This morning as we come down the hill into Gardiner we see a little lost mule deer right on the road. There are two other deer in the area but the yearling stands apart from them and looks wistfully down Main Street as if wondering what in the world are all those buildings for?
We head into the Park to see what today will bring. The drive is fairly uneventful or perhaps we are actually getting used to the beauty of it. When we get to Slough we are on the lookout for Druid activity. We see disturbances in the snow at the edge of the road that we imagine were made by running elk. I can't find my flashlight in order to inspect it more closely so Doug drives on. As we approach Fisherman's Pullout, however, we see something that gets us very excited. Wolf tracks.
I have now located my flashlight and I get out of the car, careful not to overstep the evidence. At least one wolf walked here. I hold my hand over a print and spread my fingers. It is the same size! Coyote tracks are not even as big as my palm. As we are looking at the tracks and trying to piece together a story to fit, Bob Landis comes up. He tells us he saw the tracks too, but he has no signals yet.
We move on, with windows down, eagerly watching the track as it continues in the snow on the side of the road. We got out here a little earlier than usual and it is really dark. I play detective a while longer and find the spot where the wolf left the road (near Coyote Overlook) and moved through the heavier snow down the hill. I find lots of places where elk crossed the road, apparently in a hurry. This suggests another chase of course, and I get too excited to be of much scientific help. I only see one set of wolf tracks, so it may be a smaller story than that. There are many elk on the hillside though, and that in itself is intriguing. There are more elk down below, almost as many as there were before the great chase. I hear Bob comment on the number as around 200. We look around but the elk are not acting worried. We decide to go back toward Slough and see if we catch anything there.
Doug has been talking about getting another magical blue light shot and we are experiencing that light right now. One of his ideas for this type of shot involves the hills of Little America and another involves what he calls "filigree trees". These are bare aspens in which the high branches sprout so many individual thin strands that it looks like filigree. We end up going past Slough and into Little America anyway, to a spot where there are lots of boulders strewn about, the glacial erratics that Doug and I both love. Doug has noticed that there are often coyote prints in the snow on the tops of these boulders. Since he told me this, I have seen it, too, and have become intrigued. There is a marvelous sunrise developing this morning and I want to record it. The moon is out against the magic dark blue and there are lovely pink streaks beneath it. Doug sets up his camera but I'm not sure if he's taking sunrise or something else. In any case we are both happily snapping away when we hear a sound behind us.
A lone coyote howls. It is such a great sound. I turn and lift my binoculars to try to find the singer. We've seen coyotes in this area every single time we've come by. And there he is, sitting on his haunches atop a tall boulder. Now I know how the footprints get there. His head is thrown back, his muzzle pointing straight to the sky as he howls his achy-breaky morning song for all he's worth. It's a tough little guy sound but there is vulnerability in it. And then he is answered! It comes from some distance away and it brings tears to my eyes. The answering call has a higher note and the romantic in me says it's a girl. Coyote-on-a-rock sounds off again and the two of them carry on like this for at least five minutes straight. He calls, she responds, he says some more, so does she. The notes vary as does the duration but the second voice is consistently higher than the first. I look for the second one but don't find her. I turn back to watch him and can't resist taking a shot of this suave little serenader. He hops from his perch and runs across the field. I lose him behind a fold.
I go back to the sunrise, which has not waited for me but changed again. Now it's yellows and oranges in the east and pinks and purples in the west. I trudge through the snow up a little hill for a different angle and there, in a little depression about 100 feet away, are two coyotes. They have to be the two singers. One is smaller than the other. The larger one rears up and seems to mount the smaller one but the smaller curls its head around, growling, and the larger one moves off. Then they begin to play and roughhouse, bounding and barking and yipping in obvious fun. Then the smaller one moves off, curls up and rests her head on her bushy tail. The larger one sits on his haunches for a while, looks back at the other a few times, then moves off and beds down, too. I love coyotes.
A little later I am standing at Hellroaring Overlook glassing the magnificent view. I see a big herd of bison on a slope and pockets of elk everywhere. Doug hopes to spot either the Rose Creeks or the Tower wolves from here but today is not lucky in that regard. He points out the suspension bridge over the Yellowstone and I am amazed. I have heard of this bridge but had no idea you could see it from here. Of course it is very difficult to see even when you know where to look! I see a raven and hope it will lead me to something, but no.
We head back to Lamar. As we make the turn at Tower I see some elk coming down a hill. For some reason, three of them bolt and run really fast. Then a yearling starts pronging really high. It's great to see, but I don't know what got into him. The other two slow to a walk and he eventually calms down. The three of them walk over another hill out of sight. Maybe he was just showing off. I find lots of lovely photo spots this morning: tracks on the Lamar River, patterns in the melting ice and lovely pines freshly draped with snow.
