DAY FOUR - FRIDAY, DECEMBER 26


WOLF WATCHING...IN MAMMOTH!

We wake up to snow again and more wind. The windows on the eastern side of my car are completely covered with an inch of icy snow while the western windows are completely clear. The wind makes some crazy drifts in the parking lot and on the road but it sure is pretty!

We deliberately slept in this morning because our plan today is to be at the high bridge at first light, due to the report we got last night from Kathie. She and Rick found a carcass yesterday that the Canyon wolves were feeding on and there is a high probability that they will be feeding on it this morning, too.

As we head down the hill, we see bird activity in the area Kathy described to us but there is no place to stop to scope - none of the pullouts are plowed. There is only one snow plow over the Christmas holidays and the snow has been non-stop so he has had his hands full going back and forth keeping the road clear and just hasn't had time to devote to clearing pullouts. So we stop at the only place we can - before the high bridge. These pullouts aren't plowed either but they are level and people have simply parked here often enough to trample the snow.

We see one of our regular bunnies and now we stop at the bridge to listen and look. No wolves. No elk, no movement. And it is so strange to see traffic at this hour, we are close to abandoning our plan when Kathie L calls "there they are!"

Chloe sees them too. Right where we saw birds on the way down. This is not a good angle, though, there are two rounded hills blocking our view. We head back uphill to the big, un-plowed lot and simply plunge in, figuring we can dig ourselves out later.

We hop out with our scopes and set up on a low hill facing south, below Mammoth Terraces. I see two grays walking uphill between snow and sage, approaching the area where the birds are flitting. I scan right and left and find a third gray, head down, tugging on something pink. This spot is unbelievably close to the road, although it's probably well-hidden by the many folds and hillocks of the area.

This turns out to be a great sighting. Chloe and Becky are sure these are the same wolves they saw on Wednesday when they arrived in the Park, and we later confirm this is the four-member Canyon Group. The light-gray alpha female is a former Hayden wolf.

The alpha male is a beautiful black wolf, of unknown origin but very likely a former Mollies wolf. There is also a large, collared gray wolf, #587M, known as a former Mollie, and a smaller dark gray male. At first the behavior between the light gray and the collared gray led me to believe the collared gray was the alpha male, but Chloe talked to Bob L about it and he says the black is the alpha male. Bob sees them a lot, so I believe him!

The four wolves are feeding on a carcass which is obscured by the trees and bushesl, but I can see two wolf heads between the trunks, noses down, tugging at meat. And there are many more birds than I first saw, perched all over the branches.

At various moments their bloody faces are clear to see. The black seems to be finished first. He comes out of the bushes and stands in the open, wildly visible against the snow, looking downhill as if contemplating his next move. I am just astonished at seeing wolves in this area of the Park. Who ever thought that it could be this easy to see wolves! I just can't get over it!

Next the large, collared gray comes out, a bit to the east of the black. He looks downhill pretty much straight at us. Then the light-gray female comes out. She appears close to the collared gray and takes a turn looking downhill at us, too. The gray male has a very pink muzzle and the female comes up to him and rubs her cheek against his, in what looks to me like an affectionate gesture.

Shortly after this, the black makes his decision and starts downhill, seemingly straight toward the road. A ranger is stopped on the road above him, and I imagine he has his hands full keeping the cars from driving down the hill. A few cars are headed uphill toward Mammoth but they stop on their own because they can see the wolves with their naked eyes.

The black seems utterly fearless and simply crosses on what looks to me like a straight shot from where he is to where he wants to be, which is a corridor of cover between the road and the employee residences. Seeing this wolf trot through snow, past rooftops in the background just fills me with awe. I've seen elk there, and pronghorn and rabbits and coyotes but I never ever thought I'd see a wolf there.

I see the third gray now, in about the same spot where the black had made his assessment. The other two grays move confidently downhill, angling slightly to the road. I lose them behind the rolling hills but can tell from the reactions of people along the road that they have just crossed and are now in the cover corridor.

I catch glimpses of them loping easily downhill and finally see the two grays hook up with the black a little further down. The three stand close to each other as if seeking assurance. This is the only sign I see that the nearness of the road or the people was a source of stress to them at all. They move, single file, down the slope and out of sight again. Just as I lose these three, the third gray appears, loping easily through the same area. He follows the route the others took and soon he, too, is out of sight.

