I'm up at 5 again with no trouble. I am wandering in the Map Room when Doug walks in. It's great to see him and we chat a bit to catch up. Then out we go, in the dark, to stalk some elk. Doug has told me that the one type of shot he has not gotten yet is elk fighting, antler to antler. His plan to maximize his chances is to hike about a quarter mile from the road to a hidden spot above a slough where elk seem to congregate each morning.
We pull in to the spot where I found his car yesterday and pack up. It will be cold standing around so I stuff my thickest fleece pullover into my pack, lift Layla to my shoulder and off we go. We walk in the dark, aided by a sinking moon and the very first glimmers of dawn. Doug warns me to keep an eye out for bison.
We cross an open sage-meadow but then curve around into a sheltered spot behind a low ridge with some standing trees and a jumble of deadfall. Elk are bugling all around us. I know I said that yesterday but it is even more intense today as we are truly surrounded and away from the road.
We see animals right away, a small band of cows and calves just to the left of us, moving slowly up and over a sparsely timbered slope and down into a flat. The herd is shepherded by a gorgeous seven-point bull, who looks to be in excellent health. He walks unusually slowly and casually, as if he is wholly unconcerned. I call him the Laconic bull. I count 6 individuals in his group. However, once the animals emerge through the trees into the flats I count 10, so either he just stole a few from someone else or they were unseen in the trees from the beginning.
We watch this group in the flats as the light begins to grow. I see several cows lower their heads and realize they are drinking from a small creek which winds through this area. I decide to name it Little Creek Slough. At one point the Laconic bull takes his own long drink and when his head comes up, water drips from his muzzle in a long arc and catches the light of dawn. If Doug could capture that, what a shot it would be! This same beautiful action happens several more times as each cow raises her head; the water arcs in a thin stream, sparkling like gold.
We follow the sound of a bugle and find a second bull approaching the group through a gap between low-sloping forested hills. I wonder out loud if this bull is coming to reclaim the ones he may have just lost to the Laconic bull. Distances are decieving in this light, but it seems to me this bull gets very close to the cows before he attracts the attention of the Laconic bull. But now he sees the intruder, whom we dub Sneaky Bull.
Laconic Bull walks a few paces towards Sneaky Bull as his cows and calves graze on. The two bulls walk in step, paralleling one another. Doug tells me this is part of the ritual they frequently perform, the "parallel walk" which seems to serve as a first, non-violent step in which the bulls size each other up. This subtle minuet goes on for about 10 paces then it abruptly ends. I can't say which bull "won" but the laconic bull takes a few steps back toward his harem and the Sneak moves slowly back up through the gap into the forest, so I guess they agreed to disagree.
While this is going on there are two more bulls in a meadow to our left which I return to frequently while watching the primary drama in front of us. I have never heard such varied bugling! One bull's voice is screechy with some pig-squeally notes; another's is deep and rumbling, a third is wheezy as if he is utterly exhausted, not hard to believe. In all the activity I see this morning, however I can match a consistent sound to a specific bull. It will take many more seasons of elk watching to do that.
There are now three bulls emerges in the big meadow to the left so Doug and I get excited that we now have a good chance to see a fight. And soon one does develop between two well-matched contenders. Alas it is very brief and too far away for Doug's standards. We see the parallel walk begin and then just briefly do they simultaneously lower their heads and clash. They break off after just a second or two. One is clearly the loser this time. We watch one bull turn and run away while the other stands still.
I turn back to our main drama. The Laconic bull moves casually close to a cow with what we suspect is mating intent. She wants none of it, however, and leaps lightly over the creek to make her point clear. He bellows in belly-shivering frustration. He approaches another cow who also brushes him off. Poor guy we think. He's awfully handsome, I wonder what the cows don't see in him?
We hear more bugling and see an even more handsome bull elk emerge in silhouette atop a ridge. He stands there posing like Bambi's father, bugling his announcement. No one but us seems to pay him any mind at all. After a few more bugles he disappears over the side.
Then, between us and the road, we see another band of cows and their attendant bull. I count 12 cows and calves in this group. They move slowly from north to south, grazing and easily avoiding this bull's advances. If there were any altercations between that bull and another we missed them due to the low hill which also serves as a sort of protection for us.
At this point the sun has emerged and the light is perfect. He concentrates on the closest herd and the Laconic Bull. He tells me he thinks he is getting some pretty good shots. Now more action begins to develop in the big meadow to our left. We count four bulls roaming here. Then two of them suddely begin to run towards each other. Behind one of these bulls runs a cow elk. Doug says he thinks she may be looking for love. I wonder why the bull doesn't simply turn around and get lucky?
But these two bulls never fight. They stop running and sort of prance around each other. I lose track of which bull is which, the feisty cow sort of gets in the way and then everybody goes home. I don't know which bull the cow ended up with. I clearly need more experience in distiguishing one bull from another.
We see one more interesting altercation in "Many-Bull-Meadow". It involves the one bull that IS distiguishable thanks to one backwards-sloping tine. He makes an impressive lowered-head approach to a second bull, walking straight toward me (in my scope), bugling a ferocious challenge. But again, it all comes to naught when this big boy stops and his intended rival moves away.
