Up at 6. Today I leave the comforts of Silver Gate to move to a campground for two nights, so there's packing and loading and a last chance at showering. I don't arrive at the Footbridge until 8:30. I am met with general Loon ridicule.
John fills me in on the animals I've already missed. He mentions several grizzlies. His scope is facing Amethyst Mountain. I look around the timber edge to see what I can see. There! I'm so excited. I'm looking at a large animal with a light brown color. The sun glints off his grizzled coat just as you would expect it to. "Grizzly" I call out. John gives me a wry look. "Got a griz, Wendy?" "Yep" I say. "How can you tell?" he presses. I am confident. I've seen grizzlies. I look back in the scope. The animal moves. "I can tell it's a grizzly by its…by its white butt" I finish, crushed. My "griz" is an elk's behind.
John knew all the time, of course. Oh boy, did he let me have it! He went up to every single Loon and said "Hey, Wendy spotted a griz! Ask her to tell you about it!" In spite of this I have a nice morning. Tim A takes Tim W & Jay on a hike to Dead Puppy Hill. It's going to be warm again today.
About mid morning I have an urge to see more of the Park, so I take off. As usual, I go slowly through Lamar as there is always so much to see. Just beyond the Institute I spot a coyote on the flats – not the Ruffian – just a normal coyote. He looks like he's mousing so I stop to watch. He stops, listens, pounces but comes up empty. Again, he stops, listens, pounces. Empty again. A third miss! This poor guy I think. He has provided a slew of great shots already but I can't leave him hungry! I keep watching. Fourth pounce and he scores! A fat brown something. Chomp, gulp, gone. He trots two paces and poops. Then head up, happy, off he goes. I'm happy for him so off I go, too.
At another stop I see a doe elk coming out of the river…with a little calf! Oh how cute! My first calf. I can see its little white spots and that it's darker than mom. Such thin little legs! Mom elk is very attentive and very wary. I watch for a while and the fawn begins to nurse. This is just lovely. There are other elk scattered here and there grazing the green grass, and many dark lumps also which are bison resting. All in all, a peaceful valley…and a river runs through it.
I drive out to Roosevelt and on up to Tower. Harass Jake a little with silly questions. Then up over Dunraven. There are huge piles of packed snow pushed into stiff walls by the plows. At one of the pullouts, someone has built a snowman. It makes me laugh. There is thick snow in the forest beside the road all the way down to Canyon. I have very few animal sightings on this leg. Some people say it's due to the heat. It's unusually warm, in the upper 70's. I stop for film. In the Canyon parking lot there is a huge leftover snow pile melting slowly. I scrape "Loons Rule" into it. I still wonder if anyone ever saw it.
I decide to skip Hayden Valley cuz I know I'll have a chance to go another day. I go instead to Norris because I haven't seen a geyser yet and I owe it to Matthew to see Steamboat. Alas, Steamboat is merely steaming, but very cool anyway. I find it very crowded here which prompts me to move on. I hope Matthew will forgive me. I decide to head to Mammoth to see if I can get a camp spot.
I see Elk in the meadows by Twin Lakes. As I pass Roaring Mountain I remember Ray T's sighting of a mama griz who stopped to nurse her cubs near here. I hope and look but don't see her. More Elk in the meadows by Beaver Lake. Then I see a huge number of cars and even a tour bus off to the left in the Apollinaris Spring picnic area. This looks like something. I see three tripods facing the steep hill across the road. I find a pull-off spot and make my way down to them, camera & binocs at the ready. There are maybe 50 people here, lots of kids being mostly happily quiet. I see smiles on the faces of the scope people so I sheepishly ask what "we're" seeing. "Grizzly" a lady whispers with the wonderful, contagious excitement of a true bear lover. She waves me to her scope and I see what they see. A big (when are they NOT big?) golden-silver bear walking calmly on the very top of the ridge, well hidden by burned trees and brush. Then I see the cubs. Little, little, little cubs, two of them, hopping onto and tumbling over each other at her side. I've never seen such young cubs. I can see them easily in my binoculars and I stand frozen, just watching and relishing. The cubs are exactly the same color as mom. She towers over them. She turns some rocks and logs, one cub runs along a fallen stump and promptly falls off. Mom turns quickly but the cub gets up and scrambles back up the hill. Due to the thick forest of burned wood I can't get any photos. But my binocs let me see them fine. After about 10 more minutes the bears move over the ridge and we lose them.
