DAY THREE - THURSDAY, December 25


CHRISTMAS CAROLES, LAMAR STYLE

Yesterday's wind has brought an overnight snowfall and warmer temperatures. We head out at 6:15 in a balmy 20 degrees!

The snow continues to fall. We see a coyote trotting along the road in Mammoth and follow his tracks downhill. We see our usual two snowshoe hares. We can't resist stopping at the high bridge to listen for howling. Instead we hear the sound of falling snow which is pretty nice all by itself!

At the Christmas Bear spot we see Bob W's truck and one other vehicle in position so I wonder if the bear has come back? We notice a fairly large elk herd in the Yancey's Hole area and a lot more snow accumulation in Little America. Specimen Ridge is shrouded in and radio traffic is silent.

As we enter Lamar we are encouraged by the degree of visibility. If Rick DOES have something, at least we'll be able to see it! We see bison and some elk in the flats below. And then we hear the radio crackle - Druids at the confluence! He says they are just leaving a carcass. Yay!

When we reach the pullout and get out our scopes we follow Rick's directions but still see nothing. He is above us on the hill with a fine view. They are below our eye view in the river bottom, and our view is further blocked by all the bushes and deadfall in the area.

But we hear a great deal of coyote music, some howling, some yipping, some barking. I decide to face the climb, so I put Layla in my pack, grab a hiking pole and head up the trail. It's slippery and steep and I stop to catch my breath. The coyotes are still making a racket so I look out toward the river with my binocs.

Suddenly I see movement, one animal chasing another. At first I think is a gray wolf chasing a coyote, but then see the size difference between them is not that great. The chaser is just larger than the chasee. They race across the frozen, snow-covered river corridor, both animals are running full out and the larger one is gaining. The small one starts to flail as it reaches deeper snow near the willows and very soon the large one catches up and rolls him! But the small guy quickly gets away and the large one stops his pursuit, having clearly delivered his message.

The small one makes it across the river and up to the road, where he stops to look back. Once he sees he's safe he trots along the road, panting his little heart out. The victorious coyote trots back the way he came. Another coyote voice is heard and the victorious one starts yelping in return. Now I see a third coyote in the river corridor. It's probably his mate, or offspring, coming out to greet him. These two meet with great enthusiasm, the smaller one submissive to the larger, and they seem to celebrate his victory. Then these two head back along the rivernk together.

I continue up the hill until I finally reach a clearing where I set up my scope. Becky and Chloe call from the lot that three otters have popped up right in front of them at the confluence. Alas, I am unable to see the otters from this view point. I do, however, see the Druids!

Just below the snow-laden line of the river bank I see a head, a back, a set of ears, a tail, enough to know I am watching a moving line of wolves passing by cottonwood trunks and river debris. Then they disappear one by one in a gully, only to reappear on the far bank, having probably crossed a braid of the unseen Lamar. Only when they begin to climb up what we call the "former river bank" at the eastern edge of the rendezvous area do I see the full body of a wolf, and now they all begin to emerge. I start to count. 8 blacks and 5 grays. This is considered a full count of Druids, since 302 took the others to the Blacktail.

I watch one black wolf move to another hill carrying something in its mouth. Another black nearby looks like he's eating snow, but now I think he has a tidbit he's chewing. Once he finishes, several magpies land in that spot and peck the ground, so I think it was something solid.

The wolves bed down and I recognize 480 and 569. For me, these are the only wolves I can identify. I need to spend a lot more time with them before I get to know the others.

I scope to the left, following the coyotes and find the carcass, just above the river on a hill by a lone conifer. Two coyotes are feeding there, as well as a number of birds. Now that I know where the carcass is I go back to the wolves. Low Sides, a gray female, has started moving towards the rendezvous. She stops and looks back at her pack, as if urging them to follow. She looks like she wants to sleep somewhere else, but the pack pays no attention and stays bedded.

There is still a lot of coyote howling and yipping going on and suddenly I see another chase. It's almost an exact repeat of the earlier chase - a large coyote chasing a smaller one, along the same river-corridor path, running full out as before. The small one begins to flail in deep snow and the large one gains on him. But then, a difference. The large one breaks off the chase before reaching the deeper snow among the willows. The small coyote reaches the road and gallops about a quarter mile along it to the east before turning his head to look behind. Once he sees he's safe he stops and stares back at the carcass area.

Now that the Druids are on the bank, it occurs to me that they might be visible from other pullouts. It's always nicer when Becky, Chloe and I can scope together, so when Rick leaves to head west, I climb back down to join my friends. We first head to Trash Can. I climb the hill on the north side of the road and scan the eastern side of the rendezvous but can't find a single ear tip.

The sun comes out briefly and makes everything beautiful. Becky and Chloe succumb to the warmth and take a nap in their car, so I head back east and park at Hitching Post. I walk out a little way to Brian's Hill and set up Layla. From here I find the Druids right away and report it to Rick so he can tell anyone heading east.

