I step outside in the dark to a soft, steady rain. Good! The Park needs it.
As I reach Little America and pass the Boulder pullout I see Rick there, with his raised telemetry antenna. Two seconds later there is a black wolf on the road ahead of me. I stop, amazed, and watch the wolf climb the hill on the other side. Has it really become this easy to see a wolf in Yellowstone?
I swing into the next pullout and grab my binoculars. I find the wolf, lingering above the road between two low hills. He doesn't look at me but back across the road. Something over there interests him. A kill? Another wolf?
I watch him a while as he wanders in the sage, stops and looks north again over his shoulder. I look north to see what he sees but find only a bison herd. Then Rick drives up. "Did you see the wolf?" he asks in his understated way. "Yes.” I say, smiling. “He crossed right in front of me". Rick says "There may be another, a gray, on the north side. Will you let me know if you see him cross?" I nod and Rick drives off.
I set up Layla and start to scope the area where the wolf was looking. I'm trembling, partly with cold as it is chilly and rainy, but mostly I just get that way when wolves are near. It‘s an emotional thing. I don‘t find the gray but I do pay attention to the bison. It’s a pretty large herd with lots of calves and in this lovely misty morning I find their soft grunting sounds quite soothing. These repeated sounds seem to work as reassurance from one animal to another.
I give up on finding the gray and scope in other directions. And very soon I find a grizzly. He’s up on Specimen Ridge, walking along a ledge-trail from east to west. He‘s as good-looking a grizzly as I've ever seen.
Then I see something white on the ledge trail in front of him. What is that? Could he be pursuing a goat or a bighorn lamb? But, no, the bear is just ambling along. In my binoculars, the “white” animal seemed to have longish legs but when I get the scope on him I see h looks more like a coyote. He’s moving at an un-hurried pace. Hmm. Visibility is somewhat obscured by the rain. That's pretty high up for a coyote. And what is a dog, big or small, doing barely 10 feet in front of a grizzly?
Welp, maybe at this angle I can't properly tell the distance. The dog goes behind some trees, comes out again a little higher on the hill above the trail and then beds. That makes me chuckle. He certainly is a casual fellow! I look back to the bear and see him disappear behind the same trees. But I never see the bear come out the other side and the mystery remains unsolved because I suddenly have a local concern..
The bison herd to my right seems to have gotten a news flash that the grass near my pullout surpasses all other grass in the valley. I feel suddenly surrounded by bison, moving en masse, in my direction. Their grunting takes on more belligerent tone. I watch their bison-breath come out in puffs in the cold while I pack up. I escape just in time.
I find Rick & Bob at "curve pullout" (a new name for me), which is on the eastern end of the area I can never again call "the Dead Zone". I report to Rick that I had to abandon my post due to a bison invasion. He says, "that's ok, the gray has now crossed.” Then he adds “there are three wolves in sight on that hill." Ah! I see them. Two grays and a black. The grays lie in the open on their sides, with their heads down, giving me the impression that they are really tired. The black is curled up under a tree. Rick thinks they are Agate yearlings although he can't be sure because none has a collar. This is a relatively close wolf sighting and Bob gets some footage. Once I get Layla trained on them, they fill up my scope!
Rick thinks there are still other wolves in the area. I heard later that he had gotten signals for the Agate alpha female. I meet another wolfer here, named Lisa. She and her husband (Don?) live nearby and come to the park as often as they can. She tells me that being here today is her Mother’s Day gift. I overhear on her radio that nothing is happening yet at the Slough den this morning.
The rain comes and goes but we don't mind much. The wolves certainly don’t. While they rest, I turn around and scope the hills behind me. I find another bear! Whoa, I am having some fantastic bear luck! Allison, I think it’s your doing! This critter is very black, walking about on a slope behind Junction Butte. I first think it’s a black bear but the more I watch it move, the more its hump shows. I ask for a consensus from those in the pullout. Verdict: grizzly.
Eventually the Agates get up and head higher into the trees. They are now quite hard to see so I decide to move and see what else is going on. I pull into Slough and see Lou in the parking lot. He tells me there is still no visible activity at the den. That’s a little odd. I ask what happened yesterday and learn that a grizzly came by and was shooed away by the wolves on duty. Hmmm. I wonder if the bear encounter has prompted another move? And is there further significance to the presence of the Agates?
