I drive towards the Golden Gate and see lots of elk on the way. Some look a bit scrawny but most look fine. The day is bright and clear and promises to be quite warm. I am surprised at how much snow is still on the ground in Swan Lake flats. On the flats below Bunsen Peak, two sandhills seem oblivious to the snow as they conduct their courtship ritual. In the lone-tree pullout, a wall of plowed snow rises 10 feet high and about that thick, totally blocking the view of Swan Lake and burying the familiar interpretive sign.
As I proceed south, the snow level increases - instead of marshes and a winding river in Willow Park I see a formless white lake. There is a frozen pond across from Roaring Mountain. I find the prettiest sight along the drive to be North Twin Lake. The ice on the surface has retreated into graceful crescents, modulating from clear to cloudy to pure white. The open water is still as glass, and mirrors the bright blue of the typical Yellowstone sky. I pull over and just drink it in.
Of course, as so often happens in Yellowstone when I stop the car and just sit and listen, I notice all sorts of lovely, small things. Sure enough, some ducks emerge from a protected cove, one of them softly squawking,another diving for sustenance, tail wiggling with effort. And then...what's that? Something dashing across a fallen log - a chipmunk? No, a long-bodied weasel, in two-toned brown. And over there...a coyote, delicately tracing the edge of the lake, confident that some nutritious opportunity will reveal itself.
A little further on, I slow down to pass a troup of yearling bison in the road. They very graciously move to the opposite lane and I steadily guide Jenny the Jeep past them. As I come down the hill to the Gibbon I see both ravens and geese, but no ungulates. They will come when it's green.
I stop at Norris but find all the trails closed, so I keep going into Gibbon Canyon, enjoying view after view of the river still draped artfully in snow-covered banks. At Elk Park I stop to glass for animals, hoping for wolves. I spot an old carcass about half-way out and two bald eagles on the ground nearby. The eagles stand beak to beak - one considerably larger than the other.
I find another carcass further down the road, opposite the Tuff Clffs, this one dined upon by a lone coyote. Madison Junction is more empty than I have ever seen it and there is so much snow left I begin to worry what will happen when all this snow is finally released! If the Park gets three or four days of warm sun like today, there is sure to be some serious flooding.
I stop in Fountain Flats because there are bison and calves. Some of the calves look barely a day old. There is a little less snow here, but not much green, either. A few of the calves are lying flat on their sides, soaking up the sun while mom nibbles at barely emerging shoots.
As I pass the ghost trees I see a lone sandhill in the standing water, making ripples with each slow step. And there are groups of geese all along the Firehole.
When I arrive at Old Faithful I'm again surprised to see a normally bustling area so quiet and empty - I don't think I've ever seen it look like this. Of course very little is open as it is still too early for the season. My pace has been so leisurely I realize I haven't left enough time to get over to Hayden Valley, at least not in a way to properly enjoy it, so I amend my plan for the day and decide to return to Lamar.
But I get sidetracked at the Mary Mountain trailhead. I've spotted some ravens engaged in vigorous play. At first I think they are just riding the thermals but then I see they are playing keep-away with a strip of blue plastic. The raven in possession alights in a tree and starts to tuck the plastic into a crack in the trunk with its beak, but a gust of wind catches it and blows it away. The raven responds instantly, diving after it. He catches the plastic just above the ground. He stops just long enough to re-position the item from his beak to his talon, then flaps back into the air. No sooner is he airborne than the three other ravens come speeding after him, intent on stealing his prize. While still flying forward and upward, the first raven dips his head and deftly transfers the plastic from claw to beak, then swerves to avoid his closest pursuer. The chase continues above the trees, up, down, back and forth as I watch, amazed. The raven repeats his aerial transfer of the plastic from beak to claw and claw to beak several more times in order to better keep it away from the other birds. The swooping and diving and twirling is wonderful to watch - and all for a piece of plastic!
I stop again in Fountain Flats to enjoy the bison mothers and their babes. They are all on their feet now, some are nursing, others are running and playing, trying to understand what their legs can do.
A little further on I see several cars stopped in the road. I pull into the readily available shoulder and roll down my window. Several visitors with cameras rush across to the river side of the road. I ask the closest person what he sees out there. "Wolf" he says and points right next to the road. I look over and see a coyote trotting there. For once I decide to keep my mouth shut and leave the group to their picture-taking.
Before I know it, I'm back in Mammoth. I pick up a few items at the store and then keep going. At Lava Creek I see three of the "big boys", the bull elk who frequent this area. At this moment are merely pedestal bulls in velvet, and look a little gaunt from the harsh winter.
I stop at Blacktail Ponds and find a coyote tugging at what little is left of a bison carcass. And I see geese, several kinds of ducks and three sandhill cranes. Behind me I continually hear a high pitched cry that I believe is an eagle, probably hanging around for a turn at the carcass. But I cannot find it. Another car pulls up and a young couple gets out, happy newbies to Yellowstone. The husband is from Hawaii and tells me he has always wanted to visit Yellowstone. He and his wife hear the cry behind us and finally we spot it. It's a bald eagle, perched high in one of the pines.
