Because of the carcass at Hellroaring, we agreed last night to start there this morning, which means we get to sleep in a little!
At 7:05 we are crossing the High Bridge and see a bit of fog below us. The sky above is dark and messy with stars and the temperature is 10 chilly degrees. The water in my bottle froze overnight, and is only now beginning to thaw.
We pass a coyote in the road at Wraith Falls, not begging, just travelling on the open surface. At the Children's Fire Trail I notice the temperature has dropped to minus 4! Becky & Chloe see a fox just beyond the entrance to the Blacktail Road but I miss it.
There are elk feeding in the Phantom Lake depression and on the hill across from it. At Hellroaring, first light has begun and we set up next to our friend Richard. He has the Druids on the carcass, and I see the same individuals we saw yesterday, namely, the New Black Male, 690F, 691F, White Line, the Thin Female and the Female Yearling.
These six are having breakfast. The NBM get snapped at several times by the females, when he gets too close or does something obnoxious. He doesn't let it bother him. Attitude-wise, he really reminds me of a young 480M, in the days before he was collared, back before any of us knew who he was or that he was destined to become the next renowned alpha male of the Druids. Back then we called him "302's friend", "Ellis" or "LS" (meaning "little shit").
Two coyotes trot by in the sage, wisely avoiding the wolves. Behind us, across the road and up the hill, a golden eagle is perched in a tree. Rick gets sporadic signals of 480 and is confident he is nearby, but we don't see him this morning. His collar is old and often does not function properly. We do find one more Druid female, Dull Bar, who is bedded in some yellow grass beneath a conifer.
A while later someone spots the Lava Creek Group bedded on a snowy knob, higher on the main hill, where they can look down on the carcass and the Druids. Their proximity and keen attention to the action makes me wonder if this carcass is theirs. Perhaps the Druids, with their larger numbers, pushed them off of it sometime yesterday? With the Druids being in such a weakened condition, it is possible the Druids are not able to hunt for themselves anymore. But the truth is, no one saw this kill happen, so we just don't know.
Then the Lava Creek wolves get up and begin to move to the west. They spook some elk grazing above the basalt cliff, as well as two bighorn sheep who scramble straight up the rock face as only sheep can. The elk at the top bunch up and I watch, rapt, as the 06 female sneaks around the side, followed by 471. But these elk are vigilant and the wolves soon give up and continue west.
I look back to the carcass and watch White Line pick up a piece of pelt, carrying it off. She does a raised leg, and the NBM cheekily does one over hers. He thinks of himself as alpha, that's for sure. They move off together through the sage to a big boulder.
This is the first time I witness the Druids' current version of bedding. Apparently, the ravages of mange make it too uncomfortable for them to lie down in the snow, so they "rest" standing up, like horses. Some of them use the boulder to lean on, or sometimes they stand next to each other, licking each other in a gesture of quietly affecting tenderness.
They also scratch incessantly. The temperature here in the pullout is 1 degree but I am covered in my down and polartec. I cannot imagine how uncomfortable they are and it is hard to avoid tearing up. The NBM has plenty of hair, so he can bed in the snow, of course, so he does. It makes him appear callous to the suffering of the poor females. It is striking to see what a different level of energy he has compared to them.
At around 11AM we pack up and head west, hoping to find the Blacktails, but when we get to the Children's Fire trail we find a stiff breeze at work. Scoping at this temperature with wind in your face is too much for me at the moment, although both Kara and Richard give it a try, bless them. Instead I watch some coyotes from inside my car!
But we still have not been as far east as Lamar yet so we decide to head there. On our way, we stop a while at Floating Island Lake, which is still frozen over, to watch a lone coyote tug at an old carcass sticking out of the ice.
Our next stop is in Little America. There is a bison herd here with an orange calf, a baby born extremely late - probably in September instead of the usual May. We see the calf sleeping in the snow by its mother, seemingly in good health.
Then we notice another cow bison in this herd behaving oddly. There are crows fluttering around her rear end and she spins to get away from them. Something is hanging out of her, a very odd-looking something. It's oblong in shape, like a loaf of bread, but cinched in two spots as if tied with twine). From our angle it is hard to tell just what it is, but I would guess it may have once been a fetus.
We hear a radio report of Mollies being seen from Elk Creek so we abandon our plans to see Lamar and head there. Sure enough we find them - on the same high hill but in a different spot than we saw them yesterday. I see 8 total - in this light they all look black to me. They are still quite far away, bedded, but every once in a while one of them moves, confirming that those are, in fact wolves!
Next I hear a report that 480 is back on the carcass at Hellroaring. I lose no time heading there. I am quite aware that each sighting of this particular wolf might be my last.
I arrive in time to see him, and despite the odd appearance of his ravaged coat, he looks good to me. Three of the Druid females are feeding near him and the NBM is bedded in the sage about 50 feet away. But soon the NBM is up and heads to the carcass, which seems to annoy 480. He snaps at the younger wolf twice and he backs off in response.
480 seems to have given up his earlier habit of chasing the new recruit away from his daughters, which I think is a wise move. 480 needs to conserve his strength if he is to survive and find a suitable mate for the upcoming breeding season.
