Today begins completely overcast with a thin, cold rain falling.
I'm on the road at about 5:45. There is some wonderful fog in the flats and I wonder how it might look in Lamar. As I drive along I notice that in the upper elevations this rain has fallen as snow. The swans look nice on their pond and I stop a while to watch them and to enjoy the stillness. Oh how I love mornings in Yellowstone!
My next stop is B&B where I try to find the eagle nest I've heard about. I don't. The rain comes down a little harder and the tops of the mountains are shrouded from view. The weather makes for poor animal spotting but fine scenery.
I try to think which animals would be most easy to see in this weather, beside ducks of course! I decide to aim for the confluence look for the beaver. On my way there I run into Gerry at Trash Can so I pull over to check in with him.
He tells me there are wolves at the r-v but the rain is making them hard to see. His scope is set up here with a number of other hardy souls so I decide to try, too. Some folk are using umbrellas! After a bit of trying we both see indistinct grey shapes that we know are wolves. The scopes are getting drenched. I put a towel over mine but then I notice the rain is pooling in the eye-pieces of my binoculars which are hanging round my neck. I tuck them inside my coat.
While we are here ignoring the weather I meet a smart looking kid, say 11 or 12, who seems to be on his own. He just appears next to me and starts talking wolves. I find his enthusiasm so captivating and I guess I sympathize with him being on his own. He tells me of his sightings and I tell him of mine. He knows a lot about the wolves and seems eager to know even more. We make a pact to keep each other informed.
There is an ABC crew here doing some filming. The story going around is that they are filming the watchers, not the watched. I hear they were at Badgerville yesterday, ignoring the nearby den and its strikingly-colored inhabitants in favor of the long line-up of people and lenses. We joke about how it must look to non-believers that so many of us are willing to stand for hours in pouring rain, drenching ourselves as well as our expensive equipment, just so we can watch a wolf yawn or a bison eat grass.
After a while longer I suggest my confluence/beaver idea to Gerry. He seems willing to try it so off we go.
We pull off on the right and I scan the water and willows with my binoculars through the open passenger window. It doesn't take me too long to locate the lodge which is a little victory in itself. But I see nothing moving in any of the channels. I walk back to Gerry to point out the lodge. From his vantage point it looks like it's not even on the water. I say I think there are several channels that we can't see.
The confluence area is so lovely and still. I sit in the car and let my eyes feast on all the variations of green, the water music and the birds.
As I pass the Footbridge I look for the elk mom and calf. I don't see them, nor do I see any evidence of a mishap. I smile at the dream I made for him last night. It could come true, he might have passed this milestone in his development. Perhaps he is destined to live long, to out-swim and out-run even the fleetest Druid wolf.
Looking ahead as I drive east, the Soda Butte Cone doesn't look right. Oh. There's a bird up there! A big bird. It's a juvenile bald eagle, perched on the highest knob. Now I see a photographer set up near it. There's no-one else coming or going so I stop where I am rather than disturb him. I watch the eagle through my binoculars, chuckling to myself. I wonder that I have never seen a bird do this before. It seems an excellent spot for perching and surveying. I change lenses on my camera, thinking I might get off a shot. Just then a car approaches from behind me, slows down but then passes me and drives on.
I can't say it was this car's fault, but as it passes the Cone, the eagle flies off, a second before I snapped the shutter.
I move forward and park in the pullout. The photographer is none other than Ray T! He waves. The eagle is above the river having some kind of fight with a raven. The eagle lands close to the river and lowers his head toward his feet. I set up close to Ray and whisper "Hey Ray. Did you get a shot of him on the Cone?" "Yep" he grins. We watch this bird together and see he is eating something, tearing long thin strips and swallowing them. It looks like ground squirrel to me. We didn't see him catch anything so we figure he may have just stolen it from the raven.
I guess that from his high perch, the eagle spotted the raven with the squirrel, then flew over and scared the raven into the air. Then before the eagle landed to claim the meal, the raven gave him a good whack. Didn't faze the eagle much. It's really cool to watch a big bird like this so close. He methodically tears bite-size pieces with his beak, using his talons as leverage. He is not terribly pretty for an eagle. The signature white feathers on the head and neck are just starting to come in, replacing the dark-brown feathers of his youth. The mixture gives him a kind of scruffy look like he hasn't washed.
