I am up early and put together a nice breakfast from the choices provided by the Super 8. I also chat with two wolf enthusiasts, Don and Carol.
Becky & Chloe greet me outside a litte after 6 and we set off in the beautiful first light. It's a very comfortable 31 degrees. The sky is clear, sporting a bright half-moon.
Elk are grazing in Mammoth and a gorgeous streak of peach sunrise graces the eastern sky.
We stop at the bison carcass to listen for howling. We hear none but do see two coyotes scavenging their breakfast.
On we go. Floating Island Lake is still frozen with old fallen snow on top. There are a few telltale tracks across its flat expanse. The sunrise has become downright GORGEOUS!
We reach Tower Junction at 7AM, where the temperature has fallen to 23. There are small bison herds in various spots, some bedded, some grazing. We drive on through the beautiful Lower Lamar valley, also known as Little America.
When we get to Slough we find the outhouse here in desperate need of cleaning. Looks like the government sequester has claimed another victim!
Bob L and Rick M are here, chatting. We check in with them and discover we've missed nothing in the east. So we follow Rick as he continues west.
I scope from Boulder on the little hill, where I see elk on Divide Ridge and two sandhills near the pond north-east of Junction Butte. The rumor is that 755M may be in the area somewhere and Rick encourages us to spread out.
Sian and a few others have stopped at Curve, so Becky and Chloe and I head to Tower. No sooner do I get out of my car than I hear howling - one lone voice, deep and resonant, coming from the southeast - roughly from the area of Yellowstone Picnic.
I rush over to tell Chloe but alas, their windows were not open so they didn't hear it. Next we follow Rick to Elk Creek. He confirms that 755 is almost certainly on the western end of Specimen Ridge. So we all set up to find him from this higher vantage point.
Then we overhear a call Rick gets from one of the wolf-project guys at Hellroaring, saying the Junction Buttes could be nearby. Chloe & Becky stay at Elk Creek while I go on to Hellroaring.
As I am driving, Sian reports that she has 755 in sight from Curve. I debate about going back but end up at Hellroaring.
As soon as I am set up I find a gray canid, but I'm not sure it's a wolf. Nope, it's a coyote. Just then we hear howling, several voices, definitely wolves. A few seconds later, Rick spies the Junction Buttes, low on the big hill, well below my coyote.
I reposition my scope and finally find a group of wolves, tails wagging, having just finished a group rally. Richard joins us here, and the four of us watch the Junction Butte pack travel west in a line. They drop down to cross Hellroaring Creek and trot back up the other side, then move into the flats. Six wolves, spread out in a fairly straight line.
First is Puff, the alpha male (gray), then Ragged Tail, the gray alpha female, then 889F a black (who kinda looks pregnant to me), then the "uncollared black female", then a gap to the black pup, and a longer gap to the "new male" (gray). The grays are hard to see in this early light so I concentrate on the blacks.
I remember Laurie mentioning that the "new male" had some sort of injury to his front paws, causing him to walk gingerly. I pan my scope from the black pup to the last in line gray to watch this behavior when suddenly Rick says "Puff is chasing an elk". So I look up and see a large elk herd moving en masse across a hillside above the flats where the wolves had been walking.
I try in vain to see wolves behind the elk - I just see elk. Then Richard says "he got it". The light is very tricky this time of the morning (and you know I have bad eyes) so I have a great deal of trouble finding what the others are seeing. The ever-gallant Richard eventually comes to my rescue.
I now see a group of four wolves, all with their heads down, and two legs of the poor elk, flopping lifelessly above their heads. The elk is dead already and the wolves are feeding. It's very hard to tell in this light but I'm pretty sure I see two grays and two blacks. The hill they're on is REALLY steep.
Then the black pup comes up from below to join the others. He gets snapped at!
A while after this, the "new male" arrives and gets the same treatment, but he is eventually allowed to stay.
