Again this morning I find a bit of frost on the windshield.
The sky looks a little cloudy; perhaps my lucky streak of gorgeous days has come to an end?
Once I get into the valley the clouds disperse. I stop at the confluence and hear the distant honking of geese and closer quacking of ducks. For the fourth day in a row, I drive through a wolfless Lamar.
However, I have plenty of bison to keep me company. I have to negotiate my way through several herds who seem to prefer traveling on asphalt. By the time I get to Tower, a beautiful sunrise has begun behind me.
Once again, while I'm driving I hear a radio report that 755 is in view at Blacktail Ponds, but this time I arrive too late. My dissapointment vanishes, though, when I hear the news - he seems to have found a new female companion!
Becky and Chloe were here early and saw him with a gray; they believe it is the same animal they saw here two days ago, the one that was shy of the road. They watched the wolves interact, acting a ritual behavior that, for wolves, is akin to human flirting. We call it the "fanny dance". Two wolves stand near each other usually facing or slighly perpendicular to each other, in a tense, stiff-legged stance. The tension of this unusual "pose" is released only through their oddly-wagging tails. Usually after a few seconds, one wolf or the other will rest a head on the other's withers. Sometimes you see play-bowing, too.
Several people got good photos of the gray and I take a look so I might be able to recognize her in the future. There is much speculation as to what pack she might be from.
Although it is long past mating season, wolves can form a pair bond at any time of year, and if they remain together, they'll be ready when the next mating season rolls around.
755 is very handsome and in the prime of life. He just turned 5 years old this month. He is lanky and strong and probably knows more than most male wolves how to get along with females.
Chloe also tells me there was howling to the south of the road earlier. She believes a second gray is back there, somewhere.
I notice a big difference this morning - the bison carcass is no longer half-submerged. Apparently, one of the bears that was here early this morning (or late last night) managed to finally yank it out of the water. It's quite gruesome - one side of the carcass is bare bones and the other side is whitish-gray meat - half frozen and slightly decayed. The bison's horns provide a handy perch for several ravens.
I watch a juvenile bald eagle perched on the ice to the right of the carcass, and the amusing antics of two coyotes and several ravens.
But just then someone taps me on the shoulder and says "Canyons at Tower". At first I think they mean Lamar Canyons, but on the way I hear more news so I know it's not them, but instead the pack that frequents Hayden Valley. Although they have visited the Mammoth area in winter time, it is VERY unusual to have them this far east on the Northern Range.
A little while later I join some friends at Elk Creek. As soon as I set up my scope a wolf walks into view. my scope range. It's 712M, a large, black-going-gray, the alpha male. He crests the low hill above Yancy's Hole (where the Roosevelt Cookouts are held in summer) and sits on his haunches. He looks to his right. I follow his gaze and see a white wolf bedded on a knoll just above him, her lovely forepaws stretched in front. She looks like a white sphinx, the alpha female.
It's a real treat to see them, and fairly close, too! Although I'm not sure what their presence might mean to the Junction Buttes and to any of the Lamar Canyon wolves who might venture back.
Soon there are more wolves in view. Collared black 831F crests the same hill her father is on - but further to the west, followed by an adult gray and then two more grays - one with pretty bad mange on his back half. This is the yearling that Laurie calls "no pants". I realize these two grays are last year's pups, that people watched off and on last summer from Grizzly Overlook.
The four younger wolves walk in single file across the low ridge, then stop and seem to pose for a bit, each of them looking off to the north, the direction they came from. Then one by one 831F leads them down the ridge into the flat bowl, where they mill around, sniffing here and there.
This is my first really good, extended view of wolves. Far enough away for safety and non-interference, but close enough for excellent scoping or binocular watching. And it's just a treat to see these well known wolves in "our" neck of the woods.
Once the "kids" are in the bowl, the alphas get up and walk slowly along the low ridge. At this point we can all see that the alpha female is pregnant. Yay!
831F leads her siblings up a slope at the western end of the bowl. As they pick their way up the slope I remember having seen numerous other wolf packs walk this route in the past; Agates, especially, but also the Sloughs and the Blacktails.
Now I turn my scope back on the bowl, which the alphas are now exploring. We watch them double-scent mark, and stop to sniff certain areas. Eventually they follow their youngsters up the hill. I watch them as long as I can but they eventually disappear behind the hill.
I look around at the faces in the pullout. Everyone is beaming. We like this sighting!
But I need to know what happened so I pack up and drive to Tower where Laurie and Dan are. Laurie says they stopped at Tower when they saw a black wolf feeding on an old carcass out in Tower flats. Laurie was pretty sure it was 890M - formerly called Patch - who was pushed out of the Junction Butte pack recently and who has not been seen for several days.
As they were watching 890, they suddenly noticed other wolves in the area. These wolves charged at 890, sending him running for his life. At first Laurie figured they were the Junction Buttes, chasing their ostracised former member, but she quickly realized the color make-up of the pack did not match the Junction Buttes!
When she first saw 712M she thought she was seeing 754M back from the dead (they are both large, black-going-gray, collared males) but once she saw the white wolf, she knew exactly who they were!
She says the Canyons chased 890M and might have caught him, so she and Rick are concerned he might still be out there, injured. We scan the area from the Tower parking lot, looking for one black wolf out there.
After about a half hour, some visitors call to us, pointing to the north. There he is! I get him in my scope, he's moving quickly along the hiking trail at the base of the hill. He seems fine to me; I don't see any limp or spots of blood. Looks like he got away unharmed.