Wow!

I am absolutely astonished. Wolves in Mammoth. In broad daylight!

As we pack up our gear, someone taps me on the shoulder. It's Mike, the Jeep guy. He is grinning from ear to ear and I grin right back.

It's 9:30 and a cold, windy 14 degrees. I need to warm up! Once I'm back in Fredricka we debate sticking here or heading east. We choose east and we are able to get out of the snowy lot much more easily than I expected. Next stop is the Frog Rock where we stop to scope for 302. We find some elk, one coyote and a bald eagle perched in a tree. But no wolves.

We drive on until we see Rick at Lower Hellroaring. He gives us the latest news, which is that he is yet to see a wolf today. The Druids are somewhere on Norris but he got no visuals. 302 is somewhere in Blacktail but he got no visuals. And 527 is somewhere out there but no visuals on her either!

Once we tell him about our sighting of the Canyons, Rick heads west to see if he can locate them. The others go with him to help. I decide to drive east to look for Druids and I promise to stay on the road this time (which I do!)

At Floating Island Lake I stop to watch a pair of huge bison bulls, shovelling snow and munching "the box". At Elk Creek I find better visibility than usual and thus see many, many elk and bison but not a single wolf. The sun is trying very hard to come out and every once in a while the snow lights up so much I have to squint.

By the time I get to Lamar I find it absolutely empty of people or cars! A little coyote trots down the road by himself across from Picnic. Once I roll slowly past him he heads for the river. I stop right on the road and watch him in my rear view mirror because I'm the only one around.

The confluence looks great. I stop for a while hoping for otters but see none, so next stop is the Footbridge, the site of such amazing Druid-activity last Christmas, with the two gray suitors being chased this way and that. I park and get out, intending to see if I can get down to the river. As I reach the log railing I catch movement on the water and suddenly, THERE! Otter! I see a hump rise out of an open slash of dark water, then another hump, then two otter heads pop up and seem to kiss. Then they both disappear. I smile, believing I can guess where they will pop out next, but....they never do! Where did they go? I wait and wait and never see them. I chuckle to myself that the kiss was the final act in an otter suicide pact.

I drive on to Round Prairie, passing a bison herd on the north side of the road opposite the Soda Cone. Most are asleep but one old warrior shovels his head back and forth, slowly.

The sky gets bluer and sun gets brighter overhead, but in the west it looks like another snow storm is coming. I turn around at Pebble and enjoy seeing another large bison herd in the flats here. I pull over to watch them and see another coyote trotting away from me down the road... oh wait! That's a fox! I first saw him straight on from the back but as soon as he turns I see his shorter legs and foxy face and when the tail goes sideways, well...there's no mistaking that! He is not reddish like other foxes I've seen. He is more grayish-beige, coyote-colored, except his legs are pretty dark. He crosses the road, heading for the high snowy berm. He leaps effortlessly over it, up and forward, almost like a deer! Then he lunges two or three more times uphill into the forest. Gone. When I drive by that spot a little later I see there is an elk/bison trail there and wonder if he is perhaps still there, hidden in the bushes.

Back into Lamar I go, enjoying the effect of the on again-off again sunlight on the snow. When I near the confluence I see a tow truck working on getting someone out of a jam. A Ranger blocks traffic while the tow truck does its job. If you're gonna be stuck on a road, there's nowhere better than the confluence, I say! I pass the time watching dippers.

The pickup is now back to the road and it moves east, seemingly none the worse for the incident. The Ranger waves me on and I head back west. On my way past the Old Picnic area I see a coyote nosing along the frozen river. I wonder if it is the same one I passed earlier?

I stop at Hellroaring and see elk and bison but no wolves. A smallish, white-bodied, black-winged bird flaps by me. Not sure what it might have been? There is no-one at the Christmas Bear spot - the bear is long gone. But I walk up the south side hill. From up here I can see a bit of country that I don't usually see and I decide that I am going to find 302 here, right now! I set up Layla and find instead lots of elk and quite a few bison but no wolves. I keep looking for bird activity but don't find that either.

As I come back to the car, Juliet and Phil drive up and stop to say hi. I tell them about the Canyon wolves this morning and a little later we stop at North Butte to watch another coyote wander up that hill.

