing the Druids. It’s a beautiful evening, though, despite a few skeeters.
In truth, we do see a fair number of other critters from this spot. On a high slope to the east, Calvin finds some bighorns. I train Layla on them and see five in all, two with large curls. Suddenly these two rams do something I have only seen on TV nature shows. They bash heads! Wow, that is cool. They only do it once and again, it is just my luck to be looking at the right time.
I watch them head further east, and notice that one of the rams is a little higher on the slope than the other. I wonder if this means he “won”? They all go back to grazing and it seems that whatever set them against each other a moment ago has passed.
On the cliffs rising in front of us we see a lone mountain goat, nibbling the green that grows high on the slope. Then Lynette finds something she thinks might be a mountain lion den. It’s a sort of shallow cave with a boulder in the middle and something nearby that looks like fur. Our Druid-starved imaginations are working overtime tonight and we propose that the “fur thing” could be the remains of a carcass some big cat dragged there. We imagine him up there in the shadows, long tail twitching, waiting for darkness.
As the light begins to fail an elk cow appears at the edge of the meadow and we begin to hope she will draw out the Druid adults that we just KNOW are lurking back there in the trees. But then another elk emerges and another and another, until there are four elk in the meadow, grazing contentedly. It's a very pretty sight but I guess the Druids are just not at home.
At 9:30 I head back to Silver Gate. A bright half-moon hangs over Barronette and in the meadows of Warm Creek more elk are grazing. Ah me. Beauty everywhere you look. Goodnight, Yellowstone.
Today I saw: antelope, 5 black bears (3 adults and 2 cubs) 2 grizzly bears, 2 yellow-headed blackbirds, bison and bisonettes, 6 coyotes (2 adults and 5 pups), 5 sand hill cranes, lots of mule deer, a bald eagle, elk and elk calves, 3 peregrine falcon chicks, 2 geese, a mountain goat, 2 mallards, 2 osprey (and one osprey egg), ravens, 7 bighorn sheep, 5 wolves of the Unknown Pack, 1 Loon (Hellroaring Kat) and the spirit of Allison