I'm outside at 7AM in 29 degrees. First I have to scrape a couple of inches of snow off Greta. Then I break trail out of Laurie's driveway and into the snow-covered road.
I'm not used to these road conditions yet, so I go very slowly, eventually pulling over so Laurie can pass me! But by the time I get to Round Prairie, I feel confident again. Plus, first light is well underway and there is less snow once I get away from the forested sections. Fog still hugs the high slopes on either side.
We get no signals at Footbridge so we drive on past the Confluence. At Trash Can I see a set of wolf tracks leading west through the parking lot. Visibility is pretty bad but Laurie catches a glimpse of something in the rendezvous. Rick moves west and I climb up Trash Can Hill to join Laurie. We find a lone black with a scraggly tail in the area, but it's hard to see much more through the veil of snow. I look toward Amethyst Bench where I saw Druids last night but the falling snow obscures all the features and any creatures in it.
We hear Calvin report a black on Specimen Ridge but it tops out and he loses it. Then he reports wolves chasing elk but the sighting goes in and out. He's all the way over at Elk Creek and I figure by the time I get over there it will be too late, so I stick with my rendezvous wolf. Then I notice elk above me on the northside hill: about 50 cows being herded by a big bull.
After a while the black wolf beds so we now head west to join Rick. He has stopped at Fisherman's. The Druids have a carcass close to the road. They have stopped feeding on it and are visible up on the big hill north of Fisherman's. I see four of them quite easily at this distance. Two stand fully broadside on the skyline looking downhill, and I recognize one of them is the big daddy of the Druids, 480M. Yay!
As I follow his gaze down the slope I see bird activity and a slight pink color near the ground. Their carcass is in a gully between two hills. And the reason the Druids are not feeding on it is clear as a bell - bison have invaded! Whether they moved into the area as part of their slow migration from one spot to the other, or whether they deliberately disrupted the wolves is unknown. But the Druids on the hill have full tummies, so they have already had their initial feast. But you can just see the disappointment in their faces as they realize there will be no "second breakfast" this morning while all those bison are hanging out.
As I enjoy this sighting, visibility actually improves and I learn who some of the other wolves are: 690F (a black)and another black wolf Rick calls "the Thin Female". I tell him she doesn't look so thin to me. I am happy to see 480, but I must admit I have seen him look much better than he does today. His coat is thick in various places but thin in others, giving him a sort of "poodle" look. More than that, his energy seems very low. I am used to seeing wolves with vibrant energy, especially in the colder months. I suppose one of the effects of having mange is that it drains them of energy. My heart just goes out to them, as it would any animal so affected.
But I am glad their bellies are full, and glad they are still a cohesive group. The four Druids seem to accept the fact that the bison are not leaving anytime soon, so they turn and head back up the hill to bed down. Just then I notice a fifth Druid wolf, a black with tawny sides, walking up the next hill to the northwest. Aha! That wolf seems to have just come up from the gully, and I bet he/she WAS feeding on that carcass, despite the closeness of the bison. Perhaps the gully is deeper than I thought.
As this wolf walks up the hill, I see his belly is VERY full. Well, I'm glad for him. I'm sorry I never found out which Druid this was. Then a school buss of kids from Dubois, WY pulls in and Rick begins to do one of his friendly lectures for them, all the while sharing his scope so they all get a good look at the wolves.
I do my best to help, too. The Missouri ladies are here, and between us, all the kids get to see. The snow finally stops and we even get a glimpse of sun! I begin to wonder if I might be able to see the carcass better from the higher lot to the east, so I drive up there. It does offer a better view of the carcass, but not of the bedded Druids.
I am just about to head back down when a car pulls into the lot and I recognize the driver...Doug Dance! Hey!
Doug and his mom, Helen, have come to see if they can find that grizzly again and I like to think they were looking for me, too (heh heh). I know Doug prefers to spend his time in Hayden Valley at this time of year, before the interior roads close for the season. We have a nice but brief chat and he reports they have been having a wonderful time, seeing Mollie wolves and otters in the Mary Bay area. And he's gotten some good shots, too. We make a plan to meet for dinner tomorrow night in Gardiner at the Mine.
Doug and Helen head further east and I decide to try to catch a glimpse of the Blacktails. Even though it's cold, the sun is out and the day has turned quite stunning. I find myself wishing that I'd had weather like this (and wolf luck like this) when my sister and her husband were visiting two Octobers ago. Oh well.
I hook up with Laurie again in Little America and we stop in various places, trying to find the Blacktails. Eventually we follow Calvin's instructions and head up the road to the Tower store. And for the first time in my wolf-watching life, I haul my scope up the steps of the Calcite Overlook boardwalk and when I find Calvin and Colleen, I find the Blacktails, too. I set up next to the railing across from the basalt cliffs, where I have seen peregrine falcon nests in spring, and I train my scope far to the west, to a flat-topped hill.
On the far northern corner of that hill are four running Blacktail wolves! A snow-squall threatens to draw a thin white curtain over them, but the wind blows it away. The picture of frolicking wolves dims and brightens now and again, but mostly we have a great hour-long sighting of this charismatic pack.
Unlike the poor Druids, the Blacktail Pack is brimming with energy. I don't know the individuals of this pack as well as I would like but with my friend's help I am beginning to recognize a few of them. The alpha female, 693, is a lovely gray, somewhat large for a female (at least she seems so to me). Then I see Big Brown - the new alpha and successor to his uncle 302. Oh, what a handsome wolf he is! I have not seen him since he was a yearling - well, perhaps I did see him once or twice, but I did not KNOW I was looking at the wolf we would later call Big Brown. He looks strong and confident and I like the way he pays attention to 693.