They are mostly sacked out but there is still activity at the carcass area. Two coyotes are still feeding and a bald eagle flies in, too. I am so engrossed in my wildlife watching that I have completely forgotten I made a plan with Ballpark Frank to go snowshoeing this morning. We were supposed to meet at Tower at 10AM. The only reason I remember at all is because I hear a car door shut and when I look over I see Ballpark Frank coming up the path with his scope. Behind him is Auwingwalker and LuAnn.

I tell him I feel pretty bad for not calling but they all know how I am about Druids so I am graciously forgiven. Plus, as Frank says, if they wanted to, they could have gone without me. Druid viewing has been somewhat scarce lately so they are all happy for the glimpse.

A little later, Kathie L joins us, and then Becky and Chloe come, too. In a case of perfect timing, just as Becky gets set up a bunch of Druid heads suddenly pop up and look to the south. They hear or smell something, but I never learn what it is. Then some of them (the pups?) get up and shift their position a bit so we get to watch some activity for a while. It mostly involves their romping on a hillside and sliding into a gully out of sight. Some sort of play antics continue in the gully because we see ears or wagging tails every once in a while and one wolf or another comes bounding up the hill or another goes bounding down, so we can tell we are missing the main action.

480 remains visible in his bedding spot and I see two black wolves come over to pay him homage. The first one approaches him in a crouch with a wildly wagging tail. As the wolf reaches him he licks 480's muzzle sweetly and 480 accepts it, without returning the affection. Then a second black does this. Low Sides gets up and tries her argument again, but the Druids still ignore her.

Back at the carcass area, we are surprised to see one of the coyotes trotting away with a sizeable and still-juicy -looking piece of meat.

Frank finds several big-horn rams on Mt. Norris to our left, including one who stands, statue-like for the longest time! A ewe is grazing close by - perhaps he is posing for her benefit?

We all comment on the relative warmth of the day, today. It's gotten up to 27 and there is, thankfully, very little breeze. At about 3:30 the Druids get up for real. At first they begin to wander, one by one, into the gully and we assume they are on their way back to the carcass. But they have other ideas. We notice a few wolves heading west and then see a bunch of them appearing back on top of the hill above the gully. One raises a muzzle to the sky and suddenly I hear the gorgeous sound of howling.

It grows and grows in volume and fills the cold air of the valley. We see a forest of wagging tails as they group together around their leader, 480. We notice one black wolf on the outside of the group that does not join the rally and seems not to be howling. Hmmm?

The rally gets quite wild, with young wolves jumping on each other. One lies on its back with all four legs in the air. Then they head off toward the mountain, directly away from us and a little to the south. Rick speculates that they might be heading to their usual trail up to Specimen Ridge. There is a bison herd in the same general area and for a while they tease us, and the bison, as they "pretend" to chase them. The wolves run in and out of the herd but succeed only in getting some of the bison to raise their tails.

After this they begin to spread out. Some turn to mousing, and many have their noses to the ground as if looking for cached food? Then 569 and another gray begin to head to the west, in the general direction of the r-v but end up stopping and bedding. After about a half hour of random movement, another howling session begins. This time the Druids rally in two equal-sized groups about a furlong apart and again we notice one black (we think the same one) does not participate. Very strange. Then the two groups come together with more jumping, licking and tail-wagging.

After this session they set off on an angle that takes them to the foothills and into the trees. We see 569 in front, with 571 and 480 close behind her. The aloof black joins the parade towards the back of the line. They follow a scent into the forest and mill around at the base of some trees. It looks like they might be digging in that area. They stop here for quite a while as the light begins to wane.

We find more bighorn sheep up on Norris and watch a bison herd in the flats just to the left of where the wolves are. The wolves disappear behind the hills and trees and I think that's it for the day. But then Chloe finds them again, on top of a conical snow hill, with sparse trees. Two wolves pose at the top, looking down. We see the rest of the pack at the bottom of the hill and suddenly the ones on the top come charging downhill in a mock attack.

They assemble again, half-seen at the bottom of the conical hill and we are treated to another howl, this one the most beautiful of all, because of the deepening dusk and the gathering clouds, which create a cathedral-like effect at this end of the valley. Their joyous music becomes a perfect evening carole, their blended wolf-notes echoing and overlapping, lingering in the evening air.

This beautiful music stays in my head for the long drive back to Gardiner, through yet another snow storm. But the only animal we have on the road is a snowshoe hare at Lava Creek.

We all meet up again in Gardiner at the Mine where we enjoy a delicious Christmas dinner and good company. Kathie tells us Rick did not find 302 today but did see former Agate 471 in the Mammoth area, as well as the Canyon group.

Merry Christmas to all!

Today I saw: bison, 6 coyotes, 1 bald eagle, elk, 3 snowshoe hares, 3 bighorn sheep, 13 Druid wolves, 5 Loons and the spirit of Allison.




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