It feels warmer this AM and sure enough the temperature gage reads 19 degrees. However I discover that I forgot to bring in my left-over steak from dinner last night, and it is now frozen solid!
We have a mulie cross the road at the Sinclair station.
On the drive in I reflect on how lucky it feels to have seen so much Druid action so far. Since the end of the 21/42 era they have not really been regularly viewable, and it's really nice to have such easy access to them again. And, although there seem to be more people here than in Christmases past, the vast majority seem to be REALLY into wolves and, in fact, have come expressly to see them.
We have picked up another 4-6 inches of snow. When we stop at Tower, Chloe points out a proliferation of tracks in the lot. Wolf tracks! Given the area, we think the Agates may have visited. We drive on in the dark in anticipation. I notice that at Lamar River bridge, where yesterday it was ZERO, today it's a balmy 11!
It looks as if Lamar has gotten a lot more snow overnight, and it's still coming down. As we cruise into the valley we see an ocean of white obscuring all else. The fog lifts a little as we move east. As we descend Hubbard Hill
I see some skittish-looking elk on the right. Then Chloe's brake lights burn bright red. I stop about 25 feet behind her.
Why has she stopped? I wonder if an elk is in the road and then...shapes - dark shapes, materializing out of the fog on the left, one after another after another, dark and silent. Wolves are approaching the road, about 50 feet in front of Chloe's car. There is no-one behind me - it's just our two cars and lots of wolves. And they seem to be on a mission.
I just sit in the quiet darkness and count them as they disappear and re-appear. I have 4 blacks & 5 grays. Those already across disappear into a gully. It's barely light and they are well camouflaged in the gloom of snow, sage, fog and hillocks all around us. I do see three elk top a rise, looking down into the flats, so that tells me where the wolves are.
Becky calls in the first spot of the day. She and Chloe count 11 total, including the Druid alphas, passing at the far edge of their headlight beams.
I catch glimpses of their shadowy shapes out in the flats, headed toward the river and the west. Small groups of elk move away from them, back toward the road. We drive on and pull over at Mid Point but find we can't see them from here. Rick comes by and we follow him back west.
The light is slow to improve but eventually I can see the shapes again - walking along the river bank. I park at Mid Point north and walk up the road a bit, carrying Layla up a little hill that I think will allow me to see them. Most everyone else goes to the Institute. I very much enjoy this lone sighting in the cold dawn watching the Druids move soundlessly in front of the line of cottonwoods along the river. 302 is in front and I notice he seems to be walking funny. His steps are very tentative steps and his big black feet look flat on the white - suddenly I realize what it is...he is walking on ice!
I watch the others and some of them are doing this, too. Some of the pups push or pound the ice with their front paws, as if testing its give or trying to break it. It is a behavior I've seen polar bears do in nature shows but this is the first time I've seen a wolf do it, much less in person!
The wind comes up and the wolves move west and then behind a hill, so I trudge back to Blanka and move to the Institute. I set up again in time to see a gray wolf coming down hill toward the pack. At first we believe that this is the dark gray suitor. The gray stops about 200 yards away and several Druids take off running towards it.
When the gray sees them coming, he starts to run away but then stops. The Druid wolves reach the gray and they have a friendly if boisterous greeting. Then the rest of the pack, including the alphas, move towards the gray and the two Druid pups. I am very concerned that the gray is going to be attacked but the greeting is friendly and in fact, it convinces everyone that the gray not one of the suitors but a Druid member. Such a fuss they make! He was probably only gone from the group for a half-hour! It's quite endearing.
As the gray submits to the alphas at the edge of the riverbank, he steps too far left and breaks through a snow-cornice, tumbling side-ways about 4 feet down into more snow. The alphas tumble after him and then a bunch of pups jump on top of them all, thinking it's a game!
Once the gray is re-absorbed into the pack they have a rally and a howl with lots of wonderful tail-wagging. The pups are especially bouncy and they jump and slam each other. Our count is now up to 12. After the rally some individuals bed, but I see both 569 and 302 look across the river as if seeing something there or just wanting to go there.
Eventually 302 gets them up and he starts off across the frozen river. They head up Fairies Falls, a spot I once explored in July 2001 with Loons Jake and Leslie. We lose them a while but they come out at the top and continue moving steadily up the snowy slopes, following a trail through the white stuff.
