This morning I have to scrape frost from my windshield.
You know, Friday the 13th is supposed to be an unlucky day, but for me in Yellowstone, such ďrulesĒ donít seem to matter. And the proof is right here in my first sighting of the day.
There is a spot on the Blacktail Plateau I call ďThe Elk BowlĒ, a wide curve around a sunken meadow just before you come upon the Hellroaring area, where, in wintertime, I often see elk. As I brake in preparation for this curve I see a coyote in the roadway ahead with something in its mouth. Cool, has he just caught a fat gopher? I slow down. The coyote leaves the road and moves up a slope to the left. I creep closer and the coyote turns its head. Thatís a pup in her mouth! I see its large head and little tail and can count its four curled-up paws. Mama coyote looks at me, prepared to do battle if necessary.
I want so badly to stop, but I keep moving. I donít want to worry a mother coyote who is already concerned enough to be carrying her pup to a new location. There are enough Leopold wolves around, she doesnít need me to be bothering her. She disappears over the hill with her precious cargo. I donít know why, but this sighting makes me feel really good.
In Little America a band of elk crosses the road near Boulder. They look very nervous and I expect wolves may be after them. Hmm. I pull over around the next curve to watch and wait but no wolves emerge and the elk move up the hill and out of sight.
I see cars stopped opposite the bison carcass. Aha! Another grizzly! I pull in behind Jackson John and we whisper together, watching the big bear feed. The group here is quiet and clearly happy with this close sighting. John points out a second grizzly, further to the left. That bear sits on its belly, gnawing on something between its paws. Curiously, we also see a coyote curled up about 50 feet from this bear. Waiting for scraps, I suppose. I stay a while to watch these the bears, the coyote and all the ravens, crows and magpies and I think of how the misfortune of one bison cow is feeding all these creatures.
After a while I head on to Slough. No-one seems to know where the Sloughs went last night or whether or not they made a kill. I see one black adult who seems to be perturbed by some elk in the area. Two other black adults are bedded. Then a gray adult starts to move about and soon I see pup activity. Then I notice a fifth adult, the gray mother, over to the east, digging. It was the flying dirt that I first noticed, THEN I saw the wolf! I wonder if this is going to be a new den? It sure looks like it. We decide to call it the ďmeadowĒ den.
The day is turning fine, with actual sunshine, fleecy clouds and blue sky.
The black wolf has had it with the elk and runs downhill, scattering them in all directions. This seems to satisfy her and she now moves back to the den. More adults begin to appear until I count a total of seven. Then at some signal they all head to the den and the pups come out to greet them. Itís a massive tail-wagging, muzzle licking convention. Then a pack of coyotes nearby begin to wail, reminding the wolves that they are not the only dogs in town!
We think (hope) the wolves will respond to the coyotes but they donít. I imagine they are whispering nasty things about coyotes to their pups. The pups romp around just outside the den, exploring and playing. The adults bed in various spots and then things quiet down.
I have a hankering for another glimpse of 302 this morning and figure he may still be visible at the confluence so I head east. I stop at the top of Lamar Canyon to see the owl nest again. Itís still there, having weathered the rain and snow and wind. I only see one chick but from the way the adult is sitting, the second one is probably just hidden.
Lamar looks absolutely gorgeous in this crisp morning light although I keep wanting it to be just a little greener. That will come, I know.
At the confluence I join several cars already here. Up on the hill I find Bob with his big camera and Cathy, as well as several others. I do a Druid dance right away as soon as I see 302M. HeĎs still bedded on the gravel bar. Then he gets up and moves south, wagging his tail. Why, look whoís here! He greets pretty 286F, who emerges out of thin air (to me, anyway; she may have been there for hours!). Itís nice to see them nuzzle each other affectionately. Then they both bed, a few feet from each other.
I look to the left and see the elk carcass still at the riverís edge, and the brown grizzly still in firm control of it. He looks supremely confident and lies on his back, legs splayed in contentment.
I watch 286 nibbling at something in front of her. A little while later she gets up and walks a few paces, then stops, head down. I see her diaphragm heaving as if sheĎs about to regurgitate. Hmmm. For whose benefit? Maybe itís just habit, this time of year. Or maybe whatever she was nibbling didnít agree with her. Anyway, she seems unbothered and re-beds.
Now 302 gets up and s t r e t c h e s. He starts to walk toward the river and 286 gets up to join him. Are they going to challenge the bear? 286 looks for a workable angle, while 302 just stares, as if expecting the bear to just give it up. The bear lazily lifts his head as if to say ďforgetaboutitĒ. The two wolves wander back to their little spot and re-bed.
I notice some kind of altercation going on between some coyotes. Two of them dash through the sage, running full out, one chasing the other, then I see a third come out of nowhere and join the chase. The one in front gets away and eventually the other two stop. Probably the resident pair was chasing off an intruder. Later I see the two of them trotting jauntily to the east.
