When I wake up and look out the window I see a billion stars! It's 44 degrees at 5:13AM
Everything is quiet. I had hoped to hear the Canyon wolves howling last night or this morning, but it was quiet. As I drive out, I notice the eastern horizon is brightening - but it seems too soon for first light. And then I squee with delight as a crescent moon pops out from behind Mt. Everts! What a bright beauty she is, too!
As I make my way through the Blacktail Plateau the temperature drops to 33 and I see much more snow. I pull into Hellroaring and see a bright, reddish star has joined the moon, just to its left. I'm pretty sure it's Venus although I find the reddish tint unusual.
I listen to the bird chorus that precedes the sun. It feels wonderful to be out here again, seeing and smelling the nature.
I continue east as the dawn brightens, through Tower Junction and into Little America. At Aspen pullout an elk appears in the road. I slow down and he crosses, a pedestal bull. Then a second elk appears, this one with a full rack - I mean last year's rack. This bull crosses the road at a trot, then leaps effortlessly up the slope and lopes away after the first elk.
As I enter Lamar I look down at the river and see lots of snow still clinging to the rocks on both banks. The snow is very deep on the banks, still. In fact there is still quite a lot of snow covering the valley floor.
I must confess to being a bit worried about the Druids. I heard from Frank that the Mollie Pack was seen smack in the middle of Druid territory a few days ago, within easy reach of the Druid den. I knew that the Druids are using the traditional den area this year - the one in the forested area north of Footbridge pullout. The two packs are usually quite aggressive to each other, and since Druid alpha female 569 has most likely already given birth, I am concerned that her pups may be in danger. Of course, any Mollie wolf would have to get by the formidable Druid alpha male, 480, but what if he had been away when the Mollies came to call?
So it is with some trepedation that I continue into the heart of Druid territory, to learn the truth, whatever it is.
At Footbridge I see a familiar group of wolf-watchers: Laurie & Dan, Rick, Cliff, and Bob L. I find out, to my delight, that the Druids are fine. Whew! Whatever may have happened while the Mollies were here does not seem to have included upsetting the Druid alphas - they are behaving normally and still localized in their traditional den area.
I am too late to see the group of Druids that was seen from here earlier, and I missed a grizzly bear, too, but I am content to hear the good news. Rick kindly assigns me a radio and gives me a bit more news. He says the Mollie alphas are no longer in the area - the alphas and some others headed back to their own territory sometime yesterday. He thinks some of the yearlings might still be around.
Then I get a real treat. A familiar car pulls up with Kansas plates. Out of it step my dear wolf-watching friends Jan & Bill. We have a great reunion, all the better for it being unexpected. Their jobs allow them the great luxury to spend a month or two at a time in Yellowstone. Ah, how I wish I could do that! We catch up and then head west to see more wolf action.
I see my first bald eagle of this trip in a tree above the Lamar. And an intrepid raven is perched on the Lamar Bridge railing. A bison herd grazes east of the Peregrine Hills and I see two brand-new calves! One is asleep and the other nurses.
We stop at Hellroaring. This is Cottonwood territory. Their alpha female, 527, is thought to have given birth but we are not sure where her den is. There are several known spots in this area, all extremely difficult to see. Apparently, someone spotted the alpha female a little earlier and we are hopeful she may appear again, since it is still early.
The latest story on the Cottonwoods is rather grim. A week or so ago, 527 led her pack on an eastward excursion into Little America, a territory she knows well, having once been a Slough wolf. While they were there, they discovered the recently dug den of wolf 694F, a former Druid wolf. 694F and her sister/cousin Dull Bar, had formed a group during mating season with a lone black male. The male bred them both, both females were pregnant and a den was dug on a rocky northern slope. Well, the Cottonwood Pack could not tolerate such close competition and they found and killed poor 694 and her pups. Dull Bar, still pregnant, escaped back to the Druids and the lone black male howled at the Cottonwoods until he was hoarse. By himself he has been unable to protect his mate or his offspring against five other wolves.
It's sad when you get to know individuals and then lose them like this, but this is how it is in nature. Wolves self-regulate their populations.
But now I have my first wolf sighting of this trip and it's the Cottonwoods - four of them; two gray and two black. And I am delighted to see my friend Richard from Utah is here wolf-watching. We met last year about this same time and had a lot of fun scoping together.
The wolves are moving to the left in a timbered area, and they are quite hard to see at first. Then someone spots a grizzly. Aha! The grizzly is wandering around a draw, very close to the wolves. The bear seems to find an old carcass and begins tugging on it, finding scraps. The wolves come over and begin to harrass the bear. I'm not sure if they are just doing it because they are bored or if they want the carcass tidbits for themselves but it's interesting to watch the interaction.
