It's a gorgeous damp morning, overcast and cool. First light on my last day.
It sprinkles a bit on the way down. I see more mule deer and more elk in more places than ever before. At Warm Creek there are about 20 elk; all cows and yearlings. Just beyond the next meadow, three mule deer bound out of the woods, across the road and down into the timber, joining two more already there.
Beautiful river. Beautiful trees. More mule deer in a meadow near the Thunderer Trailhead. More elk on the other side further down. And on a hill above Ice Box Canyon is a bull elk in velvet.
At the Soda Butte Cone I spy a coyote mousing in the grass. I stop to watch. He looks up to make sure I mean him no harm. He goes back to mousing and without the usual hop-dive he catches one instantly. He just put down his nose and came up with it! Gulp, gulp, gulp. Gone. He looks at me again and trots away. Then he stops and turns back, ears cocked. Now I see the hop-dive. Chomp! He gets another one. That's the quickest I've ever seen it happen. He is very proud of himself and now trots off toward the river.
I am especially glad see a coyote on my last day. It is my general impression that I have seen far less coyotes this year than last. I have a hunch as to why, of course. Can you say "28 Druids"?
I stop at the Footbridge and have it all to myself one last time. I hear the river running, geese honking and birds all a-twitter. I feel wistful but not unhappy. It's been a wonderful trip. Good-bye Druid Den. Goodbye Braided River. Goodbye Possible Otters. I round the bend past the Confluence and my next goodbye dies on my lips as I see…cars.
The Druids have come home.
They've made a kill right across the road. I pull over, gather my heavy metal and trudge happily up the hill. Wow! It's even closer than the last one! Nicely positioned on a broad bluff across the road is an elk carcass and feeding on it are three wolves, two blacks and a grey. The kill looks very fresh and bloody, brought down perhaps only a few hours ago. I can see the still-intact shoulder of an adult elk. I see no antlers so I assume it was a cow.
Gerry and Peter are here. How nice to share this last great sighting with them. The grey wolf and a black wolf move off into the sage. I see the black one lower its head. I assume it is caching some food. The wolves disappear into the sage rather than return to the carcass so I guess their stomachs must be full. They may be heading back to the den or maybe just bedding down for a nap. I refocus on the black wolf still on the kill.
I watch the wolf eat. He tugs off bites quickly, as if famished, as if fearful he won't get another chance for weeks. I think this is the way wolves always eat, even those in a pack as successful as the Druids. On either side of the carcass are at least two dozen ravens with steadily deteriorating patience, and another dozen ill-tempered magpies. Serving as a frame of this grim picture are two placidly grazing bison in the foreground, one each side. Two small birds perch on the back of one bison, a Yellowstone version of an ox-pecker I suppose.
Now and then the wolf makes a serious lunge at the encroaching birds, fangs bared and shoulder hackles raised. It is useless though, as each time he scares off a bird in the front, another one steals in from behind.
The wolf finds a choice morsel and tries to tear it off. But whatever he has chosen does not yield. The wolf's posture in profile becomes highly dramatic: his front legs stiffen and his back legs brace wide apart for maximum balance and leverage. His teeth clamp like steel and I see his back and shoulder muscles clench. He tugs, he pulls, he yanks hard and finally a five-inch- square bloody pink chunk of meat rips off. His effort lifts the rib cage into view for a moment but now its gone again. The wolf's body relaxes in victory. He becomes a happy puppy again and trots into the sage with his prize, dripping a blood trail. The carcass is instantly black with birds.
Gerry and Peter and I shake our heads in amazement. We remark on the two bison grazing contentedly while this bloody business goes on so near. Then to my surprise up come Jake and Leslie. I don't remember now if they came out especially to see me on my last day or whether they had business out this way but I am glad to see them. I happily share the scope and we all take turns. I think this is when they first talk about wanting to join the Fairyland hike. Excellent!
The two greys come back (or two different greys) and another black wolf materializes from the sage. It is not the same black one that left with the bloody chunk. These three wolves charge the birds, which rise in a noisy black cloud. You can almost hear the birds muttering in disgust as they are forced to flutter a more appropriate distance from the kill. The three wolves tear into the carcass, feeding side by side for a short while, then one by one they disperse. A black and a grey head east towards the den; the other grey trots into the sage. The birds claim the carcass for a second time.
A few yards to the right is a smaller reddish area that has kept several ravens' attention the whole time I've been here. I guess it could be what is delicately called the "gut pile". Jake has the scope and he focuses on it. He thinks it may be a second, smaller carcass. It's hard to tell. Jake suggests the kill could be both a cow and calf. Whatever it is, there isn't enough left to interest the wolves. The birds like it, though.
Three new bison enter the picture, walking in a solemn line behind the kill from left to right. They flush two wolves out of the area. There's no way to tell whether these wolves are new arrivals or the earlier ones that had bedded down. I laugh, wondering if these bison are the same three jokers that scared the daylights out of me last week while I was watching bears. The two flushed wolves roam the sage a while, giving the bison dirty looks. Then they disappear again, presumably to new beds.