Later we see him walk and hop in the river-shallows which is borderline comical. He ends up on a grassy mound. He seems to be pecking up grass. I wonder if maybe he's using the wet grass to clean his beak?
Another car pulls in and a man walks back to chat. We show him our eagle and he asks if we've seen the grizzly? Our eyes light up. Nope. Where about? The man points east across the river. Way up, on an open green slope a big lone grizzly is turning rocks. We say thanks. Ray and I spend the next half-hour switching between the griz and the eagle. The rain has lessened to a thin mist.
I tell Ray about the Loon lunch tomorrow and say I hope he'll join us. Then I bid him adieu and head back east. I go very slowly past the confluence again, looking unsuccessfully for the beaver. Just as I am about to round the last turn I come upon a traffic jam. What's this about? I look left. Black wolf! Aha! Right across the river at the top of the bank. A lone black wolf looking right at me. Hello pretty. He has a little greying on his lower muzzle and chin. He moves back and forth sniffing the ground and I see his tail is really scrawny. I see the wind ruffling his fur. He moves east and I think he's about to disappear but then he stops and comes back. I get my camera ready as this is about the closest I've ever had a wolf in spring. He goes back to the spot he was before and sniffs more. Then he totally surprises me by plunging straight down the steep, eroded river bank.
It looks like terrain that would collapse under the slightest weight. There is a snag of twisted trees in this spot. The wolf goes right to the water's edge and I see him yank on something behind dead branches. It's an old elk carcass, bloated and distorted from probably being in the river for a week. I can't smell it from here but I bet he can! The wolf tugs and tugs and maybe gets a mouthful or two. Then he heads back up the impossible looking bank to the top. He stands at the top again, staring out at all of us, giving us some nice poses. Then he turns and trots off through the sage.
The wolf-jam breaks up and we all move on. A bit past the Trash Can I see two pronghorn running parallel to the road on my right. I slow down and they cross the road. Then they surprise me by stopping unusually close to the road. It looks like these two have love on their minds.
My head is screaming COFFEE now so I aim for Roosevelt to get me some. The rain comes down harder again so I figure that makes it a good a time to take a break. Inside the Lodge I see Gerry at a table and no sooner do I sit down with him than I spy Lew & Deb at another table. So I make the introductions and we four have breakfast together while the rain pours down outside. We talk about some Park issues and re-tell our favorite sightings so far. Then Doug comes in and joins us, too. He regales us with some of his best sightings, including baby badgers!
We figure there might be somewhere in the park where it's not raining so hard and the consensus is "go west". We talk about cold weather coming in and how it will likely spoil the hike Mark R and I have planned. We also make plans to meet here later for dinner around 5.
Then we're off on our separate ways. I see some bison rubbing trees very close to the road in the green meadow across from the Ranger station. I drive up and get some nice shots right from inside the car. One bison is very sad-eyed or maybe he was just sleepy. Another just stands in one spot rubbing his massive head against a tree for 10 minutes straight.
Then I go towards Dunraven to collect firewood in a pullout that used to be a trailhead parking lot. While I'm doing this Lew & Deb pull in for the same reason. Lew helps me avoid choosing logs that are too big for the stove. Then they head back down and I go the other way. I stop at the first high pullout. It is REALLY windy up here. But the rain has lessened again so I set up the scope and look for griz. I find only elk.
I notice there is more snow on Mt. Washburn and its surrounding peaks than there was yesterday. The wind is fierce but then I notice beyond Mt. Washburn there is blue sky. Aha! The weather is changing. The sun appears, followed instantly by hail. Well, a particular Yellowstone-type of hail. Call them snow pellets. Little white beads of compacted snow. If you didn't know it was snow you'd think the wind was driving cold sand in your face.