Lou is about to head up Dave's Hill. I tell him I'm going to Lamar instead. He tells me to look for two people from upstate NY who are scoping an owl nest in Lamar Canyon. I say thanks and head out.
And sure enough, at the far end of Lamar Canyon I see a car pulled over and a scope set up, attended by two people in rain-ponchos. I introduce myself to Adrienne and Bob, from Duchess County. It’s fun to meet other New Yorkers in the Park. Usually we are under-represented!
I set up Layla next to theirs and they help me find the nest with excellent directions. Wow! I am absolutely amazed. I love owls but have never seen one on a nest. It's a very large, wonderfully camouflaged bird with visible feather "horns" and HUGE eyes. It sits calmly on a large nest of twigs in the branches of a tall conifer. Then, to my delight, the adult starts to feed the chicks! Adrienne tells me there are two and that one is definitely bigger and more aggressive than the other.
For a while I only see only the aggressive one, and boy is he ever! He seems nothing but a downy white head with a beak, but boy what an attitude! Finally, while this tiny ferocious thing is gobbling down a strand of meat I finally see a second white head. I watch this little one get a bite of whatever mom is serving (probably ground squirrel) before the other chick is demanding attention again.
I am intrigued to see that none of the owls look at all wet, although the rain is coming down, light but steady. The branches above must overhang the nest just right. Clever owl, I think to myself. I watch a while longer and chat with my new friends but I am still keyed up and eager to get back into Lamar. So I thank them again and head on.
I love to see Lamar in all kinds of weather. This morning, the north hills glisten with moisture and there is a long, low cloud hovering against the flanks of Specimen Ridge, obscuring the middle of the mountains. This leaves the mountain tops and the area just below Jasper Bench free for scoping. I stop at Dorothy's and find the bald eagle again on that nest. Then I see a big jam-up on the road this side of the Institute. At first I think bison but there are lots of people out of their cars. Hmmm. I can’t help but think it might me Druids, but then I see…a grizzly.
My third grizzly of the day! It’s in the flats, about half-way between the road and the river. I bet it crossed the road while I was looking at the owl nest. What a treat for those who saw it! I follow this big guy with my scope as it heads to the river, roaming the flats, spooking pronghorn this way and that and drawing the attention of some bison mothers. When it gets to the bank it begins forage methodically along the bank. It turns rocks and investigates every hole and every pile of driftwood. I notice this bear has a collar. Hmmm, could this be Thumper? I keep thinking he's going to cross the river but he never does.
The bear jam has cleared out so I hop back in Lexi and move on. The valley seems glad of the rain and I smile to think of how green everything will be by Loonion time. I pull over again just beyond the Institute and scope the hills, finding small bands of elk almost everywhere. Lots of bulls. Then I find two cranes walking on their stilt-legs above the far river bank. I look for sheep on the cliffs of Amethyst. Nope. Then I swing the scope back to the river bank to see if I can still see the grizzly. I do.
The bear is now heading straight across the flats. Right towards me. I keep watching, delighted, as he gets closer and closer. Then I realize with a shock that he REALLY IS going to cross the road and I’d better not impede him, nor be outside my car when he arrives. I try to remain calm as I quickly stow Layla back inside. He keeps coming. Another car pulls in, the only other car in the whole valley. I start the engine, just in case, roll down the window and get my camera ready. The bear shows no interest in me or the other car; just going about his business. I can now hear him softly grunting or maybe it’s just his breathing. His collar bunches his fur under his chin, making him look bearded. His fur is wet with rain. I can see droplets on his guard-hairs! I put Sonya through her paces while my heart races. I say “I can‘t believe this“ over and over to myself.
I watch the bear cross the road and enter the sage maybe 10 feet from my trunk. I wait until he moves a bit further into the meadow, watching him through my rear-view-mirror! Then I open the car door and put one foot out. Half-in and half out of the car I snap a last shot of him, deliberately including the car in the frame for future reference.
Once he moves on up the hill I sneak over to the second car and see it full of excited people. The driver rolls down his window and we just grin at each other, amazed, shaking our heads at our incredible luck. A lady in the back says her two boys have never seen a bear before. I say “well you hardly ever see them so close!” It was great to see this bear but it was especially nice to share it with this car-full of folks.
