I’m now getting used to having elk, bison and deer near the road on the drive out.
There is some lovely fog all through the Blacktail Plateau. In Little America I find the injured cow-bison and her calf, still alive but grazing far from the herd.
At Slough Creek I check in with Jan and Bill. We have some rare non-wolf talk about our favorite HBO series, Deadwood, which they watched last night. It gives me a real kick to find die-hard fans of that series here in the Park. But in terms of wolf sightings this morning, they say “nothing much yet” so I keep driving.
I pull over at the western end of Lamar Canyon to scan the hillside for the sow grizzly and cubs but don’t find them. Rick stops by and rolls down his window. He says “302 is visible at the Footbridge”. My heart races! “Thanks, Rick!” is barely out of my mouth before I take off east. I am so eager to see a Druid wolf that I confess I start speeding. A few minutes later, when an antelope darts across the road, I slow back down and give myself a stern lecture.
I drive wisely the rest of the way and arrive at the Footbridge without hurting anyone! Anne and Jackson John are here so I get out and whisper “is he still visible?“ John beams and offers his scope. There he is! Big, beautiful, black 302M is curled up on top of a low sage hill to the left of the hiking trail. I do a Druid Dance for the first time on this trip. Yay!
302 doesn‘t move much, just lifts his head now and then. I wonder what he’s doing out here all by his lonesome. I look for bird activity that might indicate a carcass nearby but I don’t see any. Jackson John and I scope the surrounding area and soon find a coyote and a pair of cranes. One of the cranes lunges at the coyote, wings outspread but the coyote deftly avoids the big bird and trots off.
There are a number of bison east of 302’s hill and then I see a dark shape beyond them that is NOT a bison. I’ve found a grizzly! I call it out and everyone else sees it, too. The big bear is roaming on the far side of the river at the base of the slope, nose to the ground. He follows the line of the river upstream and I watch him until I can’t see him anymore.
302 gets up, stretches and turns around but then beds again. He seems to be in for a long nap. I turn Layla to the upper slopes of Norris, looking for more bears. Suddenly I have three wolves in my scope! I call out “wolves!” I see one, two, three of them, beautifully silhouetted right on the ridge line, near a lone tree. They pause only for an instant, then two of them drop down the near side of the steep hill and disappear into timber. The third wolf goes the other way and disappears, too. I can’t tell what color they are. I search the ridge and the hill below but I don’t see where they went.
I’m almost positive I saw wolves. They seemed to be looking over the flats, in fact, looking at 302. Were they Druids? A rival pack? Or merely some coyotes? I strain to see where the animals went but the slopw above Dead Puppy Hill is thickly forested.
Just as I am beginning to lose my conviction, 302 stands up, trots down his hill and moves west. Then someone calls “wolves in the flats!“ And suddenly I see wolf backs and wolf tails moving through the sage from right to left. Every once in a while the full body of a wolf is revealed between sage branches. What is most striking, however is the wagging tails. Their confident, relaxed manner tells me that I am watching Druids, who are about to greet 302. I see a big black wolf with tail held high. This has to be the alpha male, 480M! I see two grays, one with a whitish face. That has to be 286F! Hello pretty girl! The other gray is probably a yearling, and the other black is a yearling also.
Oh, how this makes me smile! The Druids are in the house! And here, of all places, at the Footbridge. I watch their happy greeting ritual, five wagging tails. Then big black 480 leads the pack east to a spot south of the hill 302 was on. Several birds rise up from the spot. Aha! They have carcass.
All five wolves disappear into a sunken spot in the flats. You know how short I am and I can’t be robbed of a Druid sighting this close, so I hike up the hill opposite the pullout, the hill that was always verboten when the Druids’ den was active. From here I can see the wolves milling here and there but I still can’t see the carcass itself. But after watching a while I see they are taking turns eating.
This turns into a nice long sighting and try to get to know each individual Druid a little bit more. 286 looks a bit thin but then I remember that she always had a sort of greyhound shape. Her back is still dark but her face seems whiter than before. 480 looks great, and I notice a light spot on this left hip. The two yearlings are distinguishable mostly by their smaller size and playful natures. We don’t see 255 this morning, but we all assume that means she is left at the den to babysit.
A group of bison moves into the area, single file, and head straight for the spot where the wolves are, as if bent on deliberate harassment. Repeatedly I see a raised bison tail and then a wolf bolts out of the depression, accompanied by a flurry of birds. This give-and-take between bison and wolves goes on for a good 20 minutes. In the end the bison leave and the wolves are allowed to eat in peace.
Once their bellies are full they come out in the open. I see them nuzzle each other and the two yearlings are extremely playful. 286 beds on her side and I am delighted to see her teats! This may sound strange, but it confirms for me that she gave birth this spring and that the Druids have living pups. I get a strong impression from this sighting that the Druids are very relaxed and well-bonded with each other. This makes me very happy because I was very worried about the stress level they might be carrying, due to the dominance of the Sloughs. But here is evidence that they are hunting successfully, eating and bringing food back to their pups.