What a great sighting it was.
On I go into Willow Park, past the sign that says "Watch for Moose" which I faithfully do but don't see any. I stop at the first pullout at Swan Lake flats and see two swans. They are so beautiful. I get some nice photos as they drift on the lake, dipping their graceful necks as they feed. Further on I see two horses grazing on the right. Large bays. Wait a minute! What are horses doing out there? I stop and realize what they are. Moose! I happily get out and watch them as they munch. One is larger but neither have antlers so I guess it's a cow and a large calf. The ease of spotting these large animals amazes me.
I come into Mammoth and it's nearly deserted. I figure I'm sure to get a campsite now. Indeed, I hand-pick the site I want, opposite Tim W, Tim II & Jay. I don't think I'd like Mammoth campground too much in the regular season because the vegetation is sparse. The views are great of course but it's not as private as I like. However this early in the season the place is empty, so it's OK. I see several Elk at the far end by the amphitheater. Tim W. had mentioned they had seen baby Elk here and sure enough I see a little calf and its mama peeking out from behind a shed. I agree with Tim's theory that it's a relatively safe place to birth a calf. By the way - bathroom facilities here are nicer than I expected: heated building, running water & flush toilets.
Now it's time to head back to Lamar. Just past Lava Creek I see a beautiful Elk buck grazing in the burnt forest. He's just the right distance away for good photos without my bothering him so I set up my 600mm lens on my tiny tripod atop my car hood. The buck is cooperative, moving only a little and posing grandly. His antlers are the widest I've yet seen and so pretty, still in velvet, outlined in sunlight. At one point he lifts and points his rear leg forward and scratches his chin. Then I suddenly see there are two other bucks who have been here all the time. One was lying down and just now gets up; the other is just to the right behind some trees. By this time others cars have stopped and one lady clucks at them as if they're dogs.
I figure my photo op is over. I collect some downed wood and stash it in my car for some future campfire. I start again for Lamar. On the climb up the Blacktail Plateau I see some large raptors swooping overhead. First one, then another. I guess that they are hawks. They ride the thermals expertly then zoom down into the wide fields to snatch a meal.
At Floating Island Lake I see more birds. First I watch the ducks then I keep hearing this very strange call, something like an accordion. I finally realize it's coming from two black robin-sized birds with bright yellow heads and orange eyes. One sits nearly hidden in the reeds and the other flits here and there, making the odd call, perching on the "sensitive area" sign, then flying out over the lake and back. I had been told there was a moose around here but I see no sign of one today. At the very next pullout, I see another lake and, thinking I got my lakes mixed up, I stop. This lake is nearly choked in reeds. There is a green truck here, printed with "authorized vehicle". A ranger, I figure, albeit off-duty. I see a guy with a very long ponytail leaning contentedly against this truck, binoculars fixed on the hill beyond. I move into earshot and say "excuse me". The Long-Haired Man turns, lowers his binocs, revealing a likable face and wire-rimmed glasses. I say "I heard there was a moose around here". LHM grins and shakes his head. "Haven't seen any moose. There's usually a nest here every year, Sandhill nest, but it looks deserted to me." He gestures to a circular clump of slightly smashed-down reeds. I nod. He raises his binoculars again. I am in a good mood and feel I can risk another question. "Those birds back there were making this weird noise. They're black with yellow heads. Do you know what they are?" LHM's grin is even wider now. "Those are yellowheaded blackbirds" he says mischievously. What a character! I wave goodbye and move on.
I run into the LHM again at the Roosevelt pit stop. He gets out of his green truck and greets a man wearing a baseball cap. I go over to say hi because the world is a wonderful place and I think he's funny. I ask if they are friends of John Uhler. They admit to knowing him but jokingly say they wouldn't call themselves friends because John is a wolf-man and they are Bearmen. I sense a rivalry. They ask what my hat means and I tell them. They are both funny, and remind me a little of wise guys back home in NYC. But on this trip my allegiance is firmly on the side of wolves. So I bid them adieu and I'm off to Lamar to meet the Loons.
Well, I don't see any Loons in the early pullouts, but the Footbridge is jammed! I find John, Geri, Oldtymr, Jakeman, Tim W, Tim II and also Jay, who delights us all by proudly showing off his purchase of the day - a spotting scope! We knew Jay was a Loon all along, but this proves it. John hands me the stove canister he picked up for me in West. Thanks again, John. I meet Ranger Bill Wengeler, whose photo of # 163 graces our favorite Chat Page. Bill loves the wolves, especially the Druids - if you don't believe me, check out his license plate! Bill and Rick McIntyre go across the Footbridge and hike to Dead Puppy Hill to watch.
