Again I awaken to a misty morning, and air that smells of rain.
On my drive out this morning I see a red-tailed hawk perched on a big boulder in Little America.
I stop in the Canyon and also at Fishermans to enjoy the morning sounds. I hear coyotes and sand hills and geese. Then I head east to see where the wolf watching will be today. Suddenly I see a line of cars on both sides of Trash Can and about 12 scopes pointed up at the flanks of Druid Peak. The pack must be on the move! I slip into a spot between Bob and Don. I set up as quietly as possible and Don whispers “almost at the ridge line”.
This is all the direction I need and suddenly I have wolves in my scope! In fact, I have 253! Then I see another and another and another. Greys, blacks, collared, un-collared. There are wolves all over the hill!
I see them move in a line and then stop. I count quickly. 3,6,9,10 wolves! They move further up the slope, in groups of two or three. I see one gorgeous sequence of eight wolves in a line, one after the other, trotting along the summit of the ridge, alternately visible and camouflaged against a further sage hill.
Sometimes Limpy is last, sometimes second last. I lose them, find them again, then lose them again. I scan ahead and see the front runners heading over the next ridge top. I watch the stragglers head uphill, pause, sniff, move again and then top the ridge, going over and out of sight.
Ah! That was short but very, very sweet! Most people hop in their cars and head west to the next pullout, hoping for another glimpse. I stay here for a little while, glad to have seen the pack together, on the move with Limpy. I want to take this opportunity to see if 302 is still in the rendesvous. I turn my scope around and look there. Yes! Here he is, with his ever-present buddy; they are nosing around a bare spot. Uh oh! I notice that 302 is limping on his front leg! I wonder how that happened? It doesn‘t look too bad; nothing like the lame grey. But still, it is troubling to see. I wonder if he and 253 got into it last night?
I succumb to the desire to see the pack on a morning hunt. I drive west and stop at Mid Point. In a little while, Don pulls in and takes his little doggie out on his leash for a walk. Then his radio crackles with news from Rick that the Druids are visible again. They have stopped on a hill above the Institute.
We get back our cars and head there.
I park at the end of the pullout, hop out and train my binoculars where Rick is looking, on the hill above and to the right of the corral. I see Limpy right away. Yay! He sits on his haunches with two greys and two blacks, looking downhill at something with apparent interest. I set up Layla and now see them standing on all fours. One wolf starts down the hill at a run and the others follow. Now all five wolves run at speed down the hill. I know I’m going to lose them in an instant but boy do I enjoy it while I see it!
I scan to the left, up, down, all around, to see if I see anything running. Nope.
Because I hiked to the Rose Creek pen in October, I now have a better idea of the lay of the land behind the Institute, and I know there are a dozen hills and valleys back there and plenty of places for elk to hide. We continue to scope the hills looking for movement but see none. Rick checks with his various units but no one sees anything.
Rick moves on and I scope the flats behind me on the river side of the road. I find an antelope family with three fawns! I watch them play; they prong and dart and race each other; it is quite a sight to see!
I drive back east and join Brian C. and a few others at Mid-Point north. I arrive just in time to see a nervous-looking elk cow and yearling calf wander out of view. It starts to drizzle so we cover our scopes but stay outside chatting. A lady Brian knows stops by and shows us a photo she took of 21M about three weeks ago at Round Prairie, when there was an elk kill in the river. A grizzly was on it, none other than the notorious Thumper. This was just before he was trapped and fitted with his undignified orange collar. The shot is terrific, a good close-up of the bear and of 21M. His teeth are bared in a wicked-looking snarl.
We all beg for a copy and the lady takes our info. We start to reminisce about 21 and 42, our favorite sightings of them, what we loved about them. Brian says that he and some friends hiked up to where 42 died and that he left a personal token there in remembrance of her. He says it is a beautiful spot. I tell him I like to think that 21 made it up there before he died.
The rain gets heavier and I pack up. I head west thinking breakfast thoughts but I get the mid-morning sleepies and pull over at the Boulder Pond. I lower my seat back and fall asleep for over an hour! When I wake up the rain has passed and the sun is very warm. I slip out of a few layers and head back to Lamar. The wolfers have disappeared. I go up to Round Prairie and wander around, taking wildflower shots.
I decide to go to Tower to see some black bears. Along the way a little brown mouse scurries across the road!