The clear weather seems to be heading for Lamar. I pack up and head back down. Just beyond Tower Falls, at the spot where the basalt cliff hangs close over the road I see a young bighorn ram. He's grazing on the left side of the road right under the cliff. I zip past him into the pullout on the right. Now this is just ridiculously close for a bighorn to get. I suppose the grass under the overhang is tasty and sweet but really, Mr. Ram. You are supposed to hang out on the TOP of cliffs.
Traffic comes to a stop as everyone watches this animal. I am in my first sheep jam.
All I have to do is wait for the ram to come to me. I stand on the far side of my car, using the hood for balance and watch the sheep walk up the road. He looks right at me as he passes and I get a great eyeball shot. I stay right where I am and he moves past me up the road. Now he approaches a curve. There is a sheer drop off on the right and a stone wall that serves as a railing. The sheep does the funniest thing. He places his front legs on the top of the wall while his back legs remain on the shoulder of the road. He looks over the edge as if he is utterly bored and bothered by this endless human intrusion. He seems to contemplate jumping, ending it all. He turns back as if to say "do you dare me?" He looks at the line of stopped cars, and all of us tourists clicking away. Now he looks back into the abyss and I think he really is going to vault right over the edge.
Then the lead car inches forward a bit too close and he turns from the edge. He continues along the road completely indifferent to the havoc he's caused. He rounds the bend leading his fans slowly west.
I realize I may be stuck here for a while but I don't mind. The rain has ended and the sun has come out. I stand near the road re-winding my film and explaining to the people in the creeping line of cars what the holdup is about.
It finally clears enough for me to move but soon I'm in another jam at Calcite Springs. Mama black bear is out again with her two darling brownies. The day has changed dramatically. The sky is fully blue with big fleecy clouds moving quickly by. The bears are even closer to the road than they were on Thursday so I set up my camera on my tripod and click away. The babies are very animated. They race through the high grass, only their ears and butts are visible. They clamber up a tall snag, one on each side, then swat at each other. One falls/slides down and the other drops on top of him either by design or accident. A wrestling match ensues and gets so loud Mama stops eating for a split second. The ranger is having a hard time keeping folks off the pavement yet not too far forward in the grass.
I meet a man here, watching and taking photos, who says he saw 27 different Grizzlies in Lamar yesterday. Lots of sows with multiple cubs he says. I tell him my bear count is pretty low so far so I think I'll start following you! This guy is probably past 60 and he is as excited about seeing bears as I am about wolves.
Then I head down to my cabin to drop off the wood. Next I'm off to Little America. It's my turn to see Doug's badger family. I find him talking photography to a couple in a van, who turn out to be world-class photographers themselves. They trade business cards and share information.
I set up my tripod at Badgerville and attach my camera to it. The den is so close you do NOT need binocs much less a scope. The den is just across the road, a mound of reddish dirt with an entrance hole. After a short wait, Mama Badger pops out and sits there sniffing and looking. Wow! I love her face. We all click off shots and she disappears again. There are at least 15 photographers here. Some of the biggest glass I've ever seen. I don't get to know anybody because I feel rather intimidated, that I am a little bit invading "their" territory.
Doug joins me for a bit and we watch a while. Mama comes out again and does some more posing. I would like to see babies of course but it's the middle of the day and I figure it's not too likely. In spite of the bright sun, the temperature is quite cool and the wind is fierce. When Mama disappears the second time we decide to see what else is going on.
I suggest revisiting the golden eagle on her nest. Doug is willing and we end up finding her quite quickly. We also see the chick! It has mottled brown-and-white baby feathers which I can't exactly call pretty, no offense to the pretty mom. Doug spots a bison high on a slope above Slough Creek. The bison is galloping downhill. What's that about? we wonder. The bison spooks some elk and we think for a minute that we've got something but it's just a bison being weird. Later a second bison does almost the same thing. Maybe they are in training for the Bison Olympics?
We move on into Lamar. At Dorothy's Knoll Doug helps me find the bald-eagle nest. It's really cool to finally see this and I clearly see not one but two chicks in it. While we are watching, one adult flies off and is replaced in a moment by the other! We watch this adult feed the chicks.