We are jazzed because John has information that Druids are restless. But that goes for many animals this particular evening. First there is a pair of golden eagles (some thought immature balds) who swoop overhead really close. We're not sure what they're doing, hunting or what but it is wonderful to see. We watch several kestrels putting on a show that even John says he's never seen. These little hawks streak out over the Soda Butte Creek and let the wind lift them up to a height, then they lower their tail feathers and stop in mid-air, hovering above the water, looking down as if waiting for prey to appear. They hold the hover for an incredibly long time; then they break out and dive, and start over again. We also see 10 Bighorn sheep on a hill below Mt. Norris. I can see them easily with my binocs but through Geri's scope I can see the curls of their horns!
A white van from Teton full of wildlife-watchers pulls in, then a second one. They have open roofs like the ones you see on African Safaris. Druid-watching is really getting popular! The people in these groups are focused on the western edge of the hill opposite the pullout, looking towards the hidden den site, while John, Geri & Bruce are looking at the eastern edge of the same hill. With so many eyes tonight we've gotta see something! I think several times that I hear howling, dim and distant but I put it down to wishful thinking. One of the vans has blocked my view (I'm short, remember?) so I decide to take matters in hand. I climb atop my car - the wide bumpers and ski racks make excellent ladder rungs. From this perspective I can see a lot more although the den itself remains hidden. However my perch also announces to every car that drives by that this is the place to be. The pullout fills to capacity. And the action is about to begin.
A woman in the white van (Sue from Denver) points to my left and says "grey wolf". I look and see not only one but TWO wolves – they pop out on a curved slope, looking southwest towards the Hitching Post pullout. I call out to John and point, then turn back. I'm looking directly into the sun but my binoculars are coated and I can see just great. One grey rests on his haunches; the other stands on all fours. A black wolf appears! I see all three! Even closer than last night! My heart is bursting inside me. I feel hyper aware. I'm ready for anything. I want everyone to see this! I turn back for an instant, looking for John and the other Loons to make sure they're in on it. They know! They see! I hear Tim W saying "I see wolves!" I know, I know, we're supposed to be quiet, but YOU try containing your excitement when the experience is still so new! We weren't screaming, just being loud enough to be heard! Anyway, the wolves are only out for another brief instant before they disappear again. Everyone expects them to show up across the road and most people were turned that way. Some start their engines and drive off in the direction of Hitching Post. I take my cues from John and he's staying.
Boy, do we get serious. We confer with looks and hand gestures. We compare sightings and reactions. We agree the wolves have clear intentions of going somewhere, hopefully on a hunt. We agree they seemed to be looking at us and we imagine they found the size of the crowd intimidating. We speculate on which wolves we saw. (I never found out). But John's advice is that the wolves are tricky and will usually do the unexpected. He says I should stay up high where I am and keep watching the hills in front of the den, scanning both right and left. He has a hunch they will next appear to the east. It is getting chilly as the light fades. I hop down for a second to add another layer. When I go back up top, Tim II joins me and then his dad does, too. Not too much later, we spot the wolves again. I point and call out, more softly this time. I try to give directions to others but keep adding "oh man" or "wow" or stuff like that which must really annoy anyone who hasn't yet found them. What I see is a black wolf trotting purposefully along the ridge heading east, backlit by golden sunset light. A grey wolf follows him. Then another grey. They traipse right along in perfectly clear view for a beautifully long wonderful minute and then disappear again.
The crowd is really jazzed now. More minutes pass and the air chills further. We no longer feel it. It could have been 20 degrees and NONE of us would have cared! Suddenly the call goes out again. I think it's John this time. Quite a bit further east from the last sighting a black wolf appears, trotting. We can see this MUST be the alpha. He is black and much larger than the others. He is clearly in control. Behind him are three more wolves two black and one grey (I've now seen four!) These wolves are going hunting! As they move along the ridge disappearing and re-appearing a fifth wolf joins them, another grey. I am beside myself with joy. The light is dimming and every time they stop they are nearly impossible to see, especially the greys. Now comes the part I don't like. Many cars in the pullout, including the two white vans, start their engines and drive off east, paralleling the wolves' progress along the ridges on the left, hoping to keep them in sight. It is obvious even to a neophite like me that this is a bad move; that the wolves wish to cross the road and the steady stream of cars will prevent them from doing so. Had we all remained at the footbridge, they may have crossed close enough for photos and we may have been treated to the five of them loping across the flats while the light lasted. But humans will be humans, I guess. And if I did not have the other Loons for guidance it may have been me making that mistake.
