DAY FOUR - TUESDAY, April 29


SLOUGH SIGHTINGS

This morning I find frost on Jenny's windshield. I scrape it off in the bright, cold light of a last-quarter moon.

This same moonlight flickers through the tree trunks as I drive down to the valley. At Round Prairrie I catch my breath, as its white blanket of snow seem to glow from within.

My first stop is at Trash Can, where I join Bob and two others, looking north. I set up Layla as quietly as I can because there is a wolf VERY close to the road, in the flats west of Exclosure Hill. This is Bonnie, again, and she is "attended" by two coyotes. Before I saw the wolf I heard the barking and howling of the coyotes and in finding them, I found the wolf. Bonnie is sniffing the ground, as if searching for something. The coyotes are furious, and seem to be cussing her out to the highest degree and I can't help but wonder what she did to provoke them. One stays close behind her, determined to seize the first opportunity to let his teeth do the talking. The other coyote stays above the wolf on the hill, shadowing her every move, making a constant racket, egging on the other.

Then I see a second wolf, a gray, even higher on the hill. It's "Clyde". The second coyote turns his attention to the gray. I can't help but wonder if these two "teenage" wolves have been disturbing the den of these coyotes. Both wolves seem dismissive of the smaller dogs, except when one of latter lands a bite. Then the wolf will suddenly turn and lunge after the coyote, driving it away for several strides, only to stop and continue her morning exploration.

The coyote is doing his best to worry the wolf and to drive it off. I can't help but admire him. His body language is amazing, sometimes howling so energetically that his front feet lift off the ground. It bespeaks a long and deeply felt animosity. Wolves, especially Druid wolves, are notorious for destroying coyote dens that they find in their territory. It's nature's way, of course, but I can't help but wish the Druids would be less successful.

The black wolf wanders further west and I turn my attention back to the gray. I find him resting oh-so-casually atop a little cliff, front paws draped at a casual dangle over the edge. I get a good look at this wolf's face; very handsome. I now see a number of birds in the trees above the gully to the right of the wolf, fueling speculation that there may be a carcass in there.

Some elk appear on the ledge trail above the bedded wolf. They walk gingerly to the west, alert, as if trying to sneak by, but the bedded gray pays them no mind. The elk herd moves higher and higher and eventually out of sight.

As the action slows down, I move on to Dorothy's to see if I can find any of the Agates from last night. I run into Elli here, who kindly tells me there are three Agates visible in the snow just to the right of the forest where I last saw the elk they were chasing last night. Despite Elli's help I only see one: a gray, sleeping wolf-rock that finally gets up and proves itself alive (!) I watch it walk east until it disappears into the forest. Given the full belly on this wolf and its lethargic behavior, it is widely assumed that they did get that bull last night.

Then I hear the radio crackle with a report on Sloughs being seen at their den area, so I head there. The road is driveable to the first pullout, above a picturesque loop of the river. This is where I find Rick, Laurie & Dan and a few others. It's a brisk morning but we have hopes for a warm-up later.

I hear howling from the den area but can't see a thing due to a thin, wafting fog that hugs the high areas. As always, the view from here provides plenty to look at when you can't find wolves. I find a red-tailed hawk perched on a branch; a kestrel, a bald eagle, many squawking geese, some pleasantly noisy ducks and a pair of sandhill cranes. From this same spot I find a roaming coyote and 2 blue herons, fishing.

Then suddenly I see movement at the den; a small, light-gray wolf that some call "Peanut". She is a frequent babysitter. She comes out of the natal den and moves down to the bow log. Then suddenly more wolves appear in the flats below Secret Passage. Peanut may have heard them or smelled them, but I think the she knows they are out there, coming home.

The returning Sloughs remain visible a good while as they cross the flats and then climb the long slope to the den. Eventually my count reaches 14, which is all of them except for the Dark Female, who, alas, is still on the outs with alpha female 380 for some reason. I enjoy seeing each wolf's arrival in the den area, particularly the ones how go up the little hill and stick their noses into the den. It is so heart-warming to see them so curious about the pups. It is also a relief to see, because it is a sure indication that there are still living pups in the den.

***Note: However, later in May, only one pup, a black one, came out of the den. This one lucky fellow is still alive as of July 16th, and will perhaps grow into the most pampered wolf pup in all of Yellowstone. No one knows how many might have been born or why the others did not survive. Several of the female Sloughs looked pregnant in March. So what happened? Were they lost to disease, cold, lack of food? For most of April, alpha female 380 seemed overly stressed, frantically begging for food when the other wolves would return from a hunt. Many observers remarked that the pack in general seemed lax about regurgitating food for the mothers. If 380 was not getting enough food, it would surely have had an effect on her pups. Would 380 have killed pups of the other mothers to keep her own alive? And some of us wonder whether the youth and inexperience of the alpha male 590 (he just turned two this April) might have been a factor. We may never know. ***

I watch the collared gray (630 F) go into the den and come back out. She wanders along the ledge and begins to dig in one of the other den holes. She really puts her back into it and the dirt begins to fly!!!