Then I follow Doug to Fisherman's pullout to check out the osprey nest. We arrange our cars as best we can to serve as a windbreak for our faces while we scope. The nest is at the top of a snag that completely disappears into the line of trees at the edge of Lamar Canyon, except from a few choice angles. We see both an adult and a chick. Cool! Doug is on a roll. He finds a grizzly turning rocks on a hill above Lamar Canyon and then a coyote which saunters by below us right along the river's edge.
Then Tonya pulls in and gives us a weather update. It's not looking good for the hike tomorrow. We agree that we'll wait until the last minute to decide. Tonya decides to join the Loon dinner at Roosevelt and I decide to skip it. I want to go up on DHP again to try to see pups. After all, if snow is coming tomorrow, tonight may be my last chance at good visibility. While I'm explaining this to Doug and Tonya, Lew and Deb drive up. After greeting them I explain that I've changed my mind about dinner. Lew nails me by saying I'm "bucking out". Oooooh! That smarts!
They torture me a while longer but I just won't have time to eat and come back before prime viewing time. Shamefaced but determined I wish them well and head east. I see Ruth and Fuad at B& B so I stop and chat with them awhile. We laugh over my bison/wolf sighting last night. They tell me tomorrow is their last day and Mark and Carol's as well. They agree it will be great for me to spend a last night with them. While we're talking we watch the eagle nest and share our scopes with several folk who stop by. We are delighted when we see both parents visit the nest. We have all four birds on the nest at once!
My next stop is the Footbridge. Mark and Carol's truck is here but they are not. Of course not. They are on the hill! I pack up my stuff and decide against bringing my camera. Note to self. ALWAYS bring your camera!
At roughly 6:15 I set off down the path. I've decided to carry my scope in my backpack this time and to collapse the legs of my tripod, which proves to be a much better arrangement. I cross the Footbridge and out into the open. I wonder briefly whether I should have tried to get someone to hike out here with me, though I saw no one that I knew. Isn't hiking alone against my own rule? I start to sing a favorite hobbit walking song. It fits perfectly.
It is thrilling being out here alone. The day is still glorious and the smell of sage spurs me on. The air is cool and the blue sky is full of fast-moving clouds. I recognize some wildflowers here: larkspur and silky phacelia. I hear the peeping of ground squirrels and watch a kestrel in flight. As I near the hill I feel stronger and braver than I ever have. And pride goeth before a fall.
It seems to get suddenly darker as I reach the forested hillside. I think of being up on that hill alone and how the weather is perfect for roaming grizzlies. I find myself becoming hyper alert.
I reach the steep switchbacks. The rain has made the footing a bit better. As I get higher I start to sing again, to warn critters of my approach. I stop to catch my breath. I should be able to see Mark and Carol by now but I don't. Oh well, I guess it's just a blind spot. I don't hear any talking, either. I scan the high hills, looking for bears. None. Higher and higher I go and still no sign of them. I keep singing but say to myself "Quit worrying. They are just over the next rise." The trail ends and I recognize the spot where I stood Friday morning. I am the only one here.
Part of me wants to bolt right back down this instant. But my braver self stops me. Look where you are, silly. Take a minute to enjoy it. I turn around and scan the hills for bear. None. I set up Layla and look first towards the den area. Nothing there, nothing on the "lawn", well, some elk, nothing on the ridge trail. I check the r-v and surprise myself when I find a black wolf on the western foothill. But for once this has little pull on my heart. I guess my curiosity is too consumed with fighting the desire to flee. I sing every hobbit song I know. When I start to have trouble remembering the lyrics, I switch to Led Zeppelin and that works better!
I decide that allowing myself to be seen up here is OK in this situation. So I move forward to where I can see the pullout and if anyone is watching, they could see me. I see Mark and Carol's car. I see the ABC crew. I see about 10 people, none of whom seem to be looking my way. I keep scoping although I take many breaks to bear-scan the upper slopes with my binocs. On one scope swing south of the r-v I see a black smudge in some aspen trees but don't think much of it. I scope the sage hills north of the road and east. I see lots of elk.