I go back to Lexi and scroll through the shots I just took. No award-winners, but this unique event was recorded. And that’s all I need. I head east, smiling all the way.
Whenever it’s raining I try to stop at the confluence. I guess it just makes sense since it’s all about water right there anyway. I look for beavers and otters and find dippers, ducks and geese. And I watch a pair of bison cross a braid of the river, plodding slowly, making splashes. I watch elk in the meadows beyond the confluence and see some kind of grazing-rights dispute between to cow elk.
After a while I drive further east, past the Footbridge and on to Soda Butte. Here I have to stop a while for some bison to cross. I have to say I am glad for the lack of trucks carrying snowmobiles which roar through so often in the winter-time. Shoot, just having so few cars in the Park is a real treat. The animals seem to like it, too. They seem to enjoy simply standing on the road, just because they can!
Eventually they remember there is no grass on the road so they move into the sage. Some of them are nearly shed and others are dragging all kinds of fur pieces. One has a fur ball on the tip of his horn. I drive up to Pebble Creek Campground and turn around in there. There is still snow on the ground here and a whole lot on the mountains.
On my way back past Round Prairie a coyote dashes down the hill on my right and crosses the road ahead of me. Well, finally! This is the first coyote I’ve seen the whole trip (not counting the “mystery dog” that was walking in front of the grizzly). I don’t think I have ever seen so many animals on the road on a trip before. As much as I enjoy it, I can‘t help but worry about busier traffic conditions soon to come.
I need a nap so I drive back to the (deserted) Footbridge and tuck Lexi into the far corner, facing the river. I lower the seat and let the rain-music lulls me to sleep.
After almost two hours I wake up and re-adjust the seat. I look to the left and WHAM! an immature bald eagle soars right past my windshield. Whoa! It barely clears the hillside to the right.
It’s still raining but a bit brighter. I scrounge around for some lunch. While I’m eating I notice a bison herd with calves out on the other side of the river along the old riverbank. I watch one of the larger animals choose a path down the steep bank, at first carefully choosing its footing, then sort of giving up and galloping down the rest of the way. Now a second animal follows the leader. Same thing: careful at first, then “aah, who cares?“ gallop, gallop. Soon I am watching the calves come forward to negotiate this steep hill, and I watch their attentive mothers guide and encourage them.
All in all I watch fifty animals make the descent into the flats. Once on surer footing, the calves and yearlings seem to rejoice. They run a little, and some kick up their heels. Then the herd leader aims for the Soda Butte and I watch to see where she chooses to cross. I have a perfect view and enjoy this immensely, seeing which calves hesitate and which forge boldly on. The moms urge and sometimes hustle them. I expect to see them swim, but the water is really low, not even to their knees.
Better to splash in! And they do. Once on the other side a few of them take the hill at a run. The hill leads to the road, and now the whole herd is moving fast and the leader moves right across the pavement. I watch a bison jam develop. The cars slow down just in time to be stopped cold by the force of the herd’s will. I clearly see some older bison act as crossing guards for the little ones. Once across the road they head up into an area where once I regularly saw Druid wolves.
How times have changed! The rain has finally stopped so I decide to move on.
When I get to Slough I find it deserted. This seems highly unusual and frankly, worrisome. The pups have been regularly visible for weeks. Why are they suddenly not being seen? I speculate that if the pack was away hunting and the babysitter was killed by a grizzly, what would happen to the pups? The pups are so small, coyotes or golden eagles could probably kill them. With these dark thoughts in my head I set up Layla right in the parking lot. When I get focused on the den area I, too, find it deserted, lacking any canid movement. What I do see are ravens in the three aspen trees. I watch as one after another they flit to the ground, peck at something and fly back to a perch. Oh no! Are they pecking at the tiny scraps that remain? The only thing left of the Slough Creek pups? With a horrible feeling I follow one bird as it sails down the slope and lands to grab something on the ground. Then…
I see a wolf. A black wolf. It’s quite alive, walking to the right. Hey! I see another wolf. Another black. Hey! The second black lowers its head and on the ground I see two black puppies! They’re alive!