After a while, the NBM moves to the northwest, away from the carcass. Next the Druid females begin to head that way, one by one. 691F, the only gray with this group, gets up from her bedding spot near Dull Bar and follows the others. Dull Bar remains bedded under the tree.
We follow their progress, losing and re-spotting them as they pass behind trees and hillocks, and eventually I lose them all. When I look back at the carcass I see 480 still there, alone. Then he leaves, heading in the same north-westerly direction, but taking a distinctly different route.
Now we hear howling, from the direction of the travelling Druids. Dull Bar howls from her spot under the tree so we are pretty convinced that she is responding to her pack mates. She now heads west, scent-trailing her sisters. After a little while, we start to see Druids appearing on a low sage slope, above a small frozen pond. More and more Druids arrive at that location until it becomes clear that there is a rally in progress. Then we notice a second gray among the blacks, wagging a bony tail, groveling submissively from one wolf to the next. Rick is quite attentive to this wolf and suddenly announces that "It's 571F". Holy moly!
I get a good look at this amazing individual. This is the wolf who was attacked by three big Wyoming males during my trip in October. Although at the time we thought she was mortally wounded, we were delighted to learn she survived that encounter when she finally appeared withe the pack 11 days later. But since that day, glimpses of her have been few and far between.
Even from this distance I can see what looks like a scar on her belly behind her forelegs, and she is very skinny, but otherwise, looks full of pep. Her sisters seem glad to see her! And her little bony tail is whirling around in excitement. I catch a glimpse of 480 below the sage hill, and I am sad to see he is not part of the happily rallying group.
My last sighting of 480 is of him trotting casually beyond the sage hill, moving confidently to the west. Little did I know that this was to be my last glimpse of him.
The Druids move to the back of the hill and then behind it, out of view. For a moment we have no wolves in sight. Then wolf-spotter Peter (who takes great photos that you can see on http://pmwm.smugmug.com/Nature.Yellowstone-Wolves) discovers the Lava Creek Group, bedded on a snowy sage hill a ways to the east from where they were before. It looks as if they doubled back from where they were this morning. Perhaps they have been waiting for the Druids to get far enough away so they can slip in for a bite on the carcass.
The Lava Creeks begin to howl, as if in response to the Druids. Hmmm, that seems counter-productive to me, but I don't speak wolf. The threesome gets up and start downhill toward the carcass. But after a few minutes we see them stop and turn, looking to the west. After a few moments, they head back up hill and start moving east, past their bedding spot. It seems to me that Alpha female 471 is moving pretty fast, and we see her look over her shoulder a few times as if something has spooked her.
I figure the Druids are coming back. The route taken by the Lava Creeks leaves them mostly visible to us and we get a lovely long view of them. But soon we learn that it's not the Druids who are coming their way. Nope. It's the Blacktails!
They suddenly burst on the scene - just above the carcass area - five gorgeous healthy adults. There is something especially exciting to me about seeing this pack. It could be just because they seem so robust and in the prime of life. And the fact that this pack was founded by 302M and descendants of 21 & 42 is also a factor. I suppose it is natural to be glad to see such a healthy pack after two days of watching the poor, struggling Druids.
Whatever it is, I'm happy for the sighting. The five in view are Big Brown (the alpha male), Medium Brown (beta male), alpha female 693 along with 692F and 642F. Their four pups must be elsewhere. They do not feed at the carcass but rush around with high tails, sniffing every spot where a Druid bedded or walked.
Then they seem to find the scent trail of the Lava Creeks, and this gets them even more excited. 693F wants to know more about them! Their tails go up again and they rush up the sage hill, right to the spot where the Lava Creeks were bedded about a half hour ago. Twice Big Brown heads across the sage, following the route we saw the Lava Creeks take to the east and twice 693 seems to intervene with a different idea.
Twice the five wolves converge in a rally, tails high, howling and body-slamming each other. They spot a coyote and half-heartedly chase it but it easily escapes and the wolves stop for a third rally. Now they set out boldly on the Lava Creek's trail, moving at a brisk trot to the east. The poor Lava Creeks are always being chased! But they have a good hour's lead so I am not worried for them.
The Blacktails are clearly in pursuit, but they do not strike me as out for blood.
Once the Blacktails are out of sight I suddenly become aware of the intense cold. Oh my poor toes! It is inconceivable that I would remain outside in these temperatures for any other reason than to watch wolves!!!! So now I pack up and head east to Elk Creek for a last look at the Mollies. Chloe and Becky and I scope the area in the fading light. We find them, but they look like dots to me. Chloe counts five but I can't be sure, even though I check to be sure I am looking in the right spot. Finally one gray wolf moves so I know that dot is a wolf!
The light continues to fade and we set our sights back west. It's dinner at the Mine tonight!
Today I saw: bison, coyotes, mule deer, a bald eagle, elk, a Clark's nutcracker, 45-50 bighorn sheep, 25 wolves in 4 packs (9 Druids, 3 Lava Creeks, 5 Blacktails and 8 Mollies) and the spirit of Allison