I step forward again to look at the pullout and breath a huge sigh of relief when I recognize Mark and Carol. An even bigger sigh of relief when I see they are strapping on their packs which can only mean they are heading up here. Hooray! Now if only I can survive fifteen more minutes! It finally occurs to me that many, many people have probably been up here all by their lonesome. Ranger Bill no doubt has, more than once. And certainly Rick.
I check the r-v again but of course now I can't find the black wolf I saw before. I see bison in that area, maybe I mistook another bison for a wolf? The next thing I know Mark and Carol come over the rise and I let them know just how glad I am to see them!
They get set up quickly and to my delight Mark finds a black bear. When I get it in my scope I realize it was the black smudge I saw before but didn't recognize as a bear. His rump is towards us. Oh! He's feeding on a carcass. Every once in a while I can see his head move as he grabs another bite; I catch a glimpse of his brown nose or an ear.
Then Carol surprises us both. "Hey guys, there are wolves there, too!" Three black wolves are bedded down below the bear, perhaps waiting their turn. Or perhaps it's their kill that the bear stole? It matters not. We are delighted.
Carol calls this in over the radio and in response we hear a report of a grizzly roaming east of the den area. I volunteer to check it and turn my scope 180 degrees. I can see cars stopped on the road so that gives me a good idea where the bear is. I find her quickly. Not only that but she has cubs! Two cubs of the year. They roam in and out of sight over the tops of the sage hills. Some other folk arrive up here and we all say hi. I show them where the bear is and Mark and Carol show them the black bear and three wolves. Then they take up positions on a hill behind us.
We have so much to watch tonight, it's hard to keep checking for wolves at the den area! On one of the occasions that Mark is aimed that way he finds the two mountain goats up on Druid Peak again. Later someone finds some bighorn sheep on a far flank of Mt. Norris.
I lose the grizzly and go back to the wolves with the black bear. I notice an elk cow hanging out below the kill site. From this I presume she lost her calf to them. She moves back and forth on the slope below the wolves looking quite distraught. Then suddenly I see a streak above the bear from right to left. A wolf which I hadn't realized was up there just came rushing down the slope and charged the bear. The bear leaves the carcass to chase it off, then returns. This first wolf might have grabbed something from the carcass because one of the bedded wolves has dashed over to the left. Then I see the bear charge off up and to the right again and this time a wolf dashes to the kill and swipes a chunk, then disappears into the aspens.
Now there is action above the kill. I see two standing wolves face the bear and he has a hard time protecting his rump. I can now see two other wolves about 100 feet away in timber. They look like they're eating. That's five wolves! The bear chases the wolves, the wolves chases the bear. Several times the bear makes it back to the kill, but the wolves keep up the pressure and he is eventually chased off for good. I see the bear intermittently walking and running west in timber. Two wolves seem to be escorting him that way.
Now I see three wolves at the original kill and they squabble over what's left. We hear a sandhill drum and later we hear it calling as it flies. We watch it above us flapping hard, its long legs trailing out behind.
As the wolves are feeding, the feisty elk-mom gets her courage up. She charges the wolves and they scatter. She retreats and the wolves come back to the kill. The elk mom moves in again, this time going into thick timber where the wolves must surely have the advantage. Then we see her come bursting out of the trees with wolves close behind her. She is pronging which I think is like an elk equivalent of giving the finger to a predator. The wolves break off and return to the kill. She runs a while alone before stopping and looking back. Time to check on the grizzly mom. I also scan the den area and the ridge trail for wolves, but I never see a single wolf there this night.
From the radio we learn that the usual crowd is on the hills above Trash Can. They report seeing our black bear and the wolves worrying it. The wolves eventually leave the kill and head west. We hear a report of a moose and calf proceeding in the opposite direction across the valley. Out in the open they say. We hear frequent mentions of this moose for a long time before we actually see her. Finally she is spotted much closer to the river than any of us had expected.
I enjoy a nice long sighting of the mama grizzly and her little ones, roaming up and down the sage hills, now much further east. This pleases me because it is further from the den area. Shortly after this I turn back to the valley to check on the wolves, the bear and the moose. What happens next is more magical than anything I have ever seen in this always-magical valley.