Come to think of it, the Canyons were certainly not behaving as though they had just killed a stranger wolf, either, so it all adds up.
As I watch him, I notice that his mange is far less pronounced than it was before. Laurie confirms he has been making steady progress all year. 890 heads uphill, and very quickly tops the hill and disappears, heading towards the Yellowstone- Lamar confluence.
I didn't get the names of the people who spotted him, but I thanked them over and over, telling them that we thought this wolf might have been injured, and their spot helped us know he is fine. They seemed happy to help and quite tickled to see a wolf.
Several of us try a variety of spots to find 890 again or to discover an angle on the Canyons, but in the end Sian finds them again, from upper Elk Creek.
I head there and soon join Becky & Chloe & Alan and Kirsty. All six Canyons are resting in a sunlit patch of meadow on a hilltop, crowned with trees. I take a good look at each one, taking note of what differences there are between the grays.
Suddenly I notice another gray coming up the hill from below - who's that? Oh, no that's not a wolf - it's a coyote! Aghhh! He's unaware the wolves are up there! As if he hears our gasp, the coyote suddenly freezes, then instantly turns tail and vanishes down the hill.
He might still be running for all I know!
Many more people stop by to see these sleeping wolves, and we happily share our scopes, telling the tale of these wolves, venturing guesses about why they are here, explaining where these wolves usually live.
About an hour later, we hear a report that Junction Butte pack has been spotted from Hellroaring, on a carcass in Hellroaring Creek!
Today finally feels like my typical wolf-luck has returned.
The whole group of us heads to Hellroaring. We are careful to park so there is ample room for other visitors to get in and out.
It takes me a while but I finally find where others are looking. At the very last visible bend in the creek, I see two wolves in front of a large boulder, one on either side, tugging at the something in the water.
Although it's another VERY long view, at least there is a variety of activity to watch, both in the creek and on the hillside above it, as the wolves come and go. One of the tugging wolves is gray and the other is black. It's too far away for me to tell who is who. I follow a second black walking away from the creek up the hill. I moves past two bedded grays along the rim of what looks like a dry pond.
One of these grays gets up and moves out of sight, then comes into view again on a hillside above the dry pond. This gray beds at the base of a tree.
I look back at the creek and see there is only one gray there now. The black his moving up the hill, carrying a bone. It stops at the top of the hill and sits on its haunches, then settles down to gnaw on what is probably a bone.
I see another black heading up the hill to the bedding spot under the tree. I dont know if this is a third black or the second one, re-appearing in this spot. For some reason it is REALLY hard to see the ones up high.
Then some bison start to walk through the dry pond and I see another black down there, so I have now seen three blacks and three grays.
The consensus is that this is not a new kill but something old that has become newly available, probably due to melted ice or a rise in the water level.
Kim and Joyce find a black bear straight below the pullout. I watch him nose around a bit, but he soon goes out of sight.
All the wolves are now bedded except the black gnawing his bone. He had to move a bit when the bison came through, but he is still gnawing away.
With this lull in wolf activity, Laurie starts an engineering project, attempting to drain the big puddles from the pullout. Soon, everyone gets into the act, and we do indeed, have an effect, steering the water over the edge of the pullout, managing a sizeable change in the depth of the puddles.
Around 4PM, all the Junction Buttes have disappeared from view. Someone calls Sian to see if she still has the Canyons. She says she was just about to call us because they have moved out of sight, too!
So people start to drift away, going this way or that. I stay a bit longer, because, well, ya just never know.
Kim and Joyce are here and I enjoy talking with them while we watch the slopes of Hellroaring. I see what looks like a large migration of both bison and elk through a pass that leads to Mom's Ridge. It's the same area where we saw the grizzly last night and we are hoping for a repeat appearance.
I also see a very pretty bird singing on the tippy top of a tree below us. It is a muted blue-gray color, with slight striping on its wings, a small beak and with a white eye rim. Note: I looked it up after I got back - I think it's a Cassin's vireo.
Then a visiting couple from Colorado stops by and mentions they saw a gray wolf in Lamar, just off the road. When was this? I ask. A few hours ago. Hmmm. They say they took a photo, so I ask to see it. Honestly, I am expecting to see a photo of a coyote, but the animal in their photo is DEFINITELY a wolf. Well, well, well.
I sure would like to see a wolf in Lamar. The couple says it was near the Footbridge pullout and went up the hillside to the area "where the Druids usually had their den". Hmmmm. So I decide to pack up to look for this mystery gray.
I stop at Footbridge and check all the usual spots. Tomorrow is my last day, so I am also saying goodbye to Lamar. Note: I am pretty sure the gray wolf the young couple saw was Middle Gray of the Lamar pack, because she was positively ID'd in Lamar two days after I left!
On my way east I go all the way to Cooke City for gas, and on my way back I see a mountain fox, trotting along the side of the road, pretty as a picture. So I have another three dog day!
TODAY I SAW: a blue bird, a Cassin's vireo, bison, a black bear, coyotes, sandhill cranes, ducks, a bald eagle, elk, a mountain fox, geese, 13 wolves including 6 Junction Buttes (Puff, Ragged Tail, 889F, new male, black female and black pup); 6 Canyons (712M, white alpha female, 831F, 3 grays); and 890M (former Junction Butte male "Patch"), and the spirit of Allison.