The day is cold and clear and beautiful. I notice some thin clouds way up high as I drive through Little America. Bison are crossing the road just beyond Dorothy's so I pull in and start to scope. I scan the area where I think the Druids caught poor 526. Two bald eagles perched in a tree above the bank is a good indication that I've found the spot.
There are bison and pronghorn in the valley but no elk. I do see elk up on a hill on the north side, though. The bison have now crossed the road so I drive further east. I stop at mid-point and scope the rendezvous and see two wolves moving down there. Then I hear over the radio that a group of Druid wolves is moving west. I turn Layla on the big fan, determined to find them.
Sure enough, there they are - almost right in front of me. A group of 8 wolves, three black and five gray, trot in single file through the golden grass and sage. In some places the grass is so high, all I can see is ears and tails.
I recognize alpha female 569 in front. She is very very light (especially so in the beautiful morning sun) and makes me think of her as a platinum blonde. 480 is with her and another large black - at first I assume this is 302 but then I realize there is no collar. There is one collared gray female besides 569 so I am pretty sure she is 571.
They break into a run, but it is short-lived. When they move again it is deliberate. These wolves are on a mission, moving right along the high bank. They make their way to the area where the bald eagles are, where I presume they killed 526 yesterday. They stop above the spot. Well, except for 569. She goes straight down the gully to the river's edge. Then the others come down. They sniff all around. I see scent marking and back scratching from just about all of them. I can't see anything downt here that looks like a carcass, because there is some very high green grass into which they disappear.
Now 569 comes out of the gully, moving quickly up hill. She starts up the slope to Jasper Bench, smelling for Sloughs (I presume). 480 comes close after her.
She stops and he stands behind her, as if waiting to see what she wants to do next. She beds for a moment and they all follow suit. But it's only for a minute. She gets up again and leads them to the top of Jasper where they start to chase bison! They focus on a lone bison calf but it runs sensibly straight back to its mother and that's the end of that hunt!
When the wolves were heading up the hill, the bison were in two groups. Once the wolves top the hill, though, the bison move quickly together to form one large herd, calves in the center for protection. Bison often seem kinda dumb but they sure are not!
While I am watching this group I hear another story unfold over the radio. 302 has begun to lead the remaining Druids (mostly pups) over to the confluence and up the trail toward Cache Creek. Hmmm, I wonder if there will be any Druids left in the valley this evening?
But now I note the time and pack up because I need to get over to Gibbon Canyon to meet Gary and Laurie.
I have a fairly uneventful drive, except for a soaring hawk and a glimpse of a nice group of elk feeding in the forest on the Canyon side of Washburn, about half-way down the mountain.
The sky has clouded over as I travel and now it looks like rain again. In Gibbon Canyon I finally see my first coyote, trotting along the road. Yay.
I pull into the abandoned road to wait for my friends. A raven lands nearby and I watch him, up close. He starts to make a knocking noise and I see his beak is half way open when he does this. It looks to me as if he is retching, although nothing but sound comes out. Hmmmm, what a strange and wonderful bird.
Gary and Laurie arrive and we talk about whether we want to travel the full distance of this road and back or whether we want to leave a car at the far end. We decide instead to walk a bit and see what we find before deciding. So off we go and at the first crest we see something that piques our interest.
Off to the east we see an old roadway heading steeply downhill and then steeply up the other side, curving tantalizingly out of sight. Aha! The road less taken. It could be a fire-break road, or an old stagecoach road. Then Gary points out a visible feature at the bottom - an old log bridge spanning a creek or marsh. Roadie, do you see what you've done to us?
We can see ruts, so we know tires or wheels have travelled here. But the whole thing is quite overgrown with grass. A light rain begins to fall but we head down that way, intending only to inspect the bridge, so at least we can bring back news to Roadie for her to muse on. Of course we end up following the "road" as far as it goes. And it goes mostly up! There are many interesting things along the way, old sawn logs, interesting rocks and wildflowers (in September!) and strange tracks. Our best guess is that this is a little-used access road for the area's electrical lines - because we find a row of them at the highest point of the track.
And the road offers great views. Despite the drizzle and overcast skies we can see National Park Mountain, Madison Junction and the Tuff Cliffs from up here. There are two places where we find a mysterious mark across the road - a straight-line depression in the soil, as if a fallen aspen once laid across the road. But we find no evidence on either side of the road of the sapling itself. So I wonder if it might be the remains of a ground-squirrel tunnel, made during winter under the snow-pack?
It turns out to be a very interesting hike, all the more so for being un-planned.
When we get back to the cars, I try to convince Gary and Laurie to come to Lamar to watch Druids with me, but they have other plans and are not as fond of standing on windy hills as I am. But they do know geysers, and I like learning about thermals from them so we decide to visit Norris. We spend some quality time at Steamboat and I happily listen to tales of the magical day when it erupted.
