Brrrrrrr! I think this is the coldest Christmas Day I have ever known!
It isn't so bad when we first come out to the cars: 19 degrees at 6AM. We find another half inch of snow on the cars but it's easy to wipe off. I can see an extremely bright star in eastern sky - I'm guessing Venus - and a nearly full moon, too.
As we proceed west the temperatures steadily drop. That is normal, of course, as we are gaining elevation, but this morning it is pretty severe. At Mammoth we hit 12; but we are happy to see the snowplow has been out. We have elk in various places all through Blacktail. We get first light at Hellroaring around 6:50 and it's now 8 degrees. When we make our usual stop at Tower it's only 3 degrees!
The overnight snow gives us a gift - first the roads are easier to drive when the snow is packed and also we get to see so many tracks - the stories of the night. As we head through Little America, the combination of clear, dark skies with Venus and the moon is unbelievably gorgeous. Chloe radios back to me "check your temperature gage". I do. It's ZERO.
We make the turn into Lamar where it is minus 6. And now we see another lovely sight - fog. A dense blanket lies over the valley, clothing it in soft white beauty.
The radio crackles and we learn the Druids are again visible at the Footbridge. By the time we get there, around 7:45, they have begun to head east, in and out of the trees at the bottom of Dead Puppy. I spy two blacks and they seem to me to be moving with a hunting determination. They've been picking at the bison carcass for the last three days - it was fresh four days ago - so it's time for bloody meat again.
I move down to the Soda Butte Cone and get set up. I am rewarded with a sighting of 12 Druids, including the alphas. I see them flush three bull elk. One moves uphill. They surround him but he defies them and they move on. They flush several more bull elk - it's amazing when you see how many elk are back in there. As the wolves continued to move east we began to see more bull elk moving uphill in a single line. More and more and more - we counted 12 in that line, moving slowly through deep snow uphill, in addition to two groups of four elk lower down.
Half of me wants the excitement of a chase, but the other half switches sides to the elk. They are so magnificent and it seems that they cannot possibly avoid being killed, yet they do! Sometimes a little bit of defiance is all it takes. None of the elk this morning seemed to be putting out much effort to avoid the wolves, and yet they were let alone. The Druids, on the other hand, seem rather un-coordinated this morning. I don't see much in the way of team work, but several lone attempts to get an elk running, none of which are successful.
As if in acknowledgement of their piss-poor efforts, the Druids stage a rally. Nice howling and lots of nuzzling and tail wagging. Then, supposedly with a clear plan, they head off to the east and we lose them in the trees.
We all seem to have the same idea - that they are headed to Round Prairrie. So we pack up and head there in hopes we will be able to see their arrival. I am a little slow this AM so I am the last to arrive. At the last pullout on the right before Round Prairrie, I see Dan H, Bob L and Cliffie all set up with their cameras. My gut says stick with them, but then I worry that I should leave the professionals alone. I wave and smile and drive on to the next pullout. Rick & Cindy, Marlene, KathyL, Becky & Chloe are here so I join them. The Druids have not yet arrived.
Round Prairrie looks exquisite under its fresh blanket of snow, and a wispy line of fog seems reluctant to let go of the river. There is a mixed herd of bison and elk to watch while we wait. It's Christmas Day of course, so we do a bit of socializing, and each of us passes a colorful tin of Christmas treats among the group. Rick is particularly chatty today and I enjoy hearing his tale, which is unrelated to wolves at all!
But lordy lord, it is COLD! KathyL has a new gadget, a pressed foam pad, about an inch thick, that she stands on while at her scope. It provides a bit of insulation, I suppose. She also has some great fudge. Marlene has some really yummy chocolate chip cookies which I like as much as my own. And Chloe & Becky have a variety of fruit treats to offer as well.
Little did we know, that while we were socializing, the Druids had given us all the slip. They went as far east as Trout Lake but then crossed the road and went back to the bison carcass to pick at it yet again. We all had a great laugh at our being so easily duped. So much for predictions!