They move into some trees and I think we've lost them for the day but in just a little while they flush some elk - three bulls come trotting out to the left with wolves running far behind them. Two head uphill and the other one down. The wolves stay on the one running downhill. The bull stops and faces them. About five Druids gather around him as if they don't really know what to do, then the bull starts to trot slowly but purposefully on a straight line to the right, towards the drainage. The wolves set off after him in deep snow and begin to catch up, and it looks like we might see a take down. I wonder if the bull may be old - he runs quite slowly. But just as one wolf gets close enough for contact, the bull puts on a little speed and the wolves fall back. The bull disappears into the drainage and the wolves stop completely. I hear Rick say that there are some cliffs in that area where this bull seems to know he can make a stand. The wolves seem to know it, too.
The chasers bed down, tongues wagging, and the rest of the pack begins to gather around them. I watch 302 eat snow. He was one of the chasers.
I'm not sorry at all to miss a take down. It was right out in the open and would have been pretty gruesome to see. What I find interesting is that I thought the bull was old (meaning weak) and it turns out the bull was old (meaning wise). His slow trot showed his confidence. He just didn't want to expend any more energy than necessary to save his life.
The wolves have bedded and with the action at a temporary standstill, the human pack begins to chat. I have a chance to ask Rick some questions I have had for quite a while and we have a nice conversation.
After a little while the Druids rouse themselves again and head further east. They choose another spot to bed, right above the riverbank, easy to see from many vantage points. 569 beds between 302 and 480. With this second lull in the action and the day still young, we decide to head over to Slough. Bob has reported a carcass visible from a spot just off the campground road so we go there.
It takes a while to trudge our way out here, carrying our scopes and accoutrement through the considerable snow while being careful not to mess up the ski track. We arrive in time to see birds flitting above a gully behind a tree which tells us where the carcass is, and...there are the wolves. The Slough Pack still has a lot of black wolves which makes them easy to see against snow.
From the looks of things, they have just finished eating and are now heading up the rocky hill to choose a spot to sleep. The sun actually makes an appearance right about now, and turns the snow to sparkling jewels. The wolves walk slowly in an evenly-spaced line up the slightly curving trail, like a moving dotted line on a while page.
Kathy points out the alpha female, 380, who has lately been showing more and more of a ruthless streak, recalling 40 and 217 before her. Kathy also shows me the alpha male (former Agate 590) and the "former Druid" who joined the pack in the fall. He is now beta male. I am convinced that he is the son of 302, given his interest in joining a pack with an abundance of un-related females (!)
The Sloughs choose a bedding spot at the top of the hill among some big boulders. Once they are settled, our attention is drawn back to the carcass. We watch some interesting coyote behavior near the site and begin to believe that there is still a wolf down there. No fewer than five coyotes approach the carcass in a hyper-cautious way and begin to squabble among themselves instead of feeding. Aha, there it is! A black wolf emerges from the gully area and begins to follow the scent trail taken by the pack.
This wolf is believed to be a low-ranking female, called "the dark female". She begins the trek up the hill to join the others, but about half-way up, something spooks her and she turns around, walking and running east for a while, constantly looking over her shoulder in the direction of the pack. It makes me wonder if 380 made some sound that we couldn't hear, that made her feel unwelcome? Evenutally she beds alone, well beneath the others. It makes me sad to see a wolf on the outs with her group.
I look around, enjoying the snow-covered, beautiful country, especially when the sun peeks out for a warming glow or two. There are bison in the neighborhood, moving from one grazing area to another, grunting and mooing. The appearance of the sun, hazy as it is, seems to stir them up. Perhaps they are enjoying it's rare presence just as we are?
We stay for a while, showing wolves to the visitors who come out to see what we are looking at.
By about 1PM we are headed back to Lamar. It's 10 degrees. We hear that the Druids did not stay bedded for long after we left and have since moved east. Some of them are in the flats south of Hitching Post and the others are on the north side of the road near the traditional den area.
I set up at Hitching Post on a little knob just south of the parking area. Across the river in the sage flats we see the Light Gray Suitor as well as a black female and a gray pup. The black wolf (I learn later) is known as Vertical Bar - one of the female yearlings who has attracted this wolf's attention. These wolves are very easy to see because they all howl incessantly. Sometimes there are answering howls from the den forest but the three in the flats howl the most.
Vertical Bar seems torn between her suitor and her family. She goes back and forth, back and forth. The Light Gray Suitor just howls and howls. The pup doesn't really know what's going on. I think he/she is just attracted to the excitement.
Then Vertical Bar seems to decide she is going home and sets off on a path along the river towards the road. She is just about to head up the last bank when a passing visitor sees her and stops. The car behind this one stops too and these two stopped cars are enough to stop the wolf from crossing. I'm not sure what one should do in a situation like this. Perhaps the visitor stopped, thinking it would help her cross?