I also see black male Small Blaze (who I think is now the beta male), and gray male, Medium Brown, both born into the Druid Pack, sons of 480 and 569 and brothers of Big Brown. And I see a black female, 692F, who immediately reminds me of her mother, 472F of the Agates. There is just something similar in her face. I can't find any mention of 642F in my notes but she may have been there, too (she is the third adult female in this pack, a black).
I see at least three black pups (there are four blacks and one gray pup at the moment). The whole group is moving around and sometimes they disappear over the side of the hill, only to reappear later a bit further away. There is a large pine tree on the hill and it's branches obscure them enough to make identification difficult! I cannot tell for sure which ones I might be seeing twice and which ones are new. But the pups are recognizable by their Tigger-like bouncy energy.
From their behavior and the look of their bellies, we are pretty sure they caught an elk and have already fed. I think we are seeing them as they just finished their second breakfast. I see a nice rally and lots of tail wagging. Then they go out of sight again, but two of the pups come back and begin some rambunctious play. Then a black comes down from the top with a chunk of meat and tosses it, grabs it again and then sits down to chew on it a bit. When he looks up, a raven lands and steals some of it, but the wolf rushes the raven and steals it back. Then the two other wolves come dashing toward him, and soon it turns into a game of keep-away.
A little chipmunk peeks out at me from behind a rock. I suppose he is looking for a handout but I don't fall for that. We also see two coyotes dash across the hill on the far left, during one of the times when the wolves were out of sight. The smaller canines were probably hoping for a bite and got chased.
The wind changes direction and begins to blow in our faces. Hmmm, that's not so fun! The Blacktails appear again and there is a lot of movement on the hill back and forth. With the snow falling more thickly again, I'm not really sure which wolves I'm seeing but I count three separate grays and five separate blacks. The full pack is 11 now, so I'm missing one gray and two blacks but I figure that's pretty good for a three-mile distant look!
They move out of sight again and the snow blows more fiercely, so we finally call it a day. We take our time going back as the stairs have icy spots. The weather continues to be fickle, with snow showers cropping up between sun showers. It's not really very cold, but when the wind blows....brrrr!
Calvin and Colleen head back west while Laurie, Rick and I go east. We assemble again at Dorothy's. Rick looks to the north to find the Druids and I scope in the valley, up on Jasper and Specimen. I find two coyotes in the flats and then suddenly I see a black wolf all the way down in the rendezvous. It could be the same scraggly tail black we saw this morning, but it's too far away to tell.
When Laurie turns her scope on the black, she finds a smaller wolf nearby. She feels sure that it is the pup, the sole remaining Druid pup from this spring. She is thrilled. She says this is the reason why the Druids have continually returned to the rendezvous: to tend this still-small pup until he is big enough to travel with them.
We decide to head east for a closer look, but we stop at Picnic instead of Trash Can - because there is a bison herd on Trash Can Hill and we are NOT going to mess with that! This makes the sighting a little harder, and when another snow squall comes in, it is almost impossible to see. I can see that the pup is distinctly smaller than the black adult, and I am delighted to see them romp and twirl about together. It certainly looks like the kind of play between an adult and a pup. And this is the first and only time I see playful behavior from a Druid wolf on this trip. A man scoping here with us says he sees four wolves in the rendezvous, 3 adults and one pup.
Laurie heads in for the day while I drive back west with the intention of scoping from Hellroaring, but when I get there, the snow falls thicker than ever and I am thwarted. I head east again, admiring the newly snow-flocked trees all around me, and smile as a red squirrel dashes across the road.
In Little America I find a herd of bison fairly close, where the snow won't mess up my view. Bison are always fun to watch so I settle in. But again the snow arrives to obstruct my view. I drive on into Lamar with the intention of climbing Trash Can Hill to scope the rendesvous but when I get there, I can't convince myself to leave the warmth of the car.
Then I notice movement across the river. Through my binocs I see an elk cow and two calves, one slightly smaller than the other, moving on a diagonal from the trees to the river bank. The cow leads the calves at a brisk trot, paralleling the old river bank, heading steadily west.
Oh, they look so vulnerable out there! The larger calf can keep up with the cow at a trot but the smaller one has to lope. The cow looks very nervous. She stops ever so often and listens intently, still as a statue except for her ears. The threesome moves along for about a mile or so, then the cow begins to edge closer toward the bank.
She reaches the bank and heads into the river corridor. The calves follow close behind and all three of them disappear. For a while I can see the cow's head and ears for a while, poking up, but then I lose them. I wonder if she is crossing the river? Will they come out again on the north side? I wait a long time but never see them again.
I think about moving down to Exclosure Hill but again, my body says NO! It's strange for me to feel so un-adventurous but then I realize my sore throat is back so I decide to stay inside. I drive on to the Footbridge and content myself with watching another bison herd. The bison move steadily to the north and in due time, cross the river, climb the bank and cross the road. Once they are all on the north side, heading up toward the Druid den area I decide to call it an early night and get some extra sleep.
It's not quite 6PM as I head up to Silver Gate. After a good chat and some dinner, I tell Laurie I am turning in early so I can beat this lingering cold once and for all. I end up getting 10 hours sleep and guess what? It works!
TODAY I SAW: bison, a flock of grey-brown birds, a chipmunk, 4 coyotes, elk, ducks, a red squirrel, 16 wolves (including 8 Druids - 6B 2G: 480, 690, the Thin Female and The Only Surviving Pup; 8 Blacktail wolves - 5B 3G: Big Brown, Medium Gray, Small Blaze, 693F, 692F and 3 black pups), and the spirit of Allison.