It's 24 degrees at dark-thirty as I head out for my last full day. It's been a great trip so far, amazingly full of wolves and good friends. The sky looks a little cloudy today, though, and sure enough we have some light snow across high bridge.
We see no bunnies today; I must have scared them yesterday! It looks like a bit more snow fell last night on the Blacktail Plateau.
Our first stop is in Little America at the Curve lot. The Druids are not around, but Rick has signals from the Agate to the south and from the Lava Creek Trio to the north. It looks like the carcass near Junction Butte continues to be the focus of wolves in the area.
We hear howling, first from the north and then from the south. Rick spots 147 and I see him soon after. He is with 471. She is very hard to see because her pale coat blends nicely with the snow-dusted sage. And then I spot the 06 female near a boulder.
Then Chloe finds the Agates at the back of a meadow to the south, directly across from the Lava Creeks. For the next 10-15 minutes we alternate between watching both packs. I see beautiful Big Blaze, moving boldly between the tree trunks, heading slightly uphill to the east. Behind him is the half-tail gray 715F. These two cross a clearing and then I see the grand dame herself, 472F. She does not trot like the others, but walks steadily and determinedly, following her pack mates.
When I turn around to check on the Lava Creeks, they have moved off but soon we hear howling again and pick them up on a low slope near another boulder. It seems to me that the Lava Creeks somehow make themselves sound like far more than three wolves - and we wonder if they have learned to do this as a survival tactic? A three-wolf pack is pretty vulnerable on the Northern Range.
The Agates stop and howl back and I find myself wishing I could speak the language. These packs are closely related - what are they saying to each other?
As I watch them, I am struck by the similarity between these two packs - they are somewhat carbon copies of each other. Each has a black alpha male, a very light gray alpha female with a collar, and one additional gray female. However, there are numerous differences one can notice if you see them often enough or close enough.
Big Blaze is a very, very black wolf, large and full of energy, with a full, feathery tail and of course, that big white blaze on his chest, like 302 had, while 147 has lighter shading on his sides and legs which makes him look "older" although he is robust and healthy, too.
472F's face is distinctly "Druid" in that she reminds me of both 21 and 42, her parents. She was born a black wolf, but has turned white with age. To me her body looks a bit stout, and she walks slowly. Her daughter, 471, is even lighter, having been born a gray wolf who grew lighter. Her body appears thin to me, and the shape of her head has always reminded me of a white terrier (like the Target Dog).
Agate 715F is a very pretty gray, and is most clearly distinguished by her short tail. The third Lava Creek wolf, the 06 female, is a beautiful classic gray wolf; graceful and energetic, with a full tail.
Chloe tells me that the 147M was collared in Montana, but arrived in Yellowstone a few years ago. He had a case of mange last year which he has now recovered from, proving that it is not always a fatal disease in wild wolves. When the howl session ends, the Agates begin to walk further east and uphill and we know we are soon going to lose them. Big Blaze and 715 begin to trot, but 472 moves at her own steady pace. I watch them disappear between the trunks of dark conifers.
The Lava Creeks are also on the move, but they change direction and begin to head towards Junction Butte. I wonder if the howling was a discussion of whose turn to eat it was?
I think they will head over to the carcass but intead they climb to the top of Junction Butte. We see them top out and bed there, overlooking what's left of their carcass.
Then out to the north someone spots the Druids! They are very far away, on the other side of the Lamar River in an area of sprawling sage flats. At first I see a group of four blacks standing together and further to the west a group of three. Those with better eyes than mine identify them as the same seven individuals we watched yesterday.
I see the New Black trotting proudly through an open patch of snow. He stops at the eastern end and turns back to the group of females as if to say - come on! Let's go this way!
But the females are not so sure. They hang back, watching the New Black, wondering what the heck he is doing. The second group of females starts moving again, and soon catches up with the first group. They seem to have a discussion about the best course. The New Black is impatient and so full of himself! He comes trotting back, wagging his tail as he looks at them, then stops in the snow patch and beds.
I wonder if it irritates the females to see him bed like that. He must know they cannot lie down in snow due to their mange. They remain stading on all fours, some leaning on each other for support or comfort or both, others using a boulder for the same thing, and others just stopped like statues, as the wind blows. Chloe says softly "I guess the Druids are bedded".
After a while the New Black gets up again and comes closer to the females, wagging his tail and looking for affection. He gets snapped at. He moves off, undaunted, and trots around the females in a great big circle, sniffing here and there.
He approaches White Line from the other side and this time she responds to him more kindly. She seems to whisper something in his ear. He stops and then she starts off, leading them north east. Soon the pack is strung out in a familar wolf-parade, and the new male manages to get to the front as if this was all his idea! A light snow begins to fall as we watch the parade of skinny-tailed Druids and one fat-tailed male move further and further away. Then one by one they top the rim and disappear over the other side.