I look back at the grizzly. Heís up again, building up the pile of pebbles upstream of his prize which serves as a sort of day -bed for him and perhaps prevents the carcass from washing away. I watch him grow drowsy from his hard work and finally he lowers himself to bed, resting his large head on one huge paw.
During this lull in the action, Cathy fills me in on what I missed this morning. She saw 3 Druids this morning: these two and a black yearling. They made several failed attempts to get at the carcass. Finally the black yearling gave up and left. She watched him travel back toward the den via the western shoulder of Mt. Norris, worrying elk all along the way. Then she tells me she was chased off this very hill earlier this morning by a grizzly that was walking along the rim trail. The scopers up here were so focused on the activity down at the river that they didnít notice until he was very close. Cathy was warned by a radio call that there was a grizzly behind her! She calmly picked up her scope and walked a few yards down hill and the bear didnít bother her. I canít imagine keeping so cool if that happened to me!
The sun comes out and turns the river into sparkling diamonds. It feels heavenly to have such a warm sun after all the snow and rain.
The grizzly gets up and begins to feed on the carcass again. What an appetite! He flips it over, revealing a whole lot of meat still untouched. 302 and 286 notice this with wolfish dismay. So close, and yet so far. I wonder if it smells rank or whether it might be unspoiled, having been naturally refrigerated in the cold river for the last 24 hours?
The bear eats a while and then drops off to sleep again. The wolves curl their tails around their noses and doze too, dreaming of better days when they are again numerous enough to drive a grizzly from their own kill. The sun is intoxicating and soon Cathy and I fall asleep next to our scopes, right here on the hill.
I wake up a little before noon and see the situation below me is exactly the same. I bit Cathy adieu and hike back down the hill. I drive up to Trout Lake, hoping Iíll run into someone who might want to hike up there with me. Unfortunately thereís no one around and I am still too chicken to go alone. But I enjoy the drive, as it is the first time I see this lovely area under a sunny sky.
The Tower road opens today so I head over there to see what I might see. One thing I think is truly predictable in Yellowstone is that in springtime you can always find a Rosie bear.
And sure enough, no sooner have I passed Rainy Lake than I see not one, but two black bears walking through the trees. Itís a sow and her single black yearling cub, a little round fatty! The car ahead of me spots them, too, and stops in the road. I am able to pull over a bit and we both take photos right out our windows. The bears are walking downhill so they keep getting closer, although they remain a good distance from the road. The sow wanders over deadfall, grazing and nibbling at whatever suits her. Her cub follows, doing the same. Then mom finds a tree to her liking. She delights me by standing up and scraping her itchy back against it. She raises her muzzle to the sky, rubbing the back of her neck while her little round cub watches.
A bear jam develops behind me. I smile and drive on, leaving the Rosie bears to their delighted audience. I wave down the few cars who pass me coming down, warning them of activity ahead.
The road is open only as far as the campground and the store is not staffed yet and I enjoy seeing this area so empty of visitors! I pull over at each turnout, enjoying the unique view each one offers. I find the osprey nest still on its pinnacle and an adult osprey sitting on it, looking far more duck-like than raptor-like. I stop at Calcite Springs Overlook and realize I have NEVER walked up the stairs here. Every other time Iíve been here there was a bear jam on one side or another and consequently way too many people. But today I have it all to myself. I head out on this beautiful but windy day and see the terrific view IĎve been missing all these years. I didnít know this then but apparently there are various raptor nests that can be seen from here. Next time Iíll make sure to look for them.
On my way back down I see the Rosie bears are now on the south side of the road, about to disappear up the hill. I see three abandoned cameras on tripods facing the other way so it must have been a good show before they crossed. People are out of their cars but at least no-one is chasing after them.
I move carefully through the jam and around the next curve I see another black bear on the left side, at the bottom of a bowl. I pull over and have this sighting all to myself! This bear is larger and probably a boar. He might even be the father of the Rosie cub. The boar doesnít stay visible long, though, and soon wanders into the forest.
Next stop is Floating Island Lake. I want to spend some time watching the sand hill nest. I find a single adult resting here as usual. Both species of ducks are squabbling over territory or maybe this is how they attract a mate. Other than that, things are quiet. So I lower the seat and take another nap.
I wake up just in time to see a second adult fly in from the east. It lands on the edge of the raised mud base that supports the nest and I see what passes for a greeting between sand hill parents, which is a quick beak-to-beak touch. Then the second bird, letís call him dad, walks into the shallow water in front of the nest. I watch, fascinated, as he submerges his head, then comes up with a beak full of decaying plant matter. With an artful gesture, he flings the matter over his shoulder onto the mud base. Every two or three flings he pauses to tap down the material or tuck it into place. I watch him patch or re-build his mateís perch this way while she continues to sit on the eggs. Over and over he scoops and tosses, scoops and tosses. After about 15 minutes the adult on the nest stands as if to stretch. Her legs are SO long! The other bird opens his wings and flaps off to the western shore of the pond and begins to forage there.