Back in Lamar Valley we see no Druid activity nor any of the regulars at the early pullouts. We notice some very frisky bison in a snow-field opposite the Ranch. Two are butting heads as if it's the rut. Two others chase each other, galloping very fast – as fast as I've ever seen a bison go. And another rolls in the snow as if it's a dust wallow. Four skinny bison legs sticking up in the air is a comical sight, no matter how majestic the animal may look at other times.
We go on to the confluence and I begin counting dippers. I get to five when suddenly Doug swings the car into a pullout beneath a steep and rocky hill. Here is why – there is a bighorn ram up there! This is another first for me! I get out and take some shots. He has a full curl and a very white butt. He walks back and forth among the rocks on this incredibly steep slope as if it's perfectly flat. I guess when I think of the heights he climbs around on in summer, this is a breeze.
We explore a bit more and then head west again. We slow down though, when we see another coyote ahead in the road. He pays us no mind. We stop about 10 feet from him and just watch. He is very intent on the snow pile at the side of the road. He stands very alert with his front paws on the edge of the snow and his back paws on the road, his pretty head stretched slightly forward over the top of the snow pile. He cocks his head and those big ears listen intently. He turns and cocks his head the other way. He is just too cute for words. His head points straight again and now he lifts one front paw. His back end wiggles as if to steady himself and suddenly he SPRINGS! He seems to hover in the air for a split second above the snow and then BAM! He nose-dives into the snow with his full body weight EXACTLY like the red-fox sequence in the "Return of the Wolf". The next second he straightens out on all fours and in his mouth is a large brown rodent which he crunches and munches and crunches and munches and finally tosses back and swallows. Then off he trots, so pleased with himself. We are too. In another minute he is trotting back down the road, looking from side to side, listening for his next treat. I see him set up his pounce ritual two more times but he is not successful. I think it's because he didn't use the full sequence of lift-one-paw, wiggle-back-end style he used on his successful pounce.
It seems generally accepted that the reason coyotes are so visible near the roads is because they are begging. I wonder if they just find the roads a prime spot for rodent catching. I wonder if rodents tend to burrow close to road for any reason, or does the dryness of the road afford the coyotes better pouncing opportunities or if the road traffic wakes up burrowing rodents which the coyotes then hear? The coyotes do hang out near the roads but on this trip I saw dozens of incidents of mousing activity from the road and only one blatant attempt at begging. All but one of the coyotes I saw, although they were indeed aware of cars and the humans inside, seemed completely indifferent to them. I suppose though, that there are many uninformed humans who, seeing them so close, can't resist the urge to either reach out to pet them or hand off a tidbit. Once this happens, of course, a coyote is unlikely to forget it.
We drive on a ways and notice Rick up ahead at the Trash Can pullout, looking trough his window-mounted scope. He has the Druids. Doug sets up his scope and in no time at all, he has what Rick has. They are VERY far away but this is the best vantage point as this view is blocked from all the closer pullouts. I look and see enough ears to let me know it is wolves. They are bedded down on the edge of a hill way above the road, about three levels up. The hill seems to slope backward. And it is dotted with sagebrush and scattered with rocks which makes this the most difficult viewing I've had yet, much closer to the tricky camouflage of Spring.
Still, there are Druids up there and they have NOT left the Lamar valley so I am happy. Rick asks if we could stay here long enough for the Institute van to arrive so we can show them the sighting. We say sure. After a little while the van arrives and Doug does his stuff. I chat up the guests, who all seem happy for a chance to see the wolves.
We watch a while longer but the Druids are not active at this time of day. Rick has found a closer spot to view their position but it involves hiking up a steep hill and being absolutely quiet. I am up for this but would prefer to try it later when there's more of a chance of seeing some activity. Doug feels the same plus he still wants to get some bighorn shots so we head on to Mammoth.
As we get near the Big Boys, Doug spots some raven and magpie activity. He stops and sure enough, the birds are on a carcass not 20 feet from the road. We wait a while to make sure other animals are not near. We stand at the edge of the road, looking down the messy slope. At first, the tracks and hair and other evidence is confusing. We can't tell if it is road kill dumped and then dragged by coyotes or a wolf kill abandoned due to its proximity to the road. The carcass is small and definitely elk, probably a yearling. There are three large blood stained spots connected by drag marks. But the only tracks I can identify for sure are coyote and birds. There is no blood on the road but there is some elk hair caught in a tree on the opposite side. The area is heavily used by elk; there are tracks all over, both old and new, and the hair snagged on the tree could be unrelated to this animal's death. If this happened last night we would not have seen it in the dark as we drove home. We would have easily missed it this morning, too. But I'm sure it wasn't here yesterday afternoon. In the end I am a convinced the animal was hit by a car, hobbled a step or two, fell down the slope and died. From there it was probably dragged by coyotes and then fed upon. It is sobering to see that in less than 24 hours, there is little left of this animal but some hair.