Just before Calcite Springs I hit a jam for a sow and two cubs of the year. The crowd here is a little over-excited, a harbinger of the summer crowds to come. They slam doors and stop in the road and yell and run. I pull over for a quick look at the bears but all the human activity keeps them in thick cover. So I move on.
I pass a Ranger on her way down to deal with it. I pull in at Calcite, thinking I might walk back with my camera since the bears are fairly close but then a whole string of cars come and I decide to skip it. Across from Calcite are three mule deer in velvet-covered antlers, just sitting in the grass. People who stop for the bears suddenly see these deer. Then two camera-toting tourists leave the road and head toward the animals, even though they are perfectly photographable right from the road. I call out, “Please stay on the road“, but either they don’t hear me or they don’t speak English. The Ranger is in between these two spots and boy does she have her hands full! The deer get up and move into shadow.
I stop at the osprey nest pullout and find an Israeli couple here with their daughter looking at the nest through their binoculars. I focus Layla on the nest and see a beautiful adult osprey with two chicks! They are gawky and scrawny looking, but most baby birds are. I lower the scope so the little girl can look and she announces that she sees three chicks, one is under the mother. The father points out a second adult osprey, perched in tree across canyon. This bird is gorgeous, too. We see him sail into the canyon and then return to his perch but he has nothing in his beak.
I watch the mom and the chicks a while and look at the stunning view of the Yellowstone below, winding past its namesake yellow cliffs in a wide blue curve. On my way back down I see a lone black bear wandering along the far side of Rainy Lake. I pull over and take a few photos. The bear finds a tree to his liking and rubs his itchy back against it. I watch him a while and he draws quite a crowd. Then up into the trees he goes.
Right around the next curve is another black bear, a sow and two cubs. I pull over and watch them cross the road 200 feet ahead right in front of an astonished car of tourists. The land falls away on the south side of the road in a sort of bowl. The cubs run rapidly down this bowl and zip up a tree at the bottom of it. The sow stays on the edge of the bowl, grazing, just about three feet below the road. The car they ran in front of has stopped and I think they are looking at her out their windows. Another car has stopped on the opposite side of this one.
There is no other traffic so I get out and walk across to the south side, to see if I can get a decent photo of the cubs in the tree. The sow is very slowly heading in my direction so I don’t want to move any closer. A Ranger arrives and when he sees how close the sow is to the road he tells the people to return to their cars. I can see that I won’t be able to get the shot I want but I stay a little while, watching the cubs play in the tree.
By now I’m feeling hungry but since I’ve missed breakfast I head to my cabin. I set up my stove on my little porch and boil water. I slurp a delicious meal (hah!) of cheddar cup’o’noodles while a chipmunk eyes me from the lowest step. I am happy to report that my second set of camera batteries is now fully re-charged. I decide to head back up towards Washburn to see if I have any luck finding Agate wolves or grizzlies.
None of the bears I saw on the way down are still in view which sort of surprises me. I figure they may be taking a mid-day nap. When I get near the top a heavy rain comes in and visibility is greatly diminished. So instead I fish out my cell phone and call Frank to make plans to meet after the hike tomorrow.
Once that is arranged I decide to drive the Blacktail road. On my way there I see a lone black bear heading up Jeff’s Hill. I keep driving east and turn into the one-way road. For about the first half-mile I am the only one on this bumpy road. Then I see dust ahead and figure I’ve caught up to someone. But as I round a curve I see a car coming towards me! A big dark SUV, the kind that rides so high it has a running board built-in. There is no way for two cars to pass on this road so I stop. The SUV stops. I get out and walk up to find a pleasant looking older couple inside. I say hi and tell the driver, uh, this is a one-way road. Oh. I’m very sorry but you’re gonna have to back up until you get headed the other direction. Oh. I think there’s a level spot just around this bend where you can do that. OK.
I get back in my car and wait. The man backs up and manages to swing his huge car around in the right direction. I wonder how long they were going the wrong way?
I take my time and give my camera its first workout. Although it is too early for many wildflowers, there is no shortage of beauty in this area. I find larkspur and balsam root and geraniums and all sorts of other flowers whose names I don’t know.
As I wind down the switchbacks I see a big jam below. Most cars are pulled over enough for someone to pass but a few do the wrong thing and just stop where they are. I pull over and get out, but the only things I see moving are people crashing through the underbrush. Then I hear something, a kind of Whining or groaning sound. Up in a tall tree with a sort of witches-broom at the top I see a black bear. She’s making that sound, straddling a space between two large branches, looking down at the humans below. The bear seems very nervous. Two girls near me are pointing and talking about cubs. They must be in the tree, too but I can’t see them. The adult bear’s behavior certainly looks protective to me. And I feel like part of the problem so I get back in the car to move on.
