I set out at 6:45 this morning but it is still mighty dark. I meet up with Dorothy and Ted just past Hellroaring. We pass two coyotes in the road on the sharp curve at Elk Creek. One of them has a radio collar with an antenna sticking up. Poor coyote. I wonder if his relatives tease him “Here comes Antenna Head”.
We find Chloe & Becky with their scopes on a hill in Little America. The first thing they tell us is that Rick got Druid signals in the traditional den area and that 302 and 286 have returned home unharmed. I breathe a sigh of relief.
Dorothy and Ted head east to see the Druids for themselves, but I decide to stay here with Becky and Chloe. Like them I am feeling a bit adventurous this morning, especially now that I know the Druids are safe. Chloe has heard a report that the Geode pack may be nearby. The alpha female of the Geodes is former Druid 106, Chloe’s favorite wolf. In addition, there is another wolf roaming this area, perhaps on the south side of the road, wolf 384F, a grey disperser from the Agate pack. Perhaps she is looking for a mate among the Sloughs or the Druids?
We scope Specimen Ridge, Mom’s Ridge and the Peregrine Hills. We find elk in abundance, and scattered bison, but no wolves. We hear a chorus of song-dogs which sounds great and we are treated to a pretty sunrise in pale yellow mode. Then I find a wolf track. A short series of good paw prints in the snow of this pullout. We investigate and find a few more single impressions behind it but nothing else. We walk both directions from the pullout for about 25 feet but find no tracks on either side of the road so we deduce that the wolf walked in the road itself, which is free of snow, for a good long while.
The print is fresh, and the most likely candidate to have made it is 384F.
While we scope we talk about the pros and cons of finding wolves by telemetry vs. by eyeballs. We admit that when we only have a few days to visit, we certainly enjoy the convenience of simply pulling up next to someone who already has them in sight, but every once in a while we like to put ourselves to the task of really FINDING wolves, by careful, methodical scoping, just by doing it. We all agree the rewards are sweeter.
But we don’t locate any wolves here this morning so we decide to head to Elk Creek to see Agates.
When we get to the curve at Elk Creek we find Bob packing up his camera. He has been filming ravens on a day-old carcass right at that curve where Elk Creek crosses the road. Ahhhhh. So that’s why those coyotes were in the road this morning. And, that’s also probably why I continued to notice the carrion-smell yesterday morning, well after I passed the road kill on the high curve.
Bob says the Agates were around this carcass earlier but are not visible now. As he loads his camera into his car I watch a bald eagle soaring above us, following the line of the road.
Chloe wants to go to Hellroaring to see if we can find the Geodes from there. I’m up for that, so off we go. It’s pretty cold here but the view is gorgeous. We scope a while and find elk just about everywhere; big bulls up high and a large bedded herd in the flats to the right. It would be pure luck to find wolves here but it does happen sometimes.
Just when we are beginning to get frustrated a lady in a van pulls in and comes over to tell us she just saw 7 wolves at the Children's Fire Trail pullout. We look at each other thinking, Leopolds! The lady says she just looked up and there they were. We figure we still have half a logical chance to see them, so we pack up and go.
The Blacktail Plateau country is excellent elk and wolf habitat but a tricky place to see wolves. The pullouts just don‘t offer as much opportunity as the ones in Lamar - it’s just the way the land is made. But we are hoping that three pairs of highly motivated eyes will stand a chance. We start at the Children’s Fire trail pullout and scope all angles but no luck. Then Becky and Chloe go down the hill to the Ponds and I scope the opposite corner. Then we join forces at the pullout below the S curves. And don’t ya know, we suddenly hear howling. LOTS of howling! Beautiful howling!
There are many, many voices and they all seem to have a lot to say. The Leopold pack is one of the largest in Yellowstone, having about 20 members at the moment. And from the sound we hear, I would bet all of them are together right now. It lasts a wonderfully long time and we keep looking for them while it continues, enjoying every sweet note.
