I am out the cabin door at 4:15. Dark sky, some stars, no birds yet. As I go to drop off my keys Charlie calls to me softly "see you out there!" He's in his truck, waiting for his family to join him. I wave and nod, smiling broadly.
For the last time I enter the gateway to Lamar. All is quiet. In Little America I have to stop because the dawn is breaking over the beautiful hills. I hear the soft lowing of bison and unusual birdsong, unlike any I've heard so far. In Lamar Canyon I pass a lone, small deer, perhaps a yearling. I wonder if hers were the eyes I saw last night. I drive slowly through the valley, as the light seeps through the clouds, savoring each view.
The little stream by the Institute is prettier than ever and I stop to watch. I am greeted again by meadowlarks. On I go past all my favorite spots. The Footbridge is empty so I go on. I see cars east of the Soda Cone. I happily join them. There is a new kill - we dub it the Lone Pine Kill for the nearest landmark. It's just past 5 AM. The Druids waste no time.
Right away I see a grey head pop up. I can't see the carcass from this vantage point but all signs indicate that this kill is closer, on the near side of the river. I think to myself that on some future trip I should try to stay up all night. We talk in whispers. Most of us are in winter wear, with hats and gloves against the cold morning. Our breath comes out in puffs. In just a few minutes I hear someone say "black wolf" and THERE! There he is! It's 21! Big Beautiful 21 coming out from the kill area across the sage with…! with a huge hunk of meat in his jaws, still dripping blood. He trots up to the road, actually looks both ways (!) and moves smartly up the hill, stopping by a big spruce. Here he pauses, looks back and then trots on. Up over the hill he goes with the meat, bringing it back to his pups. I jump up and down in a silent version of the Druid Dance. Ruth and Vrod smile at me, sharing my enthusiasm. We gain a few more watchers including a young couple who can not believe their luck. They were heading out of the Park, trying to beat traffic by leaving early. They spotted 21 coming and stopped dead in the road. They could not believe they were seeing a wolf so close! They are still trembling with delight. I whisper congratulations! They decide to stick around for more.
I look back at the kill. I see lots of birds in the neighboring trees, mostly ravens and one rown and white raptor (not sure what this is). As I pan to the right I get my turn as spotter. I call soft and sharp "black wolf!" I point a trembling finger. It's 42! I actually recognize her because she's pretty close and I see her white muzzle. She, too, carries meat in her mouth as she trots across the flat. I hear voices whisper "grey wolf". I still have 42 but I see running behind her is grey 106. Both wolves kick into higher gear and make straight for the road at a strong lope. They cross quickly and head uphill, each taking a different route. Wow! Three wolves already! This kill must be fresh. It must have just happened not more than a half our ago. I am stunned by such great good luck on my very last day.
After this some people leave and head to the Footbridge in hopes of seeing these wolves return to the den site. I stay, savoring the morning I'm having. Just as I decide it can't get any better, I see another grey wolf come loping out from the kill, also carrying food. It's the Yearling. He runs fastest of all and is across the road in a flash. He keeps running all the way up the hill, past a crooked fir tree and over the top. Now that's a mighty fine Druid Farewell!
I wait a little while, scanning this way and that. I see the ravens descend from the trees so I figure the wolves must now be gone. I drive slowly back to the Footbridge, watching carefully for other wolves. I join the crowd there, scoping out the den hills. There are many excited people here, many who just got their first wolf sightings this morning and are bursting with expectation to see more.
I talk to a lady named Sally who is here with her family. We have run into each other in Lamar the last few days and they have been disappointed so far at not seeing a single wolf. Well, today is their day! They are nearly jumping out of their skins. A man stands on the big rock and says "grey wolf! I think". We all look but no one else seems to see it, yet I believe him. He says he saw it only for a second, almost a grey shadow between trees. That sounds like a Druid to me!
I watch a while longer, then decide to go back to the kill site. I head out slowly. I remember the coyote den and stop at the Cone to take another look. A group of teenagers is here, maybe a class. I find the den and a lone coyote asleep above the entrance, but I see no pups. A man and his wife in a pickup pulls over and asks what we're seeing. I tell him coyote den. They check it out. We talk about the sightings we've had. They're from Utah. At first glance you might peg him an anti-wolf type but he says "I'd like to see 'em give us some wolves, too. Too many coyotes where I'm from". I see a lone pronghorn buck walking confidently along the riverbank, little tail flicking. How pretty he is.
I go on to the Lone Pine Kill viewing area. I greet a gregarious man from Tennessee and his wife from, the couple who showed me their video of 21 last night. They have great scopes. After a little while Tennessee says in his entertaining drawl "there's 30 Elk up on that hill". We see he's right. The Elk seem content, grazing up high on a ski slope hill. But Tennessee is not finished spotting for us yet. "There's a coyote asleep" he says. I turn to look and there on a hillside right across the road is a coyote curled up, sleeping in the sun. I wonder aloud whether he is one of the coyotes that chased 106 and the Yearling yesterday. Just then a second coyote appears nearby, larger than the sleeping one. The sleeping one wakes up, then gets up and stretches. They obviously know each other. The two of them then saunter off, cross the road and seem headed for the kill.