I hear Rick and Richard compare notes and I piece together what happened. Apparenly, Puff suddenly took off uphill after the elk herd. The herd began to run uphill and west, but one elk took a wrong turn, heading toward the river, and ran right into Puff who quickly latched onto its throat. The elk got away for a moment and again ran downhill, but Puff caught it again. Then a second wolf came to help. This all happened on a very steep slope and they brought it down quickly. The rest of the wolves rushed upslope and finished it off.
I don't like to see any animal die, so I'm really not sorry I missed it.
Puff impresses everyone again as an excellent hunter.
All six wolves are now at the carcass; they feed for nearly 2 hours! As they tug and pull, the carcass slips further down the hill, a foot or so at a time. At the end of 2 hours, the carcass is a good 20-30 feet below where it was first killed.
I do finally see the gingerly way the new male takes his steps, although it seems somewhat sporadic. One by one, the meat-drunk wolves move off to a snow-patch to bed and digest their meal, until only the black pup is left.
Dozens of people have been pulling in and we show them the wolves. I also see a golden eagle, some bighorn sheep on the basalt hill, many elk and numerous bison.
Around 11AM, all the wolves, including the pup, are bedded. They ate so much that I am confident they will be out for the rest of the afternoon. I learn that 755 is still visible from Curve, so I head east to try to see him.
The sky is crystal clear, a typical blue-sky Yellowstone day. Except that its the end of March and it should be cold and snowy!
Just past Yellowstone Picnic I see Sian out of her car, watching something north of the road. It's a fox! I join her and watch the beautiful animal stalking small critters in the meadow. He/she is a lovely shade of orange-red with a gorgeous, luxurious tail.
My next stop is at Curve, where I join a group of wolf-watching friends on a little hill north of the lot. Everyone is here, Alan and Kirsty, Becky & Chloe, Sian and Richard. We happily watch our favorite widower-wolf, 755M. He is bedded under the shade of a tree about half-way up the hill on Specimen, next to a fallen log.
I see his familiar black-going gray body and his very distinctive ears (black with white dots in the center). Poor thing. In December he lost his great love, 832F, the late, great 06 female (lost her to a human hunter with nothing better to do than to destroy a wild animal, who happened to be an extraordinary pack leader, mother to three generations.) Then in January he found a re-bound mate, short-tailed Mollie wolf 759. They bred and would likely have started a family, but when 755's former pack arrived for a visit to Lamar, his offspring and their new mates would not tolerate the couple's presence, and 759 was killed. So, 755 has been living a bachelor life since mid March.
He is the one I heard howling this morning from Tower. Seeing him up there, knowing the kind of year he's had makes it hard for me to stop from thinking he is lonely.
But truth be told, he's not sitting there in self-pity. He is actively looking for another mate. There are still available females in the Junction Butte pack and some of them were here, perhaps as recently as this morning. I have no doubt that he will eventually come down the hill, cross the road, and follow them.
Between views of 755, I also scope the northern mountaintops for mountain lions (where I saw a female and her youngster years ago), and all over the sage hills to the east of us.
During one of my scans I see what looks like a lone bison eating a bloody carcass.
I call Richard over and ask him to look thruogh my scope. I ask him "what am I looking at?" He steps away, grinning and says to the group "Wendy found a newborn bison calf!"
Suddenly all of our scopes are re-positioned and trained on the spot. It looks like the cow must have given birth just moments ago. She is licking the placenta, of course, not a carcass. And her wee one is that small patch of orange on the ground in the sage.
For a long while, the tiny orange thing does not move. It's still early in the year, and we are all aware that early births are often stillborn. But then a shout goes up! It moved!
The bison mother does not seem particularly encouraging to her calf, so I wonder if this is her first one? She looks like she doesn't quite know what to do. Chloe suggests she may just be exhausted. She's too far away for us to hear her - she might be grunting and mooing to her calf, for all we know.
Everyone thinks that this is the first baby bison seen in 2013. I suggest we call it the Easter Bison.