Hawaii is thrilled, having never seen a bald eagle before. The two of them are so cute and friendly, I have a wonderful time telling them about this spot and how it became one of my favorites. They say they want to see a wolf, too. They are heading east, just like I am, so I tell them I will do my best to help them find one.
We both stop at Hellroaring and while I am setting up I notice a man in camoflauge with a great scope. "R" from Utah. He asks if I'd like to see where the Oxbow den is and you can guess my response. It's really hard to see but now I know how to find it. None of us sees anything moving at the den at the moment, and the light is not so great but the overall view is wonderful and I find a LOT of elk and bison.
At Floating Island Lake I see that the snow that disguised it yesterday has melted off, revealing a thin layer of ice. I bet after one more day of sun, that ice will start to break, and hopefully the resident sandhills can begin their annual nest building.
I stop at Boulder, where I see people on the north side of the road, looking at the same spot. Turns out there is a bison cow out there, giving birth. At first I think I am going to see something wonderful but as I get my scope on her I get a sinking feeling. Her calf is coming out legs first, and they are dangling and lifeless. I say to myself this looks wrong. The poor cow looks exhausted. Then I hear that she's been this way for several hours. I don't want to watch any more so I head back down the hill.
At Slough I scope the den area from the lot but see no movement in any of the usual places, so I head further east into Lamar. I stop at Dorothy's and give Layla a good workout. The couple from Idaho pulls in and I show them bison, sandhills, elk and another bald eagle.
We go on and stop at the Footbridge, where I run into some wolfer friends. There are no wolves in view at the moment, but I hear about two young Druids who have become notorious for their nonchalance near the road. They have been "named" Bonnie & Clyde. Some are convinced that they are going to get into trouble and that sooner or later, the NPS will have to employ some road-aversion tactics on them.
I head up to Round Prairrie to call Laurie and I'm rewarded with a view of several mountain bluebirds. They are so strikingly bright against the thickly-piled snow. When I return to the Footbridge I see the couple from Idaho waving me to stop. I do, and there in the middle flats is a black wolf. My new friends are beside themselves as this is their first wild wolf! It's a Druid, of course, in fact its "Bonnie".
She noses around in the flats, as if looking for leftovers. This area is well-used by the Druid pack so there may be quite a few cached morsels about. Eventually the black wolf moves west, following the line of the river. She crosses the river and moves into the clump of trees near the Hitching Post pullout, clearly looking for a place to cross to the north. Eventually she does, and, true to form, shows a great lack of concern about the dangers of the road.
I put Layla to work finding sheep up on the Norris skyline, and I do find some, including one big ram. The westering sun turns the hills a gorgeous soft peach. But it's still early so I drive back to Dorothy's hoping for a bit more wolf action. And boy do I get it! As soon as I pull in, I hear excited voices from a big YA group at the western end of the pullout.
A chase is in progress, and by the time I get set up I only catch the tail end. It's the Agates! They were first spotted at the skyline, already in pursuit of some bull elk. One was singled out and it headed across the snow-slope in a long diagonal towards a thick forest. The wolves made contact once but the bull shook them off and continued. When I finally get my scope on them, I see the wolves make contact a second time. The bull reacts with an enormous kick, bucking both his back legs so high I think he might topple over. The wolves fall back and the bull continues in a slow-motion run through snow that is obviously very thick and very soft, making progress for him AND his pursuers quite difficult. He is still about three lengths ahead of the closest wolves when he reaches the trees.
He is followed by a group of about five wolves who enter the forest together and then I count five more singly, some of them moving quite slowly, until they all disappear in the trees. The trees are too thick for me to see through and when I stand back I see the path of the chase outlined by the rays of the setting sun, a golden trail across the slope with two ovals of disturbed snow where the elk let fly his legs.
I wait a while for the wolves to come back out but they don't. I get the feeling that they may have had a successful hunt. I can't help but feel bad for the elk - he put up a valiant fight. The sun is really dropping now, so I begin to head east to Silver Gate.
I stop at Footbridge when I see Rick. We have a brief chat and he assigns me a radio, #53. I continue to the east as I don't want to arrive too late at Laurie's. As I approach the curve before Soda Butte Cone, I notice several bison feeding close to the road to the south. Two of them are looking in the same direction. Out of the corner of my eye I see a shadow moving towards them and then past them. I stop in the road and lift my binocs.
It's a black wolf.
I watch it move across the flats toward DP hill. A black uncollared wolf - that's about all I can tell. There is very little light so I can only see it while it is moving. My first spot of this trip!
When I get to Silver Gate I am happy to find the lights on and Laurie and Dan still up when I arrive. We have a happy reunion. I unload my gear as quickly and quietly as I can and then snuggle into her wonderful guest room and head off to dreamland.
Today I saw: Mountain bluebirds, bison (and calves), 3 coyotes, 7 sandhill cranes, ducks, 5 bald eagles, elk, geese, 2 red-tailed hawks, ravens, 4 bighorn sheep (including 1 ram), 1 weasel, 12 wolves (including 10 Agates and 2 Druids), four wolfers and the spirit of Allison