We wonder if there are any wolves on the kill for them to mess with. We watch closely, ready for anything. As the coyotes near the river they become extremely cautious. They move right, then left, then back and forth. First one, then the other disappear over the edge. Only a minute later the larger one re-appears with something in its jaws. He trots a little away from the river and lowers his head in the sage. To me it looks like he drops the meat, not like he ate it. Someone says they sometimes cache meat for later. That would describe what I saw.
Shortly afterwards the second coyote re-appears but does not seem to be carrying meat. Their movements remain cautious but deliberate. We see several ravens and the brown and white raptor come and go. Then the brown and white raptor flies off to the west. Shortly after this Susan joins us. We fill her in on the coyote's behavior. She seems to agree about the caching of food.
A little while later Tennessee pipes up again. "There's a griz after the elk!" We all perk up! Tennessee is looking in the same spot where he saw the 30 elk. It's far away on one of the ski-slope summits, the one most heavily dotted with trees. I see a big grizzly, with classic grizzled coloration (the kind that reflects the sun almost like straw) charging downhill at a herd of Elk. They scatter as he runs through them. Then they bunch up and make a stand. The griz stops by a lone tree, catching his breath or pondering his next move. I know I always say it but the griz looks so big - he's as big if not bigger than the elk. The griz makes another run, driving the elk this way, then that way but he does not seem to pick one out. We keep watching but the griz almost seems to be toying with them. Maybe it's a young bear just feeling his oats. Maybe this elk herd is particularly smart. After a while the griz ends up in the timber and I can't see him anymore.
Again I can't believe my luck at seeing Wolf, Coyote and Grizzly action on my very last day. But that thought makes me look at my watch. I see that it's time. I look for the coyotes but they're gone. I bid a sad farewell to Ruth and Vrod and wish them many happy sightings. I thank Tennessee and his wife for their great spotting help. I blow kisses to the Druids and the coyotes and head west.
At the Footbridge I stop to thank Miranda and Chris and Tricia and Gary for all their help. I say thanks to Mt. Norris and the Soda Butte Creek and wish the coyote pups the best of luck. I take one last photo of the den hills where I saw the Druid heads pop up.
As I near the Institute I see a young man and woman out of their car, walking hurriedly up the road, cameras in hand, looking intently to the right. I roll down my window. The man turns and says breathlessly "wolf!" I pull over. When they stop a few yards beyond me and raise their cameras, I inch up slowly to see what they see. It's the Ruffian, moving in his signature laconic way up a draw. I just can't spoil it for them. They may be new to wolf watching but they're here in Lamar, in the best classroom in the world. I say, "looks like he's hunting." "That's what I think" says the man, excited. The woman beams. "I saw him" she says. "I saw him". "Good spotting" I say. I drive on and leave them to the joy of discovery. I drive to Roosevelt, to Mammoth, to Livingston and Bozeman. My last photos are of wildflowers growing tenaciously beside the road to the airport. I am at peace. The mountains are gorgeous, the river is blue, the clouds are high and fluffy. What a land we live in. We are so lucky. I feel, I know, I am blessed.
Today I saw: Antelope, Bison, A Brown-and-white raptor, 3 Coyotes, 1 Deer, Elk, 1 Grizzly bear, Ravens, and 4 Druid Wolves; 21, 42, 106 and the Saddleback Yearling.
ANIMAL SIGHTING STATISTICS: This trip was by far and away my most successful trip in terms of the multitude and variety of animal sightings. I attribute this to the season as well as access to the fabulous optical power of my Loon buddies.
WOLVES: All members of the Druid Peak Pack 24 sightings/11 instances in 15 days/each member at least once 5 out of 10 morning attempts were successful (at least one wolf) Total 12 6 out of 12 evening attempts were successful Total 12 Most wolves in a single sighting - 5 Wolf sighted most frequently - 21 (at least 5 times) All my sightings were in the Lamar area, ranging from the Institute to roughly a mile east of the Soda Butte Cone.
GRIZZLY BEARS: 26 (14 adults, 12 cubs)
BLACK BEARS: 22 (12 adults, 11 cubs)
COYOTES: 40 (35 adults, 5 pups)
Hundreds of BISON, ELK & GEESE, dozens of DEER, ANTELOPE, WATERFOWL & RAPTORS, 8 MOOSE, 13 BIGHORN SHEEP
First Time Ever: FERRUGINOUS HAWK, FISHER, KESTRELS, MOUNTAIN GOATS & SAND HILL CRANES
First Time in Yellowstone: GOLDEN EAGLES, MUSKRAT, OTTER, PELICANS, RABBIT,
SNAKES & WEASELS