This turns out to be my last sighting of the Druids as a pack, and although I did not know it then, I remember commenting that they seemed to have a bit more energy than they did in October. I remember thinking they seemed so listless in October, like they were depressed. But then again, maybe with the colder weather they simply HAVE to move more quickly or with more effort, just to keep from freezing?
Well, we decide to see if we can find out where the Agates went, so we head to a pullout called Straightaway. This offers a great view of Specimen Ridge, and in particular, a feature on the skyline that is called 'the gap". Chloe points this out to me as a good spot to check because it is the route often taken by the Agates as they travel from Little America over to their core home territory.
Rick stops by and confirms that Agate signals are good here. We scan everywhere but do not find them. We figure they are probably bedded in the forest where we cant see them.
So on we go into the Lamar, where it looks like an additional inch or two of snow has fallen. We find bison - a small herd near Fisherman's and another group on the north hills between Coytoe and Dorothy's. And there are more bison in the flats below Dorothy's.
We continue east in search of otters. We have heard reports from other visitors of sightings at the Confluence, at the Soda Butte Cone and at Round Prairie, but as we arrive at each place, no otters greet us! We drive back west with increasing frustration and end up gathering at the Footbridge almost out of habit - and suddenly - there they are!
Two otters in the creek just to the west of the little bridge. Yay!
One is much larger than the other. It could be an adult and juvenile but I don't know otters well enough to be sure. But I am sure of one thing - these critters are fun to watch! The big one catches a fish and then hops up on the bank to eat it. I love watching him chew and chew. When he finishes his mean he begins to clean his whiskers, by rubbing them vigorously in the snow. Then he rolls on his back with his short little webby feet in the air, then dives back into the icy water.
In another moment he is on the bank again with another fish. Chomp chomp chomp! Then out comes the smaller one to grab the bits of fish he dropped. Then the two otters snuggle close and begin to groom each other. Awwww! So cute!
Their hardly ever sit still. They move from spot to spot, and keep us clomping from one end of the pullout to the other in order to keep them in sight. Their antics keep the resident ducks worried. They paddle around in another section of open water, keeping a wary eye on the otters. I remember that Doug told me otters eat a duck if they can catch one!
Dozens of people pull in to photograph these delightful creatures and to chat about how lucky they feel to see them, especially those who are seeing wild otters for the first time.
But eventually they head further downstream and we lose them. We drive down to the Confluence, in anticipation, or at least hope, that the otters might be heading here. We wait a while but they don't show and then we hear that Calvin has found the Agates!
So off we go to Straightaway. We are too late to see them close but we do catch a glimpse of the threesome heading through the trees and uphill. I remember the spots Chloe pointed out earlier today and I keep scanning all the clearings on the "next level". This proves to be a smart choice as suddenly I see movement in one of those clearings.
Yep, the Agates are following their usual route which means we will get a chance to see them go up to the top. I train Layla on the wide white slope below "the gap". There is a second slope just below it, and you can see several game trails in the snow. In no time at all the three wolves appear on that slope, following the trail.
The sun is behind us, making this an especially lovely sighting. Big Blaze leads the way, and more than once he stops and looks back to make sure the ladies are within sight. From here it looks like a very gallant gesture on his part. The ladies are coming, 715 is closest and dear old 472 bringing up the rear. Now Big Blaze reaches the steep slope of "the gap" and takes it at an easy lope - he is young and strong and such climbs are nothing to him. The females each take a slightly different path to the top, but soon all three are visible at the skyline.
They pause to regroup and nuzzle a bit and wag tails, then they travel three abreast for a while along the skyline, looking so gorgeous I get teary. Then, quick as sunlight on mist they disappear over the rim. We decide our next adventure will be trying to find the Canyons. So we head west in a caravan but soon another snow-squall moves in. By the time we get to the High Bridge, we have severely limited visibility. We stop to look anyway, but do not find the Canyons.
So on we go to Gardiner. We each have a date tonight - with each other. Bob L and several other regulars have organized a New Year's Eve bash at the K-Bar. We gather at a long table and order drinks, LOTS of pizza and start to gab and laugh. We have a blast. Every time someone new shows up we add a table to one end or the other. The big favorite is the "Everything" pizza!
It's so much fun to share relaxed time with each other, inside instead of freezing our toes off! We don't stay till midnight, because this is a crowd that likes to get up early, so for us, the year changed at 9PM! Thanks everyone and....HAPPY NEW YEAR!
Today I saw: bison, coyotes, dippers, ducks, elk, 2 otters, bighorn sheep, 13 wolves in 3 packs (7 Druids, 3 Lava Creeks, 3 Agates) and the spirit of Allison
Note about the Agates: At the time of this sighting, I knew it might be my last glimpse of 472F, but it turned out to be my last sighting of Big Blaze. Sadly, he was injured during mating season in a fight with Mollie 641 over the two females and never seen again. Bon Voyage, Big Blaze. You and your gallantry will always have a special place in my heart.