Word has spread that the Druids are back in their old stomping grounds and there are a lot more people in the pullout now, including Jan and Bill. They tell me they’ve been watching the Sloughs on a kill of their own. The sun comes out and the morning warms, the warmest it’s been since I got here. 286 gets up and wanders with the two yearlings to a leftover snow-patch at the edge of the trees. The black pup has something in its mouth, a roundish dark object. To our delight, he drops the object on the snow-patch and we watch them begin to play wolf-hockey. They kick the puck around, pushing it with their noses or grabbing it and tossing it, then racing to be the first to grab it again. It is too cute and another specific behavior I’ve never seen before. I especially enjoy seeing 286 join in the fun.
Eventually these three bed down on this snow patch, and I imagine it is nice and cool for them as the sun grows warmer. 302 takes his turn at the carcass last, but I guess he had probably eaten before we found him bedded on the hill. 480 climbs up to bed on another hill and soon all the wolves are resting again.
People come and go in the pullout and we joke and share snacks. After another half hour, 286 gets up and heads into the trees, trotting purposefully. Something about her demeanor makes me think she is heading back to the den. At first both yearlings follow her, then they both come back. 302 eventually does follow her and goes out of sight through the trees.
The action is reduced to an ear twitching contest between the remaining three Druids. Then 480 gets up and moves to the snow bank. He and the black yearling bed there and seem to enjoy the cool. Their black coats are so stark against the snow that you can see them with your naked eye.
I take some photos through my scope.
After another half hour or so, these two wolves move back to the carcass and after that to a hilltop for another nap. It is now nearly 10AM and I decide it’s time to move on. I have still not driven east of Pebble Creek yet on this trip and I believe today is the day.
I bid adieu to the Druids and thank them for the lovely sighting, then head east. I stop at Barronette to scope for goats. It takes me a long while but I find them! Two lone males I think, about a hundred yards from each other. I am very tickled with my scoping ability on this trip. I feel more confident as I’ve finally been able to retain some of the tricks I’ve learned from others.
There is still a whole lot of snow still firmly blanketing the mountains. Despite a mild winter, the weather this spring seems to have been pretty wet (or perhaps, normally wet). I find that encouraging. I pull in to Dan and Cindy Hartman’s “Wildlife of The Rockies” gallery. I want to get a wolf print for John Uhler and Carlene, and a second grizzly-and-cubs print for myself, to go with the one I bought at Christmas. I have a pleasant visit with Cindy and see some of the new shots they have. She tells me of the bird and marten activity they’ve had lately and I see a blue-jay and a Stellars’ jay in the trees by their feeder.
As I open Lexi’s trunk to put my packages inside I suddenly hear a huge ROAR that seems both far away and close. I look across the road and up at Abiathar Peak. It’s an avalanche! A huge snowfall of churning white chunks plummets down a chute. It seems almost to be in slow motion. I follow it down for hundreds of feet and it lasts for several minutes. Wow.
I‘ve never seen that before. Some of it is thin, flowing down almost like liquid, but up top it is thick and chunky. I look up and see how scraped the mountainside looks. Wow. Whatever used to be there is now no more. And whatever was caught below is now buried deep!
I head back west and at the Thunderer Picnic area I see two moose, resting almost invisibly in the trees along the creek. I turn around to have another pass at them. They are relatively close to the road so I don’t want to scare them by stopping. I just drive by slowly and this time I can see it‘s a cow and a yearling. Nice.
It’s warmer today than usual, and that makes me sleepy. I pull over at Round Prairie for a nap. I’m out for about an hour but when I wake up I see it has clouded over. I head west again, taking my time, feeling like I have the entire Park to myself. Opposite the Soda Butte Cone I see a creature bounding through the sage on my right. It‘s a badger. Well, well, aren’t you pretty!
When I get back to the Footbridge I find 480 the only Druid still here. He’s bedded on a different hill but looks almost like a replica of 302 when I first saw him this morning. Very soon I see him get up and move off at a determined trot, heading along the route taken by 286 and 302. Then I see he’s got a stick in his mouth! Oh man! Just like 21 used to do! How cool! I notice some birds flying near him. The birds seem interested in whatever he is carrying so maybe it’s a leg and not a stick. Several times the birds swoop at him and eventually I see him emerge from behind a rise without the stick. Then I lose him as he heads into the trees.
It starts to rain. Hmmm. Looks pretty serious. Visibility gets decidedly poor so I figure I will turn this to my advantage and drive to Mammoth to complete some errands. I stop at Lamar Canyon and get out in the downpour to check on the owl nest. I find it easily and am rewarded by one of my favorite non-wolf sightings of my trip. The conifer that holds the nest sways considerably in the wind of this rainstorm. The adult owl has her back to me, but I can clearly see her “horned” head. One beautiful wing is outstretched, completely protecting her chicks from the elements. It’s amazing to watch this tree move back and forth, and the big bird riding it calmly, waiting it out. Rock-a-bye owlets in the tree tops!