Where the heck am I looking? Not in any area I had seen them before. They are quite a ways below the fallen-timber area and a good deal to the right, in the sage and yellow-grass. I get my radio. “Unit 1, this is Unit 3. I'm at Slough, and I have 2 black adults and 2 black pups". After a minute or two of silence I hear Rick's voice. "Thanks. Are they at the den-site?" "A little below it, in the sage". I stay focused on these wolves. I don’t want to lose them now that I have found them. In a few more minutes, cars start arriving and more scopes come out.
I join the group headed up Dave’s Hill, which includes Lisa (from this morning) and Lou. Rick comes up and spends a long time by himself recording and writing notes. He seems genuinely happy and I feel that at last I have finally been of service to him.
I spend the next several hours watching the Slough wolves, adults and pups, nursing, romping, begging and bouncing. Once Rick is finished with his notes tells us that apparently the Sloughs have dug a new den and may be in the process of moving the pups to it from the natal den. The new den is extremely hard to see (although it gets bigger and easier to see over the next few days), on a sage-covered slope below the fallen-timber area. For a while the only way I know the sage-den is a den at all is because there are almost always a few pups sitting on the mound of pale earth just outside it.
Rick asks us to watch for anytime an adult takes a pup in its mouth and to see where the pup is taken. He also asks us to count pups any time we have the chance. I eventually see some pups being carried up to the natal den and others (or perhaps the same ones!) carried down to the sage-den. I also see pups follow the adults on their own. That is a sight to see, these tiny little wobbly things trying to troop along behind an adult! And I see the gray mother digging at the sage-den. Boy, she can really make the dirt fly!
Rick makes sure one of us will stay until Jan and Bill arrive for the “evening session“ then he heads back to Silver Gate. The three of us watch and discuss and take notes. While we are up here a badger shuffles by. He looks at us accusatorily as if to say “there goes the neighborhood!“.
We notice that quite a few more adult Sloughs are here than we first thought. A large gray wolf sits under a tree in the eastern forest. We suspect this is 377M. We see an individual wolf appear from below, as if it had just come from the river. And later a black wolf heads that way. Although we lose it fairly quickly we form an impression that the pack may have a kill somewhere near the river. We see several regurgitation displays so It looks like they are periodically bringing this food back to the den for the pups and the babysitters.
We also see a large black bear on a ridge far to the west, roaming around in some aspen. This bear stays visible a very long while and I keep switching between the bear and the wolves. Then we hear voices and see a group of about 50 people heading out on the road, laughing and talking very loudly. They seem to be out on a lark, oblivious to the presence of wildlife, or at least to the presence of a wolf den. By contrast, the wolves are keenly aware of the people and watch their progress quite intently. Lou and Lisa are worried. If the wolves DO have a kill in the river, a group of people this large and this loud could scare them away. They try to imagine what Rick would do.
Lisa somehow learns that they are a bunch of science students from Arizona, led by a teacher, and that they plan to take water samples. No one thinks the group is intending to do harm. They probably just don‘t know. Lisa and Lou head out after them with the intention of talking with them, and perhaps at least getting them to do their work more quietly.
Some bison have moved on to the campground road so Lisa and Lou go wide to avoid them. I watch helplessly as this delay ruins the hope of interception. The boisterous group reaches the end of the promontory and disappears toward the river. Then the weather takes a turn for the worse. A wind kicks up and rain pelts down. I lower all our scopes and cover them, then gather them around me, holding them all like some strange scope hen.
When I look back I see Lou and Lisa have reached the group and are standing with a few of them, talking. I see a huddle of students facing the den-site and I realize I don‘t hear their voices anymore. Just then, what should appear in the parking lot but two horse trailers. The lead driver unlocks the gate and the two huge trucks rumble noisily down the gravel road. Welp, those kids can make all the noise they want to, now, because the wolves won’t hear it over this infernal noise! I chuckle and shake my head.
I check on 377. He’s still under the tree and now he watches the progress of the truck-monsters as they make their slow journey towards the campground. His gaze follows them the whole way.
The wind dies down and the sun comes out. Lisa and Lou re-join me for some more Slough watching. The black bear is still visible, too! Then Jan & Bill arrive and set up their scopes. We fill them in on all we have seen, including the human comedy. Then Ellie comes up and tells us of a sad sighting she had in Little America: a wounded bison with a calf.