Unfortunately, we do not find any bighorns in the Canyon. But on the way back past the Big Boys, one of them is smartly posing right on the crest of a hill. The lighting isn't perfect but it's one of the nicest set ups I've had for a fairly close shot of a bull. As we pass the Hellroaring overlook we see some kind of interview going on – a few cars and someone holding a microphone on a boom with a fuzzy covering. We wonder if this is some sort of preparation for Bruce Babbit's visit.
As we come up Lamar Canyon we find Rick and Bob's cars, and a whole lot of other cars and trucks. More cars than I've seen in any pullout this whole trip. The people have all apparently hiked up the hill to peek at the Druids. It's too many for me. Doug and I agree to skip this and go on to Trash Can to try to see them. This turns out to be a good idea as we find them right away. I watch for a while as Doug reports in to Rick, but mostly I'm seeing sleeping dogs. A head lifts here, a tail wags there. It is almost more interesting to watch Rick and the various people who come hiking up one at a time to his hidden viewing spot in the trees.
I take a break and explore the flats beyond to the pullout. The snow is deep and still powdery although in places I crack through a layer of crust. I trudge slowly out about 10 feet. The snow comes up above my knees. I am fascinated by a few wispy dry grasses poking out of the snow. There are several types and I try to photograph them all. There is something encouraging about them, their thin creamy yellow color against the thick white. "Never give up" they seem to say, or "I'm not as fragile as I look". I go back to scope duty and almost immediately I am rewarded with a burst of Druid activity. I see dogs rising, waging their tails, stretching and nosing each other. Then I realize they are coming down. Some are already one level below and I see many other wolves bounding down to that level. I try to start counting again but it is quite impossible to keep track of which ones you already counted when the slope is so pock-marked like it is. Boy you really need patience to do this right! Besides the natural camouflage, the view is further distorted by heat waves rising. You wouldn't think that would be a problem in winter but there it is. Those wobbling waves really add to eye- strain.
Doug takes a turn and sees the wolves moving, too. He agrees, if only they'd go over to the right, there is a slope over there that is much more full of snow, they would show up just fine there!
The wolves have settled down again on the lower hill. I can't get any kind of reliable count and certainly no more than 10 at most although I bet they are all there again. The temperature is falling and my hands are starting to complain. A coyote comes trotting by, looks at us but keeps going. This is getting to be such a common experience on this trip! I know there are people who think coyotes are nothing special but I just don't agree. I wonder if this is the guy we saw do that terrific pounce earlier today. Or maybe he was on the kill yesterday. In any case I'm glad he didn't stop to beg. He's a self-respecting coyote!
I move the scope to see what else is around. I find ducks on the river, a few elk grazing and a buffalo sleeping. Kinda slow for a Thursday night, huh? Doug takes a turn and says the wolves are moving again. He sees enough to warrant a call to Rick. I watch while he does that and I see what he means. They are on the move, but it doesn't look quite as deliberate as it was the last two nights. The movement is more scattered and playful. But who knows, maybe it's the terrain, or even just the angle. Anyway, I see wolf after wolf move down and to the right. There is a gap between the hills that I bet they will disappear into. I like it best when the black wolves move, as they are the easiest to see. I count 13 wolves moving past one spot. Man those heat waves make it hard to watch!
They start to disappear into the gap so I count the wolves remaining. I get five more for sure which makes 18, so I've missed a lot. My eyes are going buggy from the wobbling and losing the light doesn't help either. In another minute I see Rick coming toward us. Doug gives him our latest info. Rick says they seem to be coming this way but he's going home. So are we.
As we near Dorothy's Knoll I look up at the hills on the right. This is the general area where we last saw the Druids. Doug stops the car and points. On a high ridge I see elk silhouettes. They are running, right along the ridge. I zip down the window and listen. No bleats but the elk bunch up at the ridge top. More come up behind them, heads up high in that wary posture. They stay there a while and nothing else happens so I figure perhaps the wolves were just passing by. And then the elk move again, normally, and disappear one by one over the far side of the ridge.
We drive on through pretty much without incident. Doug has suggested we try the Yellowstone Mine for dinner. It is pricey but good and the service is great. There are more mulies in the road on the way up the driveway. As I step out on the balcony for a last look at the night I hear another coyote, one high yip yip and a nice long howl. Goodnight, little coyotes. Sleep well.
Today I saw: Bison, elk, ravens, magpies, ducks, a Bighorn Ram, 6 mule deer, 7 coyotes, 18 Druid wolves and 1 Loon..