While I'm on the scope, Jake trains his good eyes on the rest of the area. In the far corner of the rendesvous area, just in front of the aspen he finds a moose! It stands in clear view in a green patch below the trees. Holy cow there's another one! We've got two bull moose out in that grassy spot about 20 feet from each other. And then we see a bull elk with lovely antlers walking confidently in the open. And Jake just keeps it up. He calls out that another grey wolf is approaching. Yep, I see him, walking from east to west. Perhaps he has been to the den and is coming out for a second helping. I follow this wolf with the scope and for a few brief seconds in the circle of my scope I have a wolf, a moose and an elk all at once.
And that's not all. A bald eagle has arrived to claim its share of the kill. It stands on the highest point of the carcass, frowning sternly on the lower classes below. The ravens ignore him and keep eating. Another bald eagle comes in. We watch this one glide to a graceful landing a few feet beyond the kill. A third bald eagle flies over and perches in a tree for a few moments as if it is beneath him to join such riff-raff. After a minute he abandons this pretense and descends to the feast.
Unfortunately, when I look at my watch and it gives me bad news. How I hate to leave, and yet I can't imagine a better last day. I got a Druid kill, a coyote, bald eagles, two bonus moose and Loons to share it all with. I thank Gerry again for all his help and wish him good sightings. I hug my young Loon friends goodbye and wish them well too, and carry my scope down to Ms. Jeep.
But Lamar isn't finished with me yet. Just before the Institute I find an antelope trotting right beside the road on the left. I lower my window to say "hello beauty" and he puts on a bit of speed. I stop to watch him run but he crosses the road in front of me and lopes up the high berm on the right. I have never seen an antelope this close. This gorgeous animal then stops. I put Ms. Jeep in park and lean over to the passenger side. I aim my camera through the open window. He looks right at me. I snap his photo and he goes on as if his task is now complete. Who does he work for, my wish-fulfillment-angel?
When I show people this picture they say "oh, such pretty eyelashes!" He was THAT close.
And it's still not over. I stop to say goodbye to the high pullout where so many Loons and I laughed so late on my first night in Lamar. And what do I find? A grizzly, on a hill above the Jasper Bench, high but easy to see with binoculars. I shake my head in disbelief. This is just mind-boggling. In Lamar Canyon I pass more mule deer jumping away from the road. At the Boulder Pond I see two swans. As I pass the Tower Ranger Station I see a black bear roaming beside the wooden fence. How could I have all these sightings in a single morning? What is going on?
Somewhere around Hellroaring Overlook I finally make sense of it. Oh yeah, I say to myself with a sigh of relief. Silly Wendy - you're in Yellowstone and this is just Last Day Luck.
Today I saw: 1 antelope, bison, 1 black bear, 1 grizzly bear, 1 coyote, 3 bald eagles, elk, magpies, 2 moose, mule deer, ravens, 2 swans, 4-7 Druid wolves, and 5 Loons.
|Bighorn Sheep ||15 || || |
|Cross-billed wren||1||Meadowlarks:||about 10|
|Sandpipers (bobbing birds):||7||Swallows:||dozens|
|Woodpecker: ||1 ||Yellow headed Blackbirds: ||8|
|Badger||1||Black bear:||9 (incl. 2 cubs)|
|Grizzly bear:||32 (incl. 16 cubs)||Coyotes:||12|
|Wolves: ||79 (all Druid Peak Pack) || || |
|Red Squirrels: ||4 || || |
|Big Birds & Waterfowl:|
|Cranes, sandhill:||13 (incl. 1 chick)||Crows:||dozens|
|Ducks:||dozens incl. Black, Blue billed, and Brown|
|Bald Eagles:||11 (incl. 3 juveniles)||Golden:||4|
|Geese:||hundreds||Hawks:||5 or more|
|Pelicans:||17 or more||Ravens:||dozens|
|Swans: ||7 || || |
|First ever: Badger, sandpipers, cross-billed wren|
|First in Yellowstone: woodpecker|
|First babies: Antelope calf, Elk calf birth, Sandhill chick|
|First activity: Grizzly kills calf, Grizzly bear & cubs swim Lamar; wolves swim Slough Creek, Sandhills courting, bluebills courting, Elk calf birth|
|AM sightings: out of 7 attempts there were 21 individual wolves sighted|
|PM sightings: out of 7 attempts there were 56 individual wolves sighted|
|103F and her 3 black pups were seen 4 times; twice in the AM; twice in the PM|
|21M was seen 3 times; once in the AM and twice in the PM|
|42F was seen twice: once in the AM, once in the PM|
|Other wolves identified in at least one sighting: 105F, 106F, 224M, 218|
|Most wolves at one sighting: 20 wolves including the alphas|
|Nicest sighting: The alphas & two escorts swim Slough Creek|