Further down the road I see a couple by themselves crouched at the edge of the road looking back through the woods at the bear. I pull over and walk quietly over to join them. I crouch down, and when I look through my binoculars I see the cubs, about 5 feet above mom, each on a separate branch. Interestingly they are light brown in color, while mom is jet black. She is still making that worried, moaning sound. It upsets me to hear it. I ask this couple if they think the bear is afraid of the people. They nod yes. I ask if they think that’s why she’s in the tree. They say yes.
I finish the drive and get back on the main road but the black bear bonanza continues. As I come down the hill I see cars filling the driveway to the Ranger Station. The bear on Jeff’s Hill is still visible, thrilling the crowd from a nice, safe distance.
It’s a little early for the evening wolf-watching session but I go anyway. I stop at Dorothy’s and catch up on my notes. I also train my scope on some bison calves to watch their behavior. One of my favorite things to see them do is try to figure out how to scratch behind their ear with a hind leg. It goes something like this…
Baby Bison: “Ok, lift the back leg, get it higher, get it closer…oops, better put it down before I fall. OK, leg up, scratch, scratch…why can’t I feel that? Oh, I’m just scratching air. Gotta get it closer! Do I turn my head like this, or like this? Oops, better put the leg down again. Whew, I got dizzy. I think I‘ll run a little bit. OK, this is a better spot. Leg up, ouch! I kicked my nose! Ow! Ow! Better run some more, better shake my head. OK, stop. One more time. Leg up, head back, further back! Scratch, scratch, Ahhhh, ahhhh! That’s it! Ahhhhh! That feels so good! I think I’ll run all the way over here and then back to mom! Hey mom! Hey mom! Didja see me? I scratched behind my ear!”
They are so cute!
I watch the sky darken over Specimen Ridge. There are distant flashes of lighting and some low thunder rumbles. As if in response, a chorus of coyotes begins to wail. They yip and bark and howl and complain their hearts out. They seem to be everywhere at once. It sounds great.
I drive east to see what I will see. Between the Footbridge and Soda Butte Cone I find some cars pulled over and realize I’ve just found Chloe and Becky! I happily join them. They are watching a collared black wolf roam the flats between the road and the river. Chloe tells me she is most likely 375F, the current Druid babysitter. I am a little surprised at how scrawny she looks, but I remember I always think this about wolves in their summer coats.
I see her trot to the river and out of sight. Chloe says there is an old elk kill in that vicinity and she may be grabbing a snack. A little later we see her moving briskly towards the road. She has something dark in her mouth but I can‘t tell what it is. She crosses the road and heads uphill, out of sight. She is almost certainly headed back to the den with whatever she has in her jaws. We pack up and head to the Footbridge, figuring we may have a chance to catch another glimpse of her, or even better, the pups!
We set up at the Footbridge along with several others already here. Yet despite all these eyes and scopes, only one person looks in exactly the right place at exactly the right time. A lady in a pick-up truck facing the hill tells Chloe she just saw the wolf cross the meadow into the den forest. The lady thinks the thing in the wolf’s mouth is…a duck!
I love the idea of this wolf taking a break from her task to go to the river and catch a snack to bring back to her charges. Of course, I think of 21 and how he so often brought toys back to the den. Why, I bet he brought toys to 375 when she was a pup!
We decide to move to Hitching Post and set up on the highest hillock. This pullout draws a large number of newbie wolf-watchers and we have all seen Brian C spend his time here sharing his scope, educating, enlightening and entertaining the crowd. We know he can’t be here this evening so we decide to try filling in for him. We do, with some amusing results.
We catch sight of 302 and Ellis coming towards us from the rendesvous. They stop and howl but we hear no answer from the den. They start moving again and it looks like they are headed for what remains of the old bison carcass in the confluence. Chloe and Becky confide in me the nick-name they have for 302’s little black buddy. Based on his annoying habit of always trying to dominate the Druids he meets, including the poor lame grey, they have decided to call him “Ellis“. Being a lover of nick-names myself I give my full approval. But if you want to know what it stands for, you’ll have to e-mail me. 8~)
People start to arrive and walk out to the hill, asking what we’re seeing. We tell them “wolves” and their faces light up! We let everybody have a look. The wolves begin to feed on the carcass and occasionally chase or scatter the many birds. People come and go all evening; some get great glimpses of wolves in action, others only stay long enough to see ears.
