Today is my last day in the Park. Waaaaaa! I have a feeling it's going to be a good one!
Venus twinkles beautifully above the horizon and I see Saturn again (I still think it's Saturn) in the southeast. It seems colder this morning than any other day. Lamar is a little misty. My first stop is a Footbridge, where I learn that it IS cold this morning. Only 36 degrees! Glad I have my warmies.
There are no wolves in sight at the moment, although there are Druid signals in the den area. I hang out with Laurie & Dan, chatting quietly as we scope all over the place.
We decide to try to change our luck by heading west. We stop at Picnic to view the "new" carcass. There is one grizzly feeding and a second roaming in the grass to the east. Just as I get Layla set up, the bear on the carcass suddenly heads for the trees at a gallop. None of us can figure what made him do that. Perhaps the other grizzly gave him the evil eye? That bear now heads toward the carcass and tugs a bit, but doesn't stay long. He, too, moves off, heading east.
Once the bear is gone the birds descend. They cover the carcass so completely that it becomes a mass of flapping wings. We scan the rendezvous for 691, who we hear is out there somewhere. We scan high and low but don't find her.
We drive on to Dorothy's and scope from here. We find some elk way up on Specimen Ridge and Dan finds a small carcass of something in the river, with three bald eagles on it. We also watch an interaction between an orphaned bison calf and a lone bull bison. The calf, already turning brown, is probably bawling and wailing (although we can't hear it) and the bison bull just stares at it. Finally the bull begins walking slowly east and the poor calf begins to follow him. The calf looks robust but has miserable odds of survival. Well, at least he has found a companion for the time being.
Then the radio crackles with a news of something going on at Footbridge, so we head back there.
When I arrive at the pullout I see two wolves in the flats, just east of DPH. One is a gray, #645, and the other is a black that Laurie calls "the large black yearling". The gray moves toward the river heading north, looking as though she intends to cross. I notice she has a very thin tail.
Apparently these two adults came down the slope and crossed the road at the curve in the "no stopping" zone. Six pups were with them, including one pup that followed the two adults almost all the way down. However he was scared back up the hill by the cars and people. How do we know this? Because the people who stopped drove here and told us.
So, again, we are left to wonder what sort of wonderful sighting we might be having now, had those people not stopped and scared the pups. It sure seems that the pups are ready.
The gray reaches the river and steps in. The water is up to her back but she appears to be wading rather than swimming. Just two days ago, 691 and White Line were swept down by the current when they tried to cross. It looks like the water level has dropped considerably. But then I remember they crossed in the evening, when the river might have been naturally higher from the effects of snow-melt up high.
I especially love seeing animals cross a river, so I really enjoy this. The black steps into the water and he wades, too. Once they are out the other side they lope toward the road. There are no cars stopped there now, and the wolves travel fast. The black passes the gray and is across in an instant. Now the gray crosses. I try to anticipate when they will appear at the top of the hill but I only see the black up there very briefly.
Then I have a thought that if the pups are still up there, they may come out to greet these two! So I keep panning carefully between the rocky knoll and the slivers of green between the trees. Aha! Movement! Three wolves - little wolves! Pups! I see two grays and one black as they pass through the widest green clearing, walking slowly in a loose line, heading slightly uphill.
Well, that was not a greeting, but at least I saw Druid pups! The two adults elude me completely. Once again, it's a very short sighting but as it's my last day, I'll take it!
I scope a bit longer and see a pronghorn and a gorgeous mountain bluebird, and then see a black bear moving in and out of the trees way out beyond the rendezvous. Laurie and Dan and I have talked about a visit to Trout Lake and today seems a perfect time to do so. Dorothy and Jeff join us, so we pack up and head east.
The Trout Lake trail is short but steep. Somewhat foolishly, but due to the warm temperatures, I do not put on my hiking boots but remain in my Tevas. So when we get to the top, I stop by the big tree to knock some tiny pebbles from between my toes, while the others walk across the log bridge. I see them stop on the other side near the shore, and gaze intently at the edge of the water.
I look where they look and see...otters!
Woo hoo! I've never seen them appear so quickly! I get out my camera and just sit where I am while the otters begin to swim TOWARDS me. There are four of them, a mom and three pups. I don't know much about otters but I guess these were born this year. They are incredibly playful, including mom. And they glide through the water with such grace and agility it takes your breath away. The youngsters stop to play on a log, a large partially submerged branch, north of the little bridge.
They are so much fun to watch, I can hardly stand it. They slip and slide in and out of the water onto the log, wrestling, nipping each other, sliding back into the water, all the while peeping and grunting very softly. An Asian couple comes up the trail and starts to head toward the east side of the lake, oblivious of the show going on below. I call to them and point. Whoa! Their eyes go wide and they smile broadly, then come trotting back. They sit beside me and gasp and laugh and grin. They ask me what they are. I tell them and they repeat "otters".
Two of the pups play tug of war with a soggy stick. They never stop moving. Then mom seems to make a decision and swims away from the log. She leads her brood right past me and I can see their sleek bodies through the clear water. The mom rises to the surface and looks right at me, then dives again. Fantastic!
They swim towards the middle of the lake and I wait for my friends to come back across the little bridge. We now take the trail north towards the inlet stream. The trail is very muddy in spots and I begin to wish I had switched to my hiking boots! When we near the little stream, which comes winding and curving down the hill, I see Bob L. He has one Emmy winning otter film, a lot of which he shot here. Looks like he is working on another.