Each time we see a tiny kick, we aww and ooo. After a long half hour, the calf begins to try to get up. It fails miserably and the group of humans on the hill reacts to each attempt. It gets its front legs up, wobbles and falls. It gets its back legs up, wobbles and falls. This happens over and over and by the sixth pathetic crumple, I just can't take it anymore. It upsets me too much.
I say my goodbyes to the group and head down the hill. It's just past 1PM and already almost 50 degrees! The weather is spectacular, all the more so for being so unexpected.
My drive into Lamar is especially nice. There is a good deal of snow still in the valley. It has melted and re-frozen over and over, and it's pockmarked and disturbed by countless hooves and paws.
There are bison herds here and there, and the usual bighorn sheep on the cliffs above the confluence.
The futher east I drive, the higher the snow berms become. By the time I pass Ice Box Canyon, the snow pack on the mountains looks like winter.
I pull into Lauries's driveway and unpack some stuff and transfer food from my cooler to her fridge. Once that job is done, I head off again, back west.
At Barronette I stop to scope for goats, but do not find them. Instead I enjoy finding melting trickles among the ice fall.
At Round Prairrie I stop again and this time I DO find goats, seven of them on The Thunderer. I also hear an owl hooting, from somewhere in the trees to my right. A fellow visitor tells me it's a great horned owl.
I also see several small birds hovering for short stints above the creek, then flitting off, probably catching little bugs of some sort.
Lamar Valley remains my favorite place in all the world, and it is a wonderful treat to have it all to myself in this shoulder season. I stop in the road and just stare for a long while at the willows in the confluence. They are crazy gorgeous, such vibrant colors: purply red, red-orange, yellow orange, and they look as if they are lit from within. If I were an artist, this would be my watercolor subject.
In a bush on the north side of the road I notice what may be the beginning of a magpie nest.
Now I am back at Boulder. I join a few other folks who have come to watch the bison baby. My fears for the calf begin to subside when some nice folk tell me that it finally managed to stand and then took a little walk. It is resting again at the moment, and mom is still standing guard.
The same people tell me that 755 came down the hill shortly after I left and crossed the road. People's hearts were in their throats thinking he was headed right for the little calf, but apparently his mind was on something else, for he skirted the bison mom and went right on out to the Buffalo Ford, scent-trailing the Junction Buttes.
I watch the Easter Bison for a while, then head west to Hellroaring.
The Junction Buttes are still asleep when I get here. It's about 4:30, and a very pleasant 5 degrees. I see a black and three grays bedded on the snow patch - each in a slightly different spot than they were when I left. The black pup is up, feeding on the carcass which is now at the very bottom of the hill. I see him yank something off the carcass and move off with it to the right. He he sits down and begins to chew.
Now another black, the un-collared female, gets up and walks around a bit. She beds in different spot. The rest are flat out, probably snoring, if wolves snore.
A raven alights in a tree above us and begins to make wonderful raven sounds, sometimes a "croak", sometimes more like "brock, brock, brock". I see a red tail and a golden eagle soar by at different times.
As the sun begins to wester, each bedded gray gets up, stretches and moves away from the cool snow to a slightly warmer spot in the sage. Two go back to sleep but Puff decides he has one more belly corner that needs filling up.
Becky and Chloe are here and I'm glad they finally got a chance to see these wolves. They tell me they've heard that Laurie and Dan will be back in the Park tonight. They stayed in Missoula last evening and are shopping in Bozeman today.
Chloe finds a black bear on Little Garnet again - most likely the same black bear sow we saw yesterday.
I make it a fairly early evening. Jeff is staying at Laurie's tonight and I told him I'd make dinner for both of us. So I big goodnight to Chloe and Becky and head east. On my way I see two more spectacular blue birds.
TODAY I SAW: a black bear, mountain blue birds, bison (and one calf), coyotes, elk, a fox, a hawk, a golden eagle, 7 mountain goats, big horn sheep, 7 wolves in cluding 6 from Junction Butte and 755M, and the spirit of Allison.