The mama bird lowers her head and lowers her beak into the nest. I suddenly realize she is turning the eggs! I canít see the eggs because they are below the rim of the nest. If I had my wits about me I would have climbed the hill across the road, but I am too amazed to think clearly. Then she bends her stilt-legs and settles back down. How amazing to see her fold her legs and arrange her body to fit the nest. Then once more she stands up, lowers her beak for one more nudge and then settles down for good.
You see what I mean about lucky Friday the 13th ? What, other than luck, made me wake up in time to see this? I rest my case.
After a bit of lunch I head back to Lamar. I see a number of cars pulled over at Trash Can and my heart leaps for a moment thinking that it might mean Druids in the rendesvous. But itís something different. A bison herd with calves is being tested by a lone grizzly. At first, the herd panics and starts to run. The bear ignores the herd and aims for a lone cow and calf at her flank. I watch, fascinated, as the bear approaches. Unfortunately for the bear, this is the wrong cow to mess with. She is aware of him and stares him down without moving an inch. The bear changes his mind and sets his sights on another separate cow and calf. This one rebuffs him, too.
Now the herd has gotten its act together. A delegation of five yearlings has volunteered for battle and they head straight for the bear, tails raised with agitation. The bear doesnít yet see them and continues to amble along, casually looking for a calf to target. But the lead yearling takes matters into his own hooves and surges out from the other four at a menacing trot. The bear senses his advance and runs a few feet, then slows back down to a walk.
But the leader yearlingís bold move has inspired the other four bison and now five of them run at the bear. At this, the bear gives up his fantasy of veal dinner and he puts on a burst of speed. Then he decisively turns toward the river. Ding! Ding! Victory to the bison. The yearlings stop running and stand, proud and tall. If they could high-five each other, they would.
The bear crosses the river pretending he meant to do this the whole time, and continues west across the flats. I want to stay to watch him but I am getting anxious to check on the Druids. By the time I reach the confluence the Druids are long gone. The brown grizzly is still here, though, asleep on his stolen carcass.
I turn around and head back to Slough, where my luck quickly returns. I see six Slough adults, including 490M, 377M, two additional grays and two black yearlings. While Iím trying to sort out which is which a pack of coyotes starts to wail. This time the Sloughs DO respond with a howl-fest of their own, showing the smaller dogs how itís done. But the feisty coyotes mount a response, louder and longer than their first attempt, so I say itĎs pretty much a draw.
I see mother wolf 380F digging at the meadow den. Hmmm, this may be a sign that they are about to move the pups again. Or maybe wolf mothers just have an uncontrollable urge to dig dens. Then the alpha female appears. She must have been bedded in the eastern forest. She heads downhill at a determined trot. As she moves out ahead of the others I am reminded again how much she reminds me of 42! The alpha male follows her and then more and more Sloughs fall into line. In the end I see 10 of them, plus the gray mother who stays at the den.
The pack continues through the sage toward the river and I watch them until they go out of sight. It sure looks like a hunt is in the offing. But once they reach the river, which way will they turn? They were trending west as they went down the hill, so I head that way.
I pull over opposite the Peregrine Hills and climb the slope to the south, joining a couple already here. We scan the hills together and suddenly the lady calls out ďwolfĒ. Sure enough, on the yellowish ridge above the Lamar a black wolf is running. Then I see another, then a third. I recognize the alpha male, but canít identify the other two, except that neither is the alpha female. The third wolf drops out of sight, and the other two black wolves, one large and one small, run along the ridgeline. Itís a beautiful sight!
I see elk moving up the hills on the far side of the river but obviously something is happening in the corridor where we canít see. After a little while the two blacks drop over to the other side, out of sight.
While we wait (hope) for them to re-appear the man spots a grizzly walking in the meadow north of the road. A coyote follows him and to my astonishment I see the two animals begin to interact as if playing together, chasing first one then the other. ItĎs not exactly Disney-style play but IĎve never seen such a thing. All I can think is that both may be young animals, with no siblings of their own species to play with. Ya never know.
Once these two move out of sight we wait a while longer but the wolves do not reappear. So, I thank the couple for their help and head down the hill to Lexi. For once, I actually head home early.
My last sighting of the day is just west of Blacktail Ponds. I see a band of elk running in the flats to the right, and I see their route will take them across the road. I stop where I am, well back of their crossing point and wait. I scan the flats behind them to see if something is chasing them but see no movement there. The elk surge up the hill and then slow down as they reach the pavement. The leader pauses a moment and then continues across. One by one they cross in a line, some quickly, some tentatively, and disappear into a draw between two hills.
When I get to Gardiner I find my luck has held in one more important way: I have arrived in time to be served a real dinner at the
Yellowstone Mine. Yum!
Today I saw:
Antelope, 3 black bears (including a cub), 5 grizzly bears, bison, 6 coyotes (including one pup), 2 sand hill cranes, elk,
ground squirrels, 21 wolves (including 2 Druids: 302M and 286F; 11 Slough Creek adults, including 490M, 377M, 453M,
380F, the alpha female and the two other mothers, as well as 8 pups), 1 Loon and the spirit of Allison.