The sun has risen and the day has gotten quite warm. It feels really good. I have peeled off several top layers but I'm still in my heavy boots and ski pants! With the action at a lull for the moment, I figure I better head somewhere so I can manage a change of clothes.

Once I do this I feel a lot better. I make a stop at Boulder to look for the poor cow bison. I don't find her but I learn from others that she did finally deliver her fetus. Alas, it was not alive. What's left of it is lying on the side of a hill in the sage. The poor cow was last seen moving toward the river corridor, probably worn out, possibly suffering some internal complications. Poor thing.

I take a drive to the west and eventually grow quite sleepy. I pull over just east of the high bridge for a delightful nap in the shade. When I wake up I find myself very hungry, so I head on to Gardiner for lunch.

On my way back to Lamar I see a marmot dashing about in the jumbled rocks of Blacktail. On the hill east of Wrecker pullout there are several bighorn sheep putting on a show. Then in Little America I watch bison and their babies again. I notice two calves - one is robust and the other brand-new one. The robust calf goes galloping on its little legs and when he stops he finds himself separated from his mom. He heads for the nearest big brown thing but this bison cow is NOT his mother. She pushes him away, rather roughly, having a brand new calf of her own to look after. Then I notice another cow bison to the right, rushing this way and that, frantic to find her little one. This must be the mother of the robust calf. I can't hear it, but I think he is probably bleating pitifully and she could hear him but not see him. In another second, she spies him and bolts over to his side. He stands still, seemingly reluctant to risk another shoving. But she stretches out her head to him and sticks out her tongue, perhaps so he can smell her breath and recognize her. My tears well up as she oh-so-sweetly nuzzles and licks her lost one, calming his fear. He huddles close to her and begins to nurse. All is right with the world again.

I hop back in Jenny just as rain starts to fall. Instead of driving, though, I stay inside, enjoying the patter of the falling drops and watching the clouds move quickly overhead. In no time at all the sun is back out, bringing with it a gorgeous rainbow. I move on to Aspen pullout. The Lamar is high and rushing and I suddenly see two large birds flying east to west. Swans!

While I'm stopped here the radio crackles with news of the Sloughs on the move. I hop out and set up Layla, training her great eye on the den area. Soon I see them coming my way. I guess this is my lucky day. Eventually I see seven. There is a small herd of elk on the high bank above the river - they bunch tightly and move quickly down the bank into the water. Most of them stay right there in a bend of the river but three other elk move singly upstream a bit. There is a bison herd with several calves on the same high bank and they begin to bunch up, too, so they seem already to be aware of the coming of the wolves.

The wolves begin to appear, one at a time, on the bare slope above the river, moseying in and out of the sage. They head to the bison herd first, worrying them but not pressing an attack. Down at the river a lone elk cow is moving away from the others upriver. Hmm I wonder why she is not staying with the herd? The wolves don't seem to notice her, though.

In fact, the wolves seem oblivious to the group of elk at the bend in the river. I wonder how cold the water is for their thin legs and how long they can manage to remain there. They seem to be standing still. The lone elk cow has reached water up to her neck but she keeps moving. Eventually she reaches the shallows and then leaves the river - on the far side - and walks slowly up the bank. As she gets to the top I begin to see her strategy - she joins a much larger group of elk that none of us saw until just now.

The wolves finally notice the elk at the bend in the river and start tp run down the bank. The elk react by bunching tighter. This works (at least for the moment) because the wolves run back up the hill and regroup at the top, playfully greeting and wagging their tails, then set off east. Eventually they spy the large group of elk that the cow joined. This group of elk (about 30-40) begin to prong through the sage at a leisurely, un-panicked pace towards the north. One or two wolves head off after them but soon we see the majority of wolves come back to the ridge top and rest.

I look down at the bend in the river and the elk that were bunched there are gone. I have no idea when they left or where they went. But I suppose as soon as the wolves set off after the larger group, they abandoned their frigid retreat and got outta there! The Sloughs begin to bed on the high bank and I must admit I am just about out of light.

It's time to head for home. Which we do.

Today I saw: bison (and bison calves), 3 coyotes, 2 sandhill cranes, ducks, 1 bald eagle, elk, geese, 1 red-tailed hawk, 2 blue herons, a kestrel, a marmot, big horn sheep, 2 swans, 24 wolves (14 + 7 Sloughs, 2 Druids and 1 Agate), five wolfers and the spirit of Allison.




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