But the only movement we see is a band of elk on a hillside. We watch them for any reaction to the howling but they seem quite unfazed.
We watch a little while longer but the head east again. Along the way we hear that Rick is seeing the Slough Creek wolves near the Secret Passage. This is a spot I‘ve always wanted to visit. I know it means a climb into the rocks above Lamar Canyon but I want to try it.
So, we park at the eastern end of the Canyon and gather our gear. Becky puts special traction webbing on her boots, we shoulder our scopes and up, up, up we go. I have to stop frequently to catch my breath . but I am delighted when I reach the top and see the view! It’s a brand-new angle on the whole Lamar valley. I especially like seeing the nooks and crannies on the opposite side of the canyon. I see a lot of choice spots where a mountain lion might sit on a sunny day, flicking its tail. waiting.
Up here in the windswept sage we find Rick and Cindy and Gary and Dorothy. Unfortunately, they tell us that we just missed the wolves! Arrrrghhh! In the half hour it took us to drive here and hike up, they have moved over the hill and out of sight. Ah well. Maybe this is going to be one of those days, where we always arrive too late! The good news (at least to me) is that the Slough Creek wolves are heading back to their home territory. Perhaps they will leave the Lamar to the Druids after all.
We tell Dorothy about the Leopold howling we heard and she tells us about seeing the Druids this morning. She saw all 7 Druids and none seemed any worse off after their encounter with the Sloughs. She says they hidden from view at the moment.
We hike back down to the road and follow Rick into Little America where he has gone to check a report of a sighting of a single grey wolf.
It is now the middle of the day and the roads are as crowded as they get in winter (which is to say about 20 cars!) They are all in this pullout and Rick barely finds room. But he soon confirms the report and in another minute I have a grey wolf in my scope!
Rick tells us this is 384F, the wolf that probably made the track I found this morning. She is pretty but looks quite lonely all by herself, wandering here and there up on a snowy slope to the west of the Crystal Creek drainage. Greys are always harder to see than blacks, especially with a minimal snow cover.
There are more people watching this single wolf than I have seen on this whole trip. I say hello to Gary and Trish, wolfers I met way back in the spring of 2000. And then who should drive up but John and Carlene! Yay Loons! They manage to find a place to pull over and for the first time in quite a while I share my scope with them! It is a good feeling. Just like old times, John teases me for my makeshift scope cover. When you are scoping in the cold, you don’t always want to be touching cold metal, so I slip a fleece shirt over it. What? It works fine!
Wolf 384F doesn’t remain in view very long. She eventually goes over the hill, on a track that will likely take her to Lamar. Is she looking for a mate? Maybe she’ll run into 302? That could be interesting.
Three cheers for my first wolf of the day!
Chloe and Becky and I feel much better! So we decide to follow Rick again. He is headed to Elk Creek to follow up on a report of Agates. We find space at the high pullout that overlooks Yancey’s Hole. I see Bison Bob here, and take that as a good sign.
In moments Bob calls out “wolf“. I look where he looks and now I see them, too. First one, then two, then four. Yay! I’m seeing Agates! These animals are quite active for a short while, playing, nuzzling, fawning over a large grey in the center which I presume to be 113, the alpha male. Other wolves appear and now my count is up to 8!
Then they start to howl! Oh, how I love it! John and Carlene arrive and it’s great fun to share this with them. John has a new digital camera and tries to take a photo of a howling wolf through my scope. I hope it turns out! Even more wolves arrive at the edge of this little clearing and it now looks like I am watching a pack reunion. They move around a lot, going in and out of view so it’s hard to tell which animal is which but my count rises to 10. They greet each other happily, with much wagging of tails. Then they separate and start to bed down. The majority move over the hill and out of sight and in a while only three are left visible, bedded on the edge of the clearing. These three stay bedded for a while.