Vertical Bar turns back and mills around in the confluence area for a while, gnawing on some old bones and eventually moving out of sight.
Periodically, I turn around to watch the bedded Druids across the road near the ledge trail. The alphas are here, as well as some pups, including one pup who is playing with an elk-antler. At one point, the alphas get up and begin to file east, following a path through the thick-trunked trees. The pup looks up and notices that mom and dad are leaving. He picks up his toy in his jaws and trots after them, but then...BAM! The over-sized load in his mouth is too wide for the space between the trees. He jerks to a halt, drops the antler and shakes the stars from his head. Ouch! It's a bit of a schadenfreude moment - like a scene in a cartoon. The poor thing looks around as if to say "nobody saw that, right?" then trots on, wisely leaving the antler on the ground.
The wind is pretty relentless today so after about two hours of watching both sides of the road, I need to take a warm-up break. I pack up and hop in Blanca, and soon her heated seats have me toasty again. I want to head to Round Prairie but I have not even reached the Soda Butte Cone when I hear a radio call that the Vertical Bar yearling is headed back east. I return to Hitching Post, where I see a familiar face getting out of his Camry. It's Ballpark Frank!
We head out to the knob together and I fill him in on the goings-on today. We find the gray suitor and the gray pup and we try to find Vertical Bar. I turn Layla's great eye on the high slopes of Mt. Norris and find several bighorn sheep. I wonder what they find to eat way up there? The two gray wolves start to head east so we decide to move over to the Footbridge.
We pull in and set up our scopes. Sure enough, soon we see the Light Gray Suitor and the gray pup moving into view from the west. They follow a trail that leads them up Dead Puppy Hill. Soon they are bedded about half-way up, still howling non-stop. We keep thinking we hear howling coming from the traditional den area - which would make sense since we know the Druid alphas are there.
Frank and I glance over that direction and see two people standing about half-way up the hill north of Hitching Post as if they climbed up there from the road. I see Rick at the western end of the pullout and walk over to make sure he sees the people. Just as I'm about to speak he shushes me and points - a black wolf is up there, higher than the people, looking straight across the road to Dead Puppy.
The black wolf starts down the hill heading straight for us. I think Rick calls this wolf Dull Bar, the most road-nonchalant of all the yearling females. I return to Frank and we watch Dull Bar come quickly down the hill. She is across the road so fast that I miss it completely. Then I see her romping through the deep snow to the west of the pullout, heading for the river.
Below us, on the riverbank, a coyote had been curled up, perhaps dreaming of ducks. That coyote is now half-way to the footbridge and still running - he/she got outta there fast once the wolf appeared. Dull Bar moves so quickly and purposefully, it looks as though she IS after the coyote, but no, she has love on her mind. She stops at the river, steps in, wades across and stops to sniff the spot where the coyote had been. Then she lopes across the flats on a direct line to the two howling grays. Up the hill she goes.
Now we get our first glimpse of Vertical Bar, coming across the flats, approaching the long, western slope of DPH. Boy, she has traveled fast herself. Makes you wonder what irresistably romantic phrases are contained in the Light Gray's howls?
Dull Bar reaches the two grays who are THRILLED to see her! There is major flirting and bouncing and I see the distinctive "flirting" behavior we call fanny-dancing. There is also a lot of smelling and playing and lots of submissive behavior by Dull Bar to both the pup and the LGS. Then the three of them bed down as if awaiting the arrival of Vertical Bar.
She is almost there! I watch her race up the low shoulder of the hill, her youthful exhuberance and apparent joy bring a tear to my eye. In another minute or two she reaches a spot where the others can see her. They rise and run down towards her. She is THRILLED to see them, too! The scene is repeated with FOUR bouncers and more fanny-dancing. And the pup gets in the middle of all of it! After several minutes, they quiet down and choose bedding spots.
Finally the day full of howling is coming to an end. It is VERY cold and since the action seems to be over for the evening, we pack up and head back. We hear a report of another gray being seen at Mid Point but don't see it ourselves (although I hear later that it was the Dark Gray Suitor.)
Frank and I see lots of elk on our way back to Gardiner but none in the road, thank goodness! We finish the evening with dinner at Outlaws.
Today I saw: bison, 8 coyotes, 1 mule deer, 1 bald eagle, elk, 4 big-horn sheep, 33 wolves (15 Sloughs, 16 Druids and both gray Suitors), 1 Loon and the spirit of Allison.