After a while the bear has enough and moves off to the left. The wolves spend very little time at the now-free carcass and begin to wander back up the draw. We notice a small band of elk, alerted and bunched, and watch two of the wolves begin to stalk them: one high, one low. But it comes to nothing as the elk stand their ground and the wolves give up.
They disappear among the trees and the elk go back to grazing. As the day brightens we see more and more animals on the high slopes, bison and elk and some pronghorn.
We hear a call over the radio that wolves are being seen near Wrecker so I decide to head back that direction. On my way I see a marmot cross the road just above Tower. It is a very striking color with a dark brown coat and orange side-stripes.
As I approach the bridge over the Yellowstone I see I will have to stop a while. A sizeable heard of bison has chosen this moment to cross the bridge. I pull over to watch them, rather than follow slowly behind as another car does. It is a wonderful parade. When the leader reaches the opposite side, she chooses a path up the hill and the rest begin to run to catch up. The hillside is churned to mud under their many hooves but soon the full herd is away from traffic, grazing their way to new meadows.
I drive on and find Rick with Jan & Bill at Boulder pullout. As I head up the little hill with Layla, a squawking pair of sandhills flies overhead. It's nearly 11AM and getting quite warm. This little hill offers an excellent view of a low spot called the Buffalo Ford. This is a marshy, grassy area just above the spot in the river (not visible from here) where it is relatively easy for the animals to cross the Lamar. There are several criss-crossing trails visible through the grass and it is bordered on the north by a stand of lovely aspen trees.
While we are looking for wolves, someone spots a badger dashing through the sage below us. At one point the animal stops to look back at the hill covered in three-legged and two-legged creatures. With a huff, the beautifully-striped critter wobbles on and soon disappears into the sage.
We see numerous elk in the area and are keen to notice if any become alerted. Then Jan notices a herd of bighorn grazing among the aspen trunks at the far end of the Ford. Hmm, they are down awfully low for bighorn! Suddenly these same bighorn spook and gallop up the hill out of sight. What the...? And soon we see why - two gray wolves appear. One is very light and the other darker (we call it the "dirty gray"). Rick does not think they are Cottonwoods nor Agates so they are mysterious for the moment.
One of the grays has a pretty bad case of mange, its tail is rope-thin and nearly bare. The two wolves nose around the area, coming in and out of view. Bill finds a lone coyote across the river, sunning himself on a rock. We also see a soaring golden eagle, a hovering kestrel and more sandhills. The two grays are not out very long. They disappear heading to the west, presumably in the river corridor.
While we are hoping for them to reappear, the bison herd that crossed the bridge arrives at the eastern end of Junction Butte. The leaders begin to lope and soon the whole herd, about 100 strong, is galloping down the slope into the valley before us. It is great fun to watch them enjoy themselves and to see a few of the yearlings get wound up and begin to play-fight with each other. Eventually they slow down and begin to graze.
It's now 54 degrees although it feels a lot warmer. We begin to feel hungry and Jan & BIll invite me up to Cooke for lunch. How can I resist? These are two of my favorite wolfing buds.
So soon we are on our way, driving through my beloved Lamar Valley. The day has turned spectacular with bright sun and blue sky. The scenery is spectacular as always and I enjoy seeimg how high the snow berms are between Silver Gate and Cooke.
We have a great lunch at Beds & Buns and I meet Leo - one of the owners. Jan & Bill ask me to tell my Al Swearengen story (we are all Deadwood fans) and he loves it! We also make a plan to hike up the Tower Road which is still not open to traffic yet.
So down we go again, into and through Lamar Valley and into Little America. We stop at Baronnette but I do not find any goats up there. The snow is still thick and although some of the ice-cascades are melting into waterfalls, most are still frozen.
We stop again at in Little America at Long Pullout when we see Laurie & Dan - they have a grizzly grubbing straight south from here, near the trunks of some trees. We watch the bear a while, enjoying his single-minded pursuit of tasty treats.
Laurie & Dan had gone to Children's Fire trail from Hellroaring after I headed east. They saw two Blacktail wolves from there, but not 302. I am bound and determined to see 302 on this trip since I missed him at Christmas. But it's much more difficult to see him since he abandoned the Lamar for the Blacktail area. The vistas and pullouts in Lamar are much more conducive to easy viewing than the winding, woodsy Blacktail Plateau. I rarely saw the Leopolds when they were entrenched in that area.
Eventually we head on to Tower for our hike. The sun is out and I am glad I remembered to bring my sunscreen. We set out along the road, finding quite a bit of snow still here. There are many sections where we have to walk very slowly through icy, slushy patches. Then there are also many areas, more exposed to the sun, where the road is bone dry.