We watch the Sloughs and share stories and crack jokes. Finally I need a break so I head down the hill to Lexi. I end up going back east into Lamar. I keep hoping for a Druid sighting! Instead my bear luck holds. A large black grizzly is roaming the far side of the river opposite the Institute. It’s not the same bear that I saw this morning although he is in roughly the same area.
While watching this bear I meet some nice people, included two gentlemen from South Africa who love looking through Layla at the bear. One asks my permission to take a photos through my scope. Sure I say. I watch him do it, and then try it myself. Hmm. I may have just discovered a great new trick!.
I find a coyote trotting through the flats and two cranes (perhaps the same ones I saw this morning). I am struck by how many antelope are here in Lamar. It reminds me of my first Spring visit, back in 2000. And then someone finds a black bear almost directly above the grizzly, wandering in and out of the trees in the Amethyst drainage.
Then out of the blue my radio crackles to life and I hear that the Slough have been spotted on a carcass in the river. So I pack up and head back there. On my way it starts raining again, more heavily than ever. By the time I join Rick near the glacial erratic it is really pelting down. I start to have trouble keeping my y binoculars from getting fogged!
An older couple that I have met on and off is out here, too, Don and Carol. Together in the pouring rain we watch a lone gray wolf tugging on an elk carcass in a shallow water curve of Slough Creek. The wolf is a yearling and we have seen him before at the den, babysitting the pups. His tail is tucked and he looks up quite often. I see crows and magpies waiting impatiently on the bank and then see a coyote appears prowling in the reeds, waiting his turn. This goes on a while until suddenly another wolf appears from the left, a black. The gray looks up and right away vacates the carcass, splashing across the shallow stream. It looks back once, then heads across the flats in the general direction of the den.
The black wolf stands over the carcass and we can immediately see that by comparison, this wolf is bigger than the other. The black wolf clearly has a higher social status in the pack than the gray. This wolf is stronger, too. It is able to drag the carcass by its jaws and flip it slightly to get at a new area. He yanks up a leg and then move the carcass again a few feet up on the bank. The coyote barks at it which doesn’t faze the wolf in the slightest. The coyote worries that it is now overmatched. He trots back and forth on the opposite bank, then finally gives up and beds. Finally this wolf seems to have enough and he leaves, heading the same way the gray did.
We are soaked and so are our scopes, so we take this as our cue to leave. We walk back to the cars happy, though. It was a very intimate sighting and we are glad to have shared it.
It’s still pretty early but the all-day rain has finally taken its toll and I am eager to be in a warm, dry room. But when I see a lone bison in Little America I realize it’s the one Ellie saw. Oh! Poor thing! Her front leg is either broken or infected (or both). She cannot put weight on it at all and hops about slowly on her three good ones. Once when she turns towards me I see how skinny she looks. Her calf looks healthy but a bit bewildered and forlorn. They should be with the herd, for both their sakes. But the herd has moved far west of her. Oh, that’s harsh. It seems clear that her days (and the calf’s) are numbered.
I have two final sightings on the drive back. The first is at Wraith falls, at the old bison carcass from last week. A coyote is on it and I stop for a few minutes to watch. The carcass is nearly all gone except for the head and horns. The coyote tugs at it anyway, accompanied by a few crows.
Then as I come down the hill past Undine Falls I see a mule deer in the road. I’m on a straightaway so I stop. This becomes a mule deer crossing. Each shy animal takes its turn stepping out of the forest, pauses in a statue-like freeze and then returns to life to bound quickly into the trees on the other side. After seven of these cautious creatures pass, I am allowed to continue.
As I begin the rising curves up to Mammoth I notice a lot more elk grazing in the hills to either side.
I am happy to return to my cozy room. I find that I still can't post to the Page so I decide to send a dispatch via e-mail. Still, it was another wonderful day!
Today I saw: Antelope, a badger, 2 black bears, 4 grizzly bears, bison and calves, 5 coyotes, 7 mule deer, an immature bald eagle, elk, geese, 3 great horned owls (one adult on a nest plus two chicks), 17 wolves (7 Slough Creek adults, 7 pups and 3 Agate yearlings), not a single Loon except for the spirit of Allison.