All our cars and scopes have attracted a crowd. That’s fine with us, though. We enjoy sharing our scopes and helping people see wolves. The majority of people are very grateful and happy for the glimpse.
Now we hear a lone wolf voice howling, very plaintive and sad. It happens again and again, and comes from the right. Then another wolf howls; this voice comes from the forested gully beyond the hill in front of us. These two lone voices call and respond in an exquisitely melancholy duet. We stand quietly and enjoy it. The notes seem to hang and reverberate mournfully in the cold winter air, and I love it.
Then the three napping wolves are roused by a few others who appear from behind a hill. One of these is silvery-black and as she moves down the hill I notice a bit of a limp. Ahh, I have heard that the alpha female of this pack has a limp. Perhaps this is she. One by one, these remaining wolves move out of sight over the hill. For a while there are no wolves in sight.
Then someone spots a wolf to the right. Ah, there, I see it, emerging from the burn area into a snowy clearing. This is very likely the first lone voice we heard. The wolf is a grey with a black-tipped tail and a dark zig-zag pattern on its shoulder. It walks into a snowy clearing and stands there on all fours. The wolf howls again, and again is answered from gully.
Now we hear a third voice, to the left of the one in the forested gully. For a very brief moment I see a grey emerge at the edge of the clearing where the three wolves had been bedded. This animal moves to the right in the direction of the forested gully and disappears in the timber. Then we hear a wolf jazz trio, that is so beautiful I can barely stand it. The lone grey on the right moves toward the other voices, passing through timber and out of sight. For the first time in over an hour, no wolves are visible.
We begin to mix our scoping with socializing and trading stories. We grab snacks from our cars and have what I call “lunch in the lull”, something akin to snacking on a hike: inventive, handy food combinations which would dismay anyone from culinary school.
We scope more casually and I find elk scattered here and there. I also find a bald eagle perched on a snag near the lower carcass. An intrepid coyote comes trotting up the road towards us, not a beggar, thank goodness, but a bit too heedless of humans for my contentment. I like coyotes. I like their suspicious-eyed foxy faces and their turn-on-a-dime agility. When a car rounds the bend in his lane the coyote makes the logical move and lopes easily out of the way, over the hill out of sight.
Then I hear Dorothy call out “wolf” and I discard all thoughts of lunch or other species. She has found three wolves on a high snowy ridge three hillsides away. Three greys, and one has a black-tipped tail. Good spot, Dorothy!
They behave in a very friendly manner toward one another, romping an playing in a way that strongly suggests they are pups and pack-mates. They move along the ridge line from east to west, giving us a lovely long sighting that is easy to share with first-timers. I bet we gave a dozen people their first sight of a Yellowstone wolf.
Two of them bed and the third steps up on a rock with its front paws, looking nobly off into the distance like Rin-Tin-Tin. After a while, the standing wolf beds too. At this point it’s mighty hard to convince people that those are wolves, not rocks. Only when an ear flicks or a head pops up do people really believe! After a while these three get up again and wander off out of sight.
Well this day turned out alright after all. Thank you Agates!
It’s time to move on, so we pack up and head back to Lamar. Wouldn’t it be grand if I could end the day with a nice Druid sighting!
But just as we pass the Institute we hear over the radio that the Druids are gone. They have headed off towards Cache Creek and are no longer visible. Oh shoot! I’ve missed my Druid sighting.
Well, where to now? We head for Slough Creek, figuring that we will be there when the Sloughs return home. As we come down the hill from the canyon I pass a jeep stopped in the opposite lane. The couple inside are looking intently up the slope to my right. Hmmm. I keep my eyes on the road, but I know there is a wide corridor there that elk are fond of using. I park at Slough Creek and waste no time getting out my scope. Chloe and Becky are already looking back at that hill. Elk running! Some, anyway. Others are bunched and nervous, looking upslope. Are we about to see a chase? They sure look spooked. We watch and wait and draw a crowd.