A low, thick brow of cloud clings to the sky above the valley, stretching from well behind Mt. Norris all the way to Lamar Canyon, leaving only a small v-shaped notch of clear sky between the distant hilltops. As the sun sinks, all its radiance is squeezed through this notch and is trapped, reflected off the cloud ceiling. The valley is flooded with an enormously broad beam of golden light which transforms everything it touches: the grass, the trees, the river, the very air itself turns to gold. The bare cliffs of Mt. Norris are suddenly red flame. And the cottonwoods! Just look at the cottonwoods! These trees lining the confluence become so infused with gold that they seem to glow with their own living light. Surely I am looking at Valinor, on the very day Yavanna sang the Two Trees into being.
Through this Valley of the Singing Gold walks the moose and her calf, a dim shadow in a golden sea. Never has a moose looked so noble or so graceful. Watching her through this beautiful gauze of gold absolutely re-defines the art of wildlife watching.
As she nears the glowing cottonwoods three more shapes materialize. A gang of coyotes, three of them, are after her calf. This drama seems to play in slow motion, an operatic fable to maternal heroism. She is surrounded yet she is fearless. She stands her ground, then lunges repeatedly at the smaller darting shapes, first this way, then the other. My heart is in my throat. This scene is far too gorgeous to be the setting for a calf's demise. This time, this time I pray for a Hollywood ending. This moose has already avoided far more dangerous predators in her trek across the valley. Druid wolves are surely more of a threat than these scrappy canines. The Gods must see how she has suffered for her little one. The Gods must have pity on her. And as if on cue the coyotes break off their attack and head back west. With great relief I watch her long legs carry her quickly upriver, and her smaller shadow still unscathed, following doggedly behind.
The light changes and the golden vision passes. The moose and calf shrink from archetypes to individuals, tired and sore and still far from home. Mama Moose steadily follows the line of the upper Lamar. The poor calf is quite small and must be exhausted. But they are still not safe.
Three bull bison, who moments before were grazing contentedly near the river, take off running towards the moose, charging her and her tired baby. The bison have a bit of ground to cover and luckily the moose mother sees them in time. She breaks into a run and we watch the two lanky animals put on a burst of speed sufficient to out distance their ornery neighbors. I'll never know what possessed the bison to do that. Bison are just weird.
I am greatly relieved when the mother moose slows again to a walk. The baby finally catches up and gets a break, walking slowly with lowered head. They have survived wolves, coyotes and crazy bull bison! It's an astonishing glimpse of what baby animals must contend with in this valley.
The cliffs frown mud-brown again and the gold is only a memory. The wolves have traveled out of our sight line and the grizzly sow and cubs have moved into the trees. I look back at the den area, wondering about pups. Then we get a radio report that the Druids are gone. They gave us the slip and are already far west of Druid Peak. Apparently they were glimpsed for only a few minutes. We smile at their wolfish sneakiness, and feel quite content that we had plenty to occupy our scopes tonight.
We pack up and head down the hill, hoping to get to our cars before dark. The last message we get from the radio is that the Druids are coming down through the gully between Picnic and Mid Point. Maybe I'll get lucky and catch them crossing the road.
What a great night this was! I thank Carol and Mark and hug them goodbye and say see ya tomorrow. l don't see the Druids anymore this night. But as I drive home I wonder how I will ever find a way to describe this night in words.
The next day I learned that while we were bathed in our golden light, the people watching from the road saw a rainbow arc across the valley from Druid peak to the rendesvous. When I heard this I realized I now knew what it was like to be inside the fabled pot of gold.
Today I saw: Bison, elk, pronghorn, ground squirrels, 1 badger, 4 black bears (including 2 cubs), 5 grizzly bears (including 2 cubs), 4 coyotes, 1 sandhill crane, 5 bald eagles (including 2 chicks), 2 golden eagles (including 1 chick), 2 mountain goats, 1 kestrel, 2 moose (including a calf), 2 osprey (including 1 chick), 1 raven, 5 bighorn sheep, 2 swans, 6 Druid wolves, and 10 Loons