We find an old carcass on the pavement a bit past Rainy Lake. (Rainy Lake is Frozen Lake by the way). We call out before approaching the carcass, in case any predators are still around. But it does not look like anything has been on it in a while. It was an elk, with three legs and the head still recognizable, but what I find fascinating is that the skin on the head has been pulled inside out, so to speak. It's quite gruesome but we can't help looking. I find out later that this "skinning" is considered somewhat typical of how bears feed.
It is really fun to explore this road at a walking pace, rather than by car. So many more details are available for observation. We see lots of scat and prints but nothing we can definitely determine is bear or wolf. We follow the fresh tracks of a coyote in the snow for a while, then see the fellow who made them. He appears about 50 feet up the hill to the south, trotting uphill and to the west, aware of us but with little concern. Then we notice his tail is injured. It almost looks as if a noose had been fastened around it about half-way down from its rump. The narrow spot looks dark and bloody and it makes me sad to see it. But the coyote trots on as if nothing is wrong.
Once we get past Calcite Springs we begin to see and hear osprey soaring in the canyon to our left. We catch glimpses of them above us sometimes. Their high-pitched cries sound wonderful. We inspect the giant overhanging rock in a way we have never been able to do and see many swallow holes. We notice some recently fallen rock as well, and scare ourselves with the idea that one day a very large rock will surely topple onto the road. We hope it happens when no one is around!
We stop to watch the ospreys from the pullouts but there is still slushy snow in the area and we do not want to get too close to the edge. It could be our imaginations, but it seems as though the osprey are not happy with our presence. It seems their calls grow louder or more frequent when we approach the edge.
We move on to the store and see the road blocked just beyond it. The snow seems to lay thickest here, despite the area being fairly open to the sun. We take a short break and eat some snacks we brought, then head back down.
On the way down we note there are four osprey, perhaps two mated pairs. The calls continue as they soar and swoop. Several times we see one or the other carrying twigs in their talons. Although I cannot see the nests, it sure seems like nest-building time to me.
We get back to the cars just before 7PM. Jan & Bill head up to Cooke as they have their dog to think about. I am staying in Silver Gate tonight so I am headed that way, too, but I intend to dawdle on the way.
As I reach the bridge Jan & Bill call in a radio tip about a black bear at Junction Butte. As I approach the area I see two cars ahead of me already stopped, looking intently into the trees on the right. I stop in a pullout and walk quietly forward with my binocs and camera.
I see the bear at the base of a tree, grubbing and rooting around. I cross to the left side of the road, climb the low bank and perch on a boulder. This affords me a perfect view. I watch the bear move this way and that, tasting and eating, clawing and ripping at bark, nibbling on whatever he finds there. There is very little traffic and we five people have this bear to ourselves.
After a little bit, the bear moves uphill and eventually out of view. I walk back to Raja and move on. As I pass Boulder Pond I hear chorus frogs chirping from the pool of water. They are really loud and it makes me chuckle. Further on I see the big bison herd with the two babies and watch them a while.
As I drive up Lamar Canyon it is Golden Hour and the view of the "Gates of Lamar" is stunning. Blue, blue water running quite high and the south-side banks are full of snow and extend far into the running water. The tops of the hills, which are now bare, catch the setting sun and turn a golden-green
Two red-tail hawks swoop together above the northern slopes. I drive all the way through this gorgeous valley to the Footbridge, where I stop and get out to look and listen. It's been a long time since I've had this wonderful view all to myself. I scan the flats and slopes, hoping to spot a Druids yearling out for a stroll. I hear (and see) geese and sandhills.
A car pulls in, the people get out and we chat. They ask about wolves and I tell them what I know. I guess Rick is not coming out this evening but I think I will stay here till the light goes. At about 8pm I hear howling from the den forest and slightly to the west towards Hitching Post. I scan there, hopefully. I hear howling again, at least three voices. Then one voice, solo, coming from the same area.
I watch a beautiful sunset and keep scanning, but don't see any movement. What a beautiful evening! The light fades and I head up to Silver Gate for the night.
Today I saw: 1 badger, 1 black bear, 1 grizzly bear, bison (including two babies),
2 coyotes, 4 sandhill cranes, mule deer, 1 bald eagle, 1 golden eagle, elk,
2 red-tail hawks, 1 kestrel, 4 osprey, 1 marmot, pronghorn, bighorn sheep,
6 wolves from 2 packs: 4 Cottonwood wolves (including "The Dark Female", 716F)
and 2 Unidentified wolves (later ID'd as Mollies yearlings), 7 wolfer pals
and the spirit of Allison.