My next stop is just below the Wrecker pullout. The bighorn family is out again, entertaining the mid-day crowd, who, despite the rain, are out of their cars all over the road, taking photos. I thread my way through carefully and stop lower down where there is more room. Just as I lift my camera, a family of mule deer pops out right in front of my car. They must have come up from the river canyon. They step into the road and stand there, five of them. No cars are coming across the bridge and anyone driving from the east will be stopped by the bighorn jam so they are relatively safe. They move across the road and up the hill on the other side. They seem to be having some kind of spat in which they all vie for the same spot to stand in. Call it King of the Hill, mule deer version. They play for several minutes, while I snap a photo out my window.
Finally they tire of the game and bound up and over the hill, heading toward the Yellowstone Picnic area. The bighorn jam is still going strong behind me but I decide to keep going. Things are quiet on the Blacktail Plateau and I enjoy trying to figure out which mountain Frank and I were exploring on Sunday.
In Mammoth I finally get to buy “Decade of the Wolf” and I crack it open right away to see Doug’s Dance’s beautiful photos. Congrats, Doug. I also buy one of Dr. Halfpenny’s wolf charts. I sit a while in the parking lot, facing Allison’s hill and think lovely thoughts of her. This is the very spot where we met. I remember her walking toward me, beaming, with outstretched arms.
As I head back east I enjoy seeing puddles all over from the rain. I hope the lakes and ponds get a chance to fill back up. I’ve watched them dry up, bit by bit, since my first visit in 1998. I stop at Hellroaring to scope for Geodes and remember my luck with Chloe and Becky. Unfortunately, I don‘t match it today! Instead I meet three brand-new employees and learn that Mammoth is about to re-open. On Friday, in fact. They are friendly and full of youthful enthusiasm for the adventure they are about to begin.
Just as I arrive at Slough for the evening session, the rain lets up. Perfect timing!
Jackson John is here in the parking lot so I join him and we scope together. I see several Slough adults, the alpha female and two other black wolves. One is sort of draped over the porch of the sage den in a relaxed, luxurious way. I see a good deal of pup activity and still see movement at the old den, the one behind the aspen trees.
There are a number of bison yearlings in the area this evening and something has gotten into them. Maybe they are glad the rain finally stopped. We see several yearlings bucking and butting each other, playing chase. It’s hard to tell if they are just having fun or seriously annoyed at one another. Their tails are up so we pay close attention, making sure to stay out of their way. For the next hour or so these bison youngsters continue to act up. Several times they gallop across the campground road, sending visitors scurrying for cover.
We see some pups emerge from the new sage den, accompanied by a burst of wolf activity. Wolves start showing up all over the place. Several have been asleep under the trees of the eastern forest, unrecognizable until they moved. Many, many people stop and walk up to Jackson John and me, asking what we are seeing. When we tell them “wolf-pups” they get very excited. John does his “ambassador” thing and I try to help, too. I absolutely love being able to show someone his or her first wolf!
Then the howling begins. Oh wonderful! Everyone shushes. I see 9 different adults howling, spread out over a wide area. And at least three pups have their little noses in the air, joining in the song. Hah!
It’s a typically rowdy Slough Creek Pack rally. The adults gather, noses in, surrounded by a forest of furiously wagging tails. Then the group sets off to the west, presumably on a hunt. All but one go off that way; a smallish black wolf returns to the den. Ah! The babysitter. The Pack moves quickly uphill and I am surprised at how quickly I lose sight of them.
I listen for information over the radio but no one seems to have them in sight. I watch the babysitter and the pups for a while and have a few anxious moments when one black pup strays pretty far by itself to the west. Finally I see the babysitter head that way. A few minutes later I see a black pup trotting jauntily beside the adult back to home base.
Just as I am getting restless, Rick and Anne arrive. They are headed for the promontory to do a pup count. I follow along and so do Adrienne and Bob. Rick is very serious about his count so we try not to disturb him with too much conversation this evening. His count is 7 black and 7 “light”. I’m not sure why he doesn’t call them gray. Once he gets his pup count, Rick answers questions and passes along the latest Slough news.
It’s a beautiful evening, the first without rain. Chorus frogs croak in the marshes and geese honk on the river. A pack of coyotes voices its displeasure with its wolf neighbors, going on and on, listing each grievance in great detail. They are so defiant and determined, I can’t help but sympathize.
On the drive back I stop at Wraith Falls to check what remains of the old bison carcass. To my surprise and delight, I find a small black wolf feeding on it, all by itself, tugging away on the meager remains. It seems very nervous, with tail tightly tucked, looking up every few seconds. It doesn’t seem bothered by me but I wonder if other wolves, or bears, may be about. The wolf has a collar so I decide to try to determine which one it is.
When I am snug in my bed I pull out the chart and study it. Assuming this is a Northern Range wolf, the possibilities are Leopold 470F or Geode 374M. But since I have to way to confirm it, it remains just a good guess.
I set my alarm and crash.
Today I saw: Antelope, a badger, a grizzly bear, bison, a coyote, 2 sand hill cranes, 6 mule deer, elk, geese, 2 mountain goats, 1 blue jay and one Stellars jay, 2 moose, a great horned owl on a nest, 4 bighorn sheep, ground squirrels, 18 wolves (five Druids: 480M,302M, 286F, and two yearlings; 9 Slough Creek adults and 3 pups; one lone collared black wolf), 1 Loon and the spirit of Allison.