So now we arrange our cars in the closest pullout and set up to watch our favorite dogs. We have 12 of them, six blacks and six grays. By the time I get set up, the alphas, 302 and 571 are already bedded up on the hill to the left, while 8 yearlings and pups remain on the carcass. The wind is in our faces and it brings sounds to our ears that Chloe and I marvel at - having not heard such things before: near-constant growling and muttering from the feeding wolves - often punctuated by a snap or a bite. One wolf would stand on top of the carcass' rib cage, above the other wolves, as if waiting for one of them to pull off something good that he/she would be in a position to grab. Most of the growling seemed to remain at the "warning" level but every once in a while a short fight would break out between two feeding wolves. It was cool to see it but we couldn't help but wonder if this level of "grumbling" is normal for a group feed or whether it is particular to the slim pickings left on this old carcass.
Four to five wolves at a time would feed at once, mostly seeming agreeable, but every once in a while one of them would smack the closest sibling with a foot or give a body slam. I guess I've never been this close to a carcass before AND downwind, to boot. It is cool.
We know that four Druids are unaccounted for. Then we hear howling coming from the south side of the road and shortly thereafter we get visual confirmation of one gray and one black over there. Both look like pups. They are well back from the road, looking longingly in the direction of the others, but afraid to approach the road. There were several cars stopped further to the east, opposite the kill. Althought there is no pullout there, it didn't seem their presence was any bother to the wolves gnawing on the bones, but they did seem to prevent the pups from crossing the road to re-join the pack.
This separation was the cause of quite a bit of howling back and forth, making for a merry Christmas-caroling, wolf-style. At one point a black wolf, believed to be a yearling, left the carcass and crossed the road, seemingly unbothered by the cars. This black wolf seemed to be encouraging the south-side youngsters to follow him/her back to the group but he/she was unsuccessful. The black wolf turned back and re-crossed the road, again taking an extremely casual approach to both cars and pavement. There always seems to be one wolf in the Druid pack that is oblivious to the dangers of the road, and this always makes me worry about its future.
It is a real struggle to stay outside due to the crackling, dry cold, but we do, and manage to show a lot of visitors their first wolf, too! There was one howling session that was intense and lasted a full five minutes straight. While it was going on, Chloe and I felt that we heard howling to the west as well, but couldn't locate any individuals.
I have been standing here since 9:30AM and it's now after noon. My face is so chapped from the wind that I have to take a break. I head west, using Blanca's strong heater to thaw me out. I meet up with Rick at Trash Can. He points out a wolf directly south of me, bedded on the river bank. It's the LGS (light gray suitor). I start out watching him through Layla, using Blanca as a wind-break. It's quite a pretty picture since the wolf is perfectly framed between two bare cottonwoods in the foreground. But then I realize I can watch him through my binocs with the window up, inside the warmth of my car! I hope this doesn't mean I'm getting lazy, but sheesh it's minus 8 out there!
I watch the LGS lick himself, mostly his belly area and the thighs of his back legs. Not frantic, like it hurts, but steady licking, much like a cat will do. He is missing hair on his belly, that's for sure. He also howls, pretty much non-stop. I think now that he could hear the Druids returning his howl. I remember that Chloe and I seemed to hear howling from the west earlier and wondered if wolves could hear each other howling this far away?
At 12:50 the LGS stands broadside and howls. Over and over. Rick calls on the radio saying that two black female Druids have left the Druid group at the bison carcass and seem to be headed west. He suggests these two blacks might be coming to join the LGS. This makes me more determined to stay and watch this wolf, even though I am all alone.
While I am watching the LGS, this is what was happening back at the bison carcass. Here are Chloe's notes:
All this family time seemed to be too much for Bright Bar and another black youngster and they slipped away to the west. 569 and 480 moved to a high point and howled after them, but they kept moving west. 569 and 480 then began to get frisky with each other, rolling in the snow, jumping straight up into the air and playfully shoving each other around. Then they set out on the same trail the two blacks had taken to the west. Now 302 and a gray howled after them. Five minutes later, they set out on the same trail west. The other six Druids continued with their visit-the-carcass-take-a-nap routine and were still at that routine when we last heard at 5:00.
Around 2:00, Marlene, Becky and Chloe traveled west to see if we could find out where the alphas and other four were going. We had a brief sighting of them under the trees at the east entrance of the traditional Druid den forest and then lost track of them. We heard howling from the south and found the ?dark gray (Dark Gray Suitor) and a black wolf on the benches (south east of Footbridge) where we had started with the Druids this morning."