As I cross the high bridge below Mammoth I notice a lone bison walking toward me in the left lane. Then suddenly I notice all the cars. Holy Moly! Mammoth looks like Lamar! I hear howling from several directions.

Man oh man! The Canyons must be out again! I see Bob L and a few other familiar faces on various hills, and note that most people are looking to the west, where I last saw the wolves this morning. I wonder if they are trying to get back to their carcass? The howling is unending and intense, all the more so for being so close!

I pull into the large parking lot and tuck in next to Bob L's car. I haul Layla up the same little hill I was on this AM and see if I can make sense of the situation. The black wolf is plain to see to the west, between hills in the snowy corridor. He stands broadside, facing uphill, howling in a very hoarse voice, sometimes barking.

He sounds very stressed. Other wolves howl from above; it appears the group is separated. I follow the howling and find two gray wolves up in the carcass area. One is the alpha female and the other is the darker gray.

It feels a bit chaotic, because of the lack of suitable places to park. With nowhere for people to pull over to enjoy this sighting they just keep stopping in the road and getting out to look. It's impossible to expect people to do anything else when the howling is all around you and the wolves are RIGHT THERE.

Eventually the black moves downhill and out of my sight. A little while later, the alpha female trots over the hilltop, pertly carrying a small set of ribs in her mouth. She boldly runs down the slope, sending soft powder flying as she goes. She picks a spot between two photographer-topped hills and carries her dinner to go all the way down to the spot where the black had been. She stops there for a moment and then moves on. The howling has stopped. I never see the other gray cross but he must have done so because now people begin to leave.

Things quiet down very quickly. I'm pretty sure the show isn't over yet, but the singing and the close viewing are. I watch the behavior of the homo sapiens in the area, and notice three people still out on a hilltop looking in one direction. I pack up Layla, grab my radio and a hiking pole and head out to join them.

I am delighted to see snow-shoe hare tracks all over the place as I make my way to the hilltop. I arrive and ask the people if I can join them. The threesome is from the Netherlands and speak excellent English. They say yes, yes, please join us. And the wolves are still in view. The alpha female rests on her belly, front legs outstretched, holding the ribs and gnawing on them like the doggie she is. I can only see three of them at the moment but the people assure me that the fourth is out there, too.

The body language of the wolves is quite content, even though they must be able to smell us and hear us. Beyond them and to the left is some kind of man-made metal structure, probably related to the employee housing or the maintenance stuff in this area. The roofs of the staff housing are visible from this spot.

Once the female finishes her ribs she gets up and stretches. Both the black and the large gray get up, too. The alpha female gets frisky with the large gray, play-biting the ruff of his neck. He reacts positively to her and they romp a bit, nipping each other and putting their heads over each other's backs, with high, wagging tails.

Apparently not bothered by this pre-season flirting of his mate with another guy, the black trots over to see if anything is left on those ribs. The third gray appears from behind a rock and all four of them begin to play and roughhouse. They move behind the hill so I miss most of it but I get the sense that this is a happy and well-bonded group.

Choe and Becky arrive in time to see the foursome romping, and a lovely pink and orange sunset fills the western sky. We remark that this is the first sunset we've seen on this trip. We watch the wolves romp a bit more and then they begin to scent mark. The female seems flirty with all of the wolves. I notice a small bar of white on the black's chest and a bit of gray on his chin. Then they move as a group through some thick sage and downhill toward the river.

The light is going and we retrace our steps through the snow back to the cars. As we are packing up, we notice a single bright light in the sky, probably a planet. We have not seen a clear night sky since we got here!

At the Rescue Creek pullout I have four or five young elk standing right on the icy road. I downshift to first and pump the brakes. I miss hitting them but whoosh! That was close!

We end our evening with pizza at Outlaws and a good wrap-up chat about the day. We all remark on how nice it would be if such wonderful wolf sightings were always such a short drive away! I can't believe my trip is nearly over. Waaaaaaah!

Today I saw: an unknown white and black bird, bison, 6 coyotes, dippers, a bald eagle, elk, 1 fox, 1 snowshoe hare, 2 otters, 4 wolves (Canyon group, twice), 2 Loons and the spirit of Allison.




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