We Loons are conflicted as to what to do now. Finally we give in to the desire to see more but we take only two cars. John, Geri, Bruce & Jakeman go in one and the Tim's and Jay go with me. Past Soda Butte Cone we see the wolves again, the five of them in an uneven line along the ridge on the left, with 21M way out in front, who now starts to descend. Cars and vans line both sides of the road. Rick and Tom have finally made them stop to give the wolves a chance. We stop too. Scopes are set up. Jake jumps up on the back bumper. Tim and Jay and I climb up top again. The light is really fading now. I have trouble finding the greys so I stay on 21. Jake starts a great running commentary, clueing us in as to where to look and what he's seeing. We lose them for an instant. In that instant we spot a coyote at the bottom of the hill that the wolves are headed down. I think "Oh no, that poor coyote! He's gonna get kilt". I wonder if it's our duty to warn him. The coyote continues up the hill, oblivious. Suddenly Jake has the wolves in sight again. For the fourth time this evening, the wolves reappear so far away from their last position that I think they must have wings.
Jake tells us that 21 is crossing the road. I can sorta see this but not really. I do see him a second later running across the flats on the right. I lose him and focus back on the road. I see other ghostly wolf shapes cross the road. Jake says 21 is in the river. I turn my head and try to see that. I find him as he comes out on the far bank, shakes off and lopes up the slope. Fighting distance and lack of light I only half-see what happens next. Some elk on the upper slope break into a run. Two wolves lope after them for a few seconds, then they turn away, east. I try but I really can't see anymore. It's 9:30PM.
The show is over for the tonight. Only now do we drop our serious demeanor and begin to revel in our good fortune. Tim W and I climb down and do our improvised Dance of the Druids in the road. We repeat to each other what each of us saw, we praise and thank Jake for his invaluable help. We speculate on which wolves they were. John is sure we saw 42F, the new alpha female. He says she was the larger of the two blacks. And we KNOW we saw 21M. I think I heard that 105F (a black female) was left back at the den, which means we saw all the others, 103F (black), 106F (grey) and the (grey) male yearling. John tells us that Rick and Tom are not pleased at the way the crowd behaved tonight. To have to bother being traffic cops while their research subjects are on the move is an unfortunate twist to their job. We will debate this issue, including our own complicity, my whole trip.
Night falls completely and we feel the cold again. We drive back to the Footbridge and to my amazement, find others here who had no idea of the drama they just missed. We cannot contain our excitement and are thrilled to have the opportunity to tell it over. Tim and I dance again and we begin to pack up. I drive back to Mammoth reliving this wonderful night. Several pair of eyes gleam in my headlights but I make it back safely. I unload the firewood I had gathered and as much as there is reason to celebrate tonight I am tired. I had no nap today! When the boys pull in I find they want to crash, too. We say we'll do a campfire tomorrow night. I settle into my sleeping bag and write a few notes by flashlight. What a great day of wildlife sightings! I know I will sleep well and dream of Druids. And I did.
Today I saw: Antelope, 10 Bighorn sheep, Bison, 2 Coyotes, Deer, Ducks, Elk and 3 babies, 2 Golden Eagles, 3 Grizzly Bears (1 adult and 2 cubs, 2 Hawks, 3 Kestrels, 2 Moose, 2 Swans, 2 Yellow-Headed Blackbirds, 2 Bearmen, 7 Loons and 5 Druid Wolves.
Side note about wolf colors: I'm using the terms "grey" and "black" that I heard the wolf
researchers use to help identify individuals, but the actual color of each wolf is harder to
describe. The "black" wolves I saw were not SOLID black but had varying amounts of grey
and white mixed in , especially on their legs, muzzles and backs. The "grey" wolves had
even more colors mixed in, varying shades of brown, grey and white and the overall color
seems to change depending on whether you see them in bright sun or shade, and in what
kind of surroundings. The grey ones are nearly impossible to see against the sage and the
black ones are only a smidgen easier. Their camouflage works well.