Around 1PM the LGS begins to move. Then he stops and howls to four directions. I get out of Blanka and climb up the little rise north of Trash Can to scope from there. I watch the LGS run east for a while towards the r-v. He stops again and howls. At 1:30 he beds again.
After a little while he is up again and moving steadily east, working his way towards the confluence area. I get back in Blanka and begin to follow, leaving plenty of room for him to cross the road should he wish to. But he doesn't. There are no pullouts sufficiently plowed for me to stop in, so I decide to head to Hitching Post to see if I can spot him from there.
I meet up with Chloe and Becky and Marlene. Chloe and Marlene find the LGS still heading east and still howling. We also periodically turn to look north in hopes of seeing the Druid alphas, but find several coyotes instead.
Then at Footbridge, Chloe points out the two wolves visible from that location. A black and a gray are bedded close to each other on two snowy hills to the east of Dead Puppy Hill. They howl periodically. I presume these are two of the Druids that never made it across the road to the bison remains.
We head to Soda Butte Cone because that spot offers a good view of both locations. A lovely, quiet snow begins to fall. We see some bighorns up on Norris and a bald eagle in a tree. A visitor reports that "a bunch of wolves" came down the hill from the north to the east side of Footbridge, looking as if they were going to cross the road but they stopped. As much as we want to see them, we do not head back that way for fear of preventing them from crossing, if that's what they want to do.
Then we see the black and the gray on the south side have gotten up. They stretch and nose each other, then head downhill towards the river, the black in the lead. When the black reaches the river, she crosses and runs north, as if headed for the road.
I continue to watch the gray, fully expecting it to follow the black's trail but when it gets to the river it turns and heads east. Chloe remarks that this wolf looks far too large to be a pup. She says - what if this is the Dark Gray Suitor? Eureka! Of course he is. He's been courting a black Druid yearling and now that she is returning to her family, he goes on his merry way! We have a great view of him and study his markings while we can. He has a distinctive dark "necklace" of gray fur bordered by very light fur above and below.
While I am watching, the DGS begins to lope. He looks gorgeous, kicking up powder as he goes, backed by a rise edged in dark pines. I watch him veer to the right and begin to head up a snowy slope. Something in the way he moves makes me feel he has a purpose. I lift my binocs and see the prettiest sight yet. On the top of the gently rounded snow-slope, framed by ice-encrusted aspen sits a beautiful gray wolf. She looks like a princess on a throne behind a veil of light snowfall. Then I see her stand, her frantically wagging tail reveals her gleeful anticipation of the handsome male.
She play-bows in excitement and dashes down to greet him. They meet half-way and do the fanny dance. They prance together and begin to bow and jump on each other. Then they head off together into the trees, nose to nose. Can you believe it? This Romeo sits on a hill for half the day with one girlfriend, then when she goes home to mom and pop, he heads over to date her sister! What a life!
Chloe and Marlene feel that the "princess" is the gray Druid yearling known as "Low Sides" and a little later, when Bob L shows up, he is able to confirm it. We watch a while longer, getting glimpses of the two grays, and then hear more howling! Bob points out the howler in the flats close to the river. It's the Light Gray Suitor. Having traveled all the way from west of the r-v, he is now following the route the black female took towards the road and eventually the traditional den area.
The snow begins to fall more thickly and we are all about as frozen as we've ever been. Happy for our sightings, but aware that the light is going fast. It's time to head home. As we head west, Rick calls on the radio, asking us to stop at Trash Can to see if we can spot a black wolf from there. Apparently, another black Druid yearling has been seen heading steadily west, presumably trying to hook up with the LGS, last seen near Exclosure Hill.
We stop and Marlene quickly finds her. When I see her, she is in nearly the same spot where I saw the LGS around 1:30PM. I confirm that with Rick. We watch the black wolf begin to follow the trail I saw the LGS took, heading east towards the r-v, nose to the ground as if following his scent trail.
At a little after 5PM we head west in earnest, with light snow most of the way. I have a kink in my neck from all my scoping! We have a mercifully easy trip back to Gardiner and meet up again for a great Christmas Dinner at The Mine.
Today I saw: bison, 7 coyotes, 1 bald eagle, elk, 3 bighorn sheep, 18 wolves (all 16 Druids plus both gray suitors), two Loons and the spirit of Allison.