Someone announces that they heard in Silver Gate that a black bear took down a bison a few days ago. We offer our version of the “facts”. There are two couples with scopes to the right of us, watching the same spot we are, who continually refer to “the bear” or “the two bears“. I wonder if the feisty black bear has returned, but, try as I might, I don’t see him. Neither does Becky nor Chloe. We three see 302 and Ellis. We tell the couple that a black bear has been feeding on this carcass over the past few days, but that it’s not out there now. We offer our scopes, but they stick to their story. Oh, well.
Another family arrives with two kids. Chloe and I take turns lowering the scope so they can have a good view. There is one young lad who tries to be cool and act like he isn’t that interested in seeing a wolf. But we say, “yes you are!” and finally he takes a look. You should see the grin that breaks out on his face!
My favorite moment of the night is when The Loud Lady arrives, scope-toting husband in tow. She clears scoping room for them both just by her volume. Before her husband has a chance to stabilize their scope or get it focused, she insists that she look in one of our scopes so she can tell him where to aim it. Chloe does the honors and steps back. The Loud Lady tells us what we are seeing just in case we didn’t know.
The wolves are temporarily bedded so there is nothing to see at the moment. The woman continues to issue orders to her husband. Chloe starts scoping elsewhere and finds a lone black bear out in the sage. Then she swings her scope the other way, onto Mt. Norris, where she finds a lone grizzly on a high green finger. Lots of people want to see the grizzly and a line forms behind Chloe’s scope. There is another funny moment as the Loud Lady tries to cut the line! But as the evening wears on, the Loud Lady gradually tones herself down and eventually becomes a pleasant contributor.
There is a young couple scoping with us who we met earlier watching the babysitter wolf. They are gung-ho about the wolves and are taking a class from Doug Smith while they’re in the Park. I am so glad to meet young people like them; I think they are the hope of the future.
Later in the evening 302 and Ellis get up to feed again. I crank Layla up to 50X and give myself a good close look at 302. One dad waits patiently for his family to look before he takes his own turn. When he finally looks through the scope, I sense disappointment, although he says nothing. I ask him “do you see the wolf?”. He hesitates and then says, “well, I see a dark thing but it’s only a bison“. I figure that the scope got knocked out of focus. I check and see 302‘s black back as he tugs at the carcass. I reduce the power a bit and step back. The man tries again. His demeanor brightens and he turns to say “I saw that before but I thought it looked too big to be a wolf!” I smile. “That‘s a wolf alright. Take another look.” He does. Things like this really make my night. We spend a good three hours doing this and it is very satisfying, although a little draining, too. We have a new appreciation for Brian’s efforts and some funny stories to tell. But now we are starting to lose the light so we look around one last time. Chloe comes up with a black bear sow and two cubs of the year out in the fan. What a great night!
The moon is out and we pack up our scopes and head to the cars. We hang out in the parking lot a while, reluctant to leave. Then a car pulls in with plates we all know well “Wolf 21”. It’s Ranger Bill! I didn’t expect to see him this summer and I learn that he nearly didn’t make it. He’s here with a colleague also named Bill. His job this year will involve a good bit of bear jam management. We talk a while in the dark and I tell him how sorry I am that 21 is not here to be seen.
Then we all head back to our cars and I thank Chloe and Becky for sharing their evening with me. They ask if I’m up for a hike to DP Hill tomorrow and I say sure!
On the drive home, just after I cross the Lamar River bridge, I see a sad sight. It‘s a dead pronghorn on the side of the road, probably hit and killed within the last half-hour. Then I see the lights of an oncoming car and all I can think of is how later tonight predators that come to feed on the pronghorn will be in danger of being struck and killed themselves. When I get to Roosevelt I go straight to the front desk and report what I saw. The guy says he will call a Ranger to move it away from the road.
With that done I head to my cabin. I look at the sky and notice a glow in the west as though the light refuses to give in tonight. I like it. It feels like a reminder to say…
Today I saw: antelope (including four fawns), 12 black bears (including 6 cubs), a grizzly bear, a chipmunk, 3 mule deer, elk, a mouse, 4 osprey (including 2 chicks) bighorn sheep (including two lambs), ground squirrels, 13 wolves (including Druids 253M and 375F as well as 302M and Ellis) and 4 Loons.