This bull now takes out his fury against a lone pine tree, rubbing and scraping his antlers against it, flinging peices of bark and small branches every which way. I turn my scope back to Little Creek Slough to see what the Laconic Bull and his cows are up to. He has now defended his 10 member harem from two challengers by basically doing nothing. Well, now we watch as he actually DOES something.
One of his cows begins to roam to the northwest. She might have been intrigued by the calls of one or more of the four bulls in the big meadow, or the antics of the feisty cow. In any case, she continues to wander further and further away while Laconic Bull slowly approaches one cow after another, getting nowhere. Wandering Cow has now moved out of the Slough and officially into Many Bull Meadow. Finally Laconic Bull becomes aware of this, although just how he does is a mystery to us, because we don't know how he could have seen her. Nevertheless, Doug and I both see him decide to retrieve her. Laconic Bull begins his laconic walk, following Wandering Cow's trail.
Wandering Cow is now in the meadow, grazing, so she is unaware that Laconic Bull is coming after her. We watch Laconic Bull make his slow and steady way north, when suddenly we see a new player enter the story. Whom should appear in the same gap between the sloping hills but Sneaky Bull! Doug and I are giggling because it actually looks as though Sneaky Bull was biding his time for just this moment.
We watch, astonished as Laconic Bull moves further and further away in pursuit of one Wandering Cow, and Sneaky Bull, without a single bugle to give himself away, calmly and methodically rounds up the remaining 9 cows and calves and shepherds them gently but determinedly back through the gap between the hills and into his part of the forest.
Laconic Bull has now reached Wandering Cow and he easily manages to turn her back towards home. Doug and I watch him as he makes his way back to the Slough, anticipating the look on his face when he realizes his cows have been stolen. But, true to form, as Laconic Bull gets his first glimpse of the now-empty Little Creek Slough, his reaction is bland to the point of non-existence. Perhaps he is simply an old enough warrior to take it all in stride, or perhaps he knows something about this particular cow that makes him content.
The light has climbed to a point outside the optimal window that Doug prefers so we start to pack up. There is plenty more to see and we are ready to move on. Back through the sage we go, having a much easier time now that we have light.
We head back toward Mammoth. Doug pulls over near a picturesque stand of aspen, trees I recognize as the same ones I have many photos of from my only other fall trip, in September 1999, before I had seen a single wolf or met a single Loon. We roam around this pretty glade, finding lots of interesting things, including one aspen with great bear-claw slash. I take close-up shots of the colorful shrubs and bright yellow aspen leaves. And we find two pink clover buds who seem understandably confused that it's still summer.
Then we drive the old Gardiner road to see a band of pronghorn Doug has become familiar with. We find then towards the very end of it, in the flats beside a long straight stretch. Another photographer is set up here already we stop a courteous distance back from him. We get out and look through our binocs. Doug tells me his observations and points out the individuals he has come to know. There is an adult female who dribbles foam from her mouth and whose coat seems discolored compared to the others. Perhaps she is old but she doesn't look well, although she moves around alright. There are two other adults and three babies. One of the babies is still quite small and very cute. The male is strict and seems to keep the old female at a remove from the others, although she is the one who leads the group when they move.
We watch them for about a half hour until they head east and eventually drop down out of sight over a ridge.
Doug has laundry and errands to do today and I have to move to the Best Western so he and I make a plan to meet up again at Blacktail Lakes. I want to be in Lamar tonight in the hopes of finding wolves and also Charles.
The photo shop in Gardiner doesn't have my battery but the man there refers me to the Drug Store, which does. Hooray! I also stock up on moleskin since I plan to do more hiking. I go back to the Best Western and check in early. I am given a perfectly clean and comfortable room with the worst view in Gardiner. No matter, the price is right and I only need the room when it's dark anyway! I have a refrigerator which allows me an unusual luxury - cold orange juice each morning as well as fresh milk for my coffee.
While I am checking in I am surprised to get a phone call. I cringe, thinking it's my office calling with some emergency but the voice on the other end belongs to Carlene! She is calling to confirm our dinner plans for Tuesday. We decide on the Antler at 8:15. She also tells me that John drove into the Park last night looking for Loons. I am so sorry I missed him. She says he didn't find Loons but he did find a black bear which he enjoyed watching for a while.
After a bit of rest and some note-writing I'm off again. I take fall color photos and admire the gorgeous scenery. I see only a few bison all the way out to Blacktail Lakes. It has been a tad chilly all day but now the sun is out and it's warmth is soothing. I lower F'Ugly's tailgate and have a picnic lunch of peanut butter sandwiches and a banana. I doctor up my feet - yesterday's hike gave me a small blister on my heel and some tender spots on my ankle bones. I watch the duck-life on the ponds and a drowsy bison out in the flat. A few pronghorn wander into view as well. I prop up my feet and rest my head on a balled up sweater. In no time I have passed into a sweet dream of light and shadow and waving grass.
After this cat nap I get ready for the evening's viewing in Lamar. The sky has clouded over and a few tiny drops of rain land on my windsheild. I jot down a few notes and then Doug drives up. Now we're off to Lamar.
As we are