We also visit Echinus and Gary talks us into doing a small loop around Porceline Basin. I love the colorful runnoff and all the frying pans! Laurie especially likes the teeny tiny ones!
We head back to the cars and feast on PB & J sandwiches. We chat and laugh and convince ourselves for the 10th time that we did the right thing by turning around. Then one last round of hugs and off I go.
On my way over Dunraven this time I see a moose in Antelope creek, several mule deer above the Tower store and a group of big horn sheep below Calcite. The sheep have three lambs with them. They are too cute!
Then on I go into Lamar.
The valley is fairly empty as I drive past the Institute and toward the confluence. I go all the way to the Footbridge and spend about a half hour there, just looking at the scenery I love so much. The willows are still very green! Then I drive to Exclosure and climb the hill. Two people are up here already, bundled against the wind.
They tell me they had a gray adult bedded in the rendezvous and that it headed back into the trees about an hour ago. The only other movement they saw was a small gray head in the sage in front of what we call the mound (or the bump). As I train Layla's great eye out that way I see no movement at all.
I remain pessimistic about wolf sightings this evening, believing that since there are no elk here, they would have to head up higher to find them. Just then a gray shape rises from the sage. It's one of the tiny gray pups! It noses around and then beds again. It starts to rain. We feel collectively sorry for this poor forlorn gray pup.
People begin to ask whether he has been deliberately left behind, and will he starve? I don't know but I remind them that a year ago (two years ago?), the Druids came back for one of their pups after it had been accidentally left behind in Round Prairrie for three days. We also speculate that there might be a reason why this pup didn't follow the others. And the bundled-up couple remind us that there may still be an adult here - the adult gray they saw go into the trees.
I also think to myself, this is the rendezvous site and this is September. This is where the wolves usually spend their time, so even though the pup may be alone right now, others will surely return here in due time.
Bonnie has been putting her scope to work. She finds a lot of elk on one of the slopes of Norris. Yes, there are elk in Lamar, but not in the valley. We hear, then see, sandhills flying overhead. I find some bighorn sheep on Amethyst Mountain - lots of them, more than I've ever seen.
A little later, Rick comes up and immediately finds a wolf in the rendezvous that none of us have noticed. He recognizes a black ear sticking up in the sage. And he also tells us that he has signals for 571. We put two and two together and surmise that she is the gray wolf that moved into the trees. So you see? This little gray pup is not alone after all.
Despite the rain, the hill fills up with an expectant crowd of visitors. They want to see a wolf and it's hard to convince them that what we are looking at IS a wolf, when all you can see is a single black ear!
Then finally the black pup sits up. Yay! Now he looks the part. Everyone gets a chance to see him. Wow! Cool! Yeah! The black pup is small but he's double the size of the gray pup. A visitor starts describing another moving shape further out by the trees. She doesn't know if it's a bison or a wolf. A few of us check it out and guess what? It's a grizzly!
The grizzly moves slowly away from the trees and across the flats. Now both pups get up. Did they hear it or smell it or see it? Who knows? The people who trekked up this hill in the cold and misty rain are very happy now. Two wolves and a bear!
There is a man up here who knows birds. He has found a pair of peregrine falcons perched on a dead branch behind us and to the east on Confluence Hill. One of the falcons takes flight, soaring over the road and the river. We notice a smaller bird flapping hard out there. Suddenly the falcon dives and bam! It catches the smaller bird right over the flats. Oh man! Feathers fly and float to the ground. The peregrine wheels and returns to its perch carrying the prize. Now we see it begin to remove more feathers with his beak. Whoa! Talk about dramatic!
I ask what kind of bird was just killed and the man who knows birds shakes his head - he said he couldn't see the prey bird, but it was likely a songbird - perhaps an ouzel. Eeek. Oh well, I feel bad for the killed bird but I guess the peregrine has to survive too.
Then my attention is returned to the black pup. He has gotten up and is making a trip to the east. The gray pup watches him for a little bit but then re-beds. Neither wolf seems at all concerned with the bear and the bear doesn't seem to care about them either.
The black wolf's trip is short-lived and he soon comes back to the mound and beds a few yards away from the gray. Thus ending what little there is of wolf drama this evening. But despite the rain and cold and wind, I'd still rather be here watching animals than anywhere else.
A bit later we head down to the cars and I drive up to Silver Gate for my last night in the Park.
Today I saw: antelope, 1 grizzly bear, bison, 1 coyote, mule deer, 2 bald eagles, elk, 2 peregrine falcons, 1 moose, a raven, 2 sandhills, 7 bighorn sheep, 10 wolves and two Loons