He is set up about 20 fee from the mouth of the stream, waiting for the otters to come fishing.
There is a little wood bridge across the stream and we hurry across it and follow the path around the north side of the lake so we can watch the action but be outside of camera view. I stand on the shore and look down into the water, at the junction of the lake and the stream. I am astonished to see it chock full of cutthroat trout! Whoa! I have never seen the trout spawn in Yellowstone, here or at any other spot. It instantly becomes one of my favorite experiences.
It takes a minute for me to register what I'm seeing. There are a hundred, maybe two hundred dark shapes in the water, a "herd" of trout, gathered at the mouth of the stream. They seem to be "treading water" at several depths, all facing the same direction, towards the stream, waiting their turn to swim UP into the current. It is just such a bizarre thing to see a fish deliberately swim against a current, much less to see a hundred of them doing this.
A German couple here is as gleeful as I am. We watch fish after fish make the decision that now is the time, and it surges forward about four or five feet. Then it seems to "tread water" in another spot for a while, then surges forward again, perhaps another few feet. Many times the tail movement required for the surge is so great, the fish actually leaps out of the water an inch or two. This makes a slappy-swishy sound which is also cool to hear.
Then the otters arrive.
O-my-god. I am watching a wildlife movie occur before my very eyes. As mom otter appears, dozens of trout in the lowest levels of the inlet stream suddenly reverse course and pour out of the stream back into the relative safety of the lake. Whoa! Those trout know what's coming.
The otter pups seem to know what to do. Instead of going after the fish, they slip into a reedy area of half land/half water just to the side of the inlet stream, almost as if hiding, but more likely just getting out of the way.
They let mom do the work. And boy, does she. With astonishing speed she surges up the stream, weaving and twisting. Just that quickly she wheels around with an enormous trout in her mouth, still wiggling.
She delivers trout #1 to otter pup #1, then turns back to the stream. Zip zap zip! She has a second fish. She delivers this to pup #2 in the reedy area where they wait, then heads back for trout #3. Once each pup has a fish, she goes back for her own.
I want to keep watching mom but I am distracted by the pups trying to manage their not-quite-dead-yet dinner. The fish are only slightly smaller than the pups. Once mom gets her meal, they all head over to the "dining room" which is a wide, hollow log wedged in the mud a few feet out from the shore of the Lake. The top of the log is above water and relatively dry. Two otter pups clamber up with their fish and begin to eat. Their baby teeth seem not strong or sharp enough to cut through such a muscular fish, so they chomp and chomp and chomp until they can tear off a bite to swallow.
I see some bright orange roe splill out from one of the fish and collect in a dimple of the log. The pup laps them up quickly. I am reminded that this is why the fish are headed up the stream in the first place, for the females to lay their eggs in the higher lakes and the males to fertilize them.
The fish are so unweildy that the pups often lose their balance and slip off the log. They climb back up and struggle to gain a steady grip on the slippery catch as they eat. Mom, of course, has less trouble, having bigger and sharper teeth, as well as more experience. One of the pups drops his fish and tries to steal from a sibling. They play tug of war until they both get a piece.
We watch this drama from the trail, about 25 feet away. Bob L and several other photographers capture the whole thing.
Once the otters have finished their meal they wash up with a swim, meticulously rubbing their whiskers. Mom now has the log all to herself to enjoy her second fish.
I go back to the stream and take a slow walk along its course up the hill. The spawn has been going on for several days and every section of the stream is full of fish. I bet if I wanted to, I could stand in the stream and scoop fish onto the bank. I imagine native people doing just this, although a net would work even better. 8~)
Other than knowing that the streams and rivers in Yellowstone are world famous to fishermen, I never paid much attention to trout here. But, boy, they have won my respect today. Their coloring is perfect camoflauge for this vulnerable time of their lives. Their orange-brown skin has many irregular speckles, matching the patterns in the rock-bed of the stream as seen through the sunlight glinting on the water.
I don't know how they manage to remain stationary against the constant current, but they do. Perhaps they instinctively know where to find pockets of slower water, and take advantage of them so they can rest a moment before the next surge. Sometimes they jump over submerged rocks, other times they seem to glide over them. Sometimes their effort results in their getting washed down below their starting point, but they keep going.
Man, next time I think I am having a hard time doing something in life, I am going to remember these fish! This is just one of the coolest things I have ever seen, and to have this extraordinary experience on my last day is just perfect.
After about an hour and a half, we very reluctantly begin to head back. I say goodbye to Laurie & Dan and Dorothy. They all head to Silver Gate and I go west. I see four coyotes in Little America and one more black bear at Junction Butte.
Things are pretty quiet the rest of the way to Mammoth. I stop for gifts and spend a few more minutes "visiting" with Allison. I do wish I could stay longer, but I know I will be back again before the end of the year. It's been another marvelous trip but for now I'm off to Bozeman.
Today I saw: 2 grizzly bears, 1 black bear, bison, yellow-headed blackbirds, 4 coyotes, 2 sandhill cranes, 2 mule deer, 3 bald eagles, elk, geese, 4 otters, pronghorn, at least 200 trout, 5 wolves (all Druids, including 645, a black yearling and three pups) and the spirit of Allison.