But it turns out to be a false alarm. Perhaps the Sloughs WERE passing nearby a moment ago, but they are nowhere on this hill now. The elk calm down quickly and go back to grazing. We relax and scope the other hills. A foursome of hunter-cowboy types who were glassing the area when we arrived are now packing up to leave. One of them suggests we look up on Specimen Ridge. We do, and find two bighorn sheep, way up on the highest snowfield.
The light is beginning to fail and it seems suddenly colder. Chloe and I decide to hike out to see if we can find Bob Landis but after tramping about 20 feet we see him heading back, carrying his monstrous camera. He tells us he was perfectly set up to catch a chase as the Sloughs returned home, but they never arrived!
So I find myself packing up early for the night. It’s kinda nice to drive home while there is still light!
But, as we round the sharp curve at Elk Creek we see signs in the road “slow - congested area“. We can see the higher pullouts are packed with cars so it’s obvious something is going on here. We pull over at the lower pullout. Two people are here already with their scope set up on the high berm. I join then and suddenly we have wolves! Almost right in front of us, about 200 yards distant. The Agates are out again!
I see wolf shapes moving both right and left. It's a confusing sighting because the light is so low and also because the area is heavily forested. But I think the Agates have been feeding on the corner carcass. Some are returning and others are heading that direction.
I see four wolves walking away from me and one black wolf walking towards me. The black has a very submissive posture; his tail is tucked and his head is very low. As he passes the four other wolves it seems to me that they ignore or even snub the submissive black. Usually I see wolves being very attentive to one another. But this black wolf gets no greeting, not even a nod of recognition from the passing foursome. I feel bad for the black wolf and wonder what he‘s done to deserve such icy treatment.
The black disappears in the timber so I go back to the foursome. One of these is a black-going-grey and has a slight limp. Ah, it‘s the alpha female. I am nearly out of light but I hear Chloe saying there are wolves approaching the road. I look over that way and can barely make out their shadowy shapes. But it’s clear they are there, because two cars have stopped down there, one on each side of the road, forming a barrier between the wolves and the carcass they are trying to get to. I can’t see anymore but Chloe says the wolves have stopped and that some are turning back.
A ranger comes down from the upper pullout to get these two cars moving again. While he is down there two coyotes trot by on the south side of the road, seeming rather miffed by either the stopped cars or the approaching wolves. As they pass us I see it’s Antenna Head again and his little brother.
It turns out that the people who were here first are friends of Chloe and Becky‘s. I meet Lynnette and Calvin. I recognize Calvin’s distinctive voice and realize I have heard him reporting as one of Rick’s “units” on trips past. I ask them to join us for dinner at Mammoth and they say yes.
Eventually we head back west. Over Blacktail the moon pops out, turning the clouds into spectacular sky art. I used to dread this drive; now I am beginning to enjoy it.
We have a great dinner at Mammoth. Even without a reservation, the staff is accommodating and pulls tables together for us right next to the Christmas tree. The tree is so tall that the top branch, star and all, is bent sideways from where it banged into the ceiling!
We have good food and great conversation and we toast the Agate wolves for giving us such great sightings today. Then Chloe, Becky and I indulge ourselves with a brand new chocolate dessert called a “Yellowstone Caldera”. I highly recommend it to anyone who loves chocolate!
We make our plans for tomorrow and walk outside, bidding each other goodnight. The moon is putting on a magic show with the help of some clouds., creating a beautiful diffused-lighting effect I’ve never seen before. But after all, this is Yellowstone where all sorts of unique sights are born.
I head over to Goldie to retrieve my scope for the night. I look up to Kite Hill and tell Allison to make sure to take a look at the moon, and wish her a good night.
Today I saw:
2 bighorns, bison, 1 bald eagle, 7 coyotes, elk, 12 wolves, including 11 Agates (including alpha male # 113) and Wolf # 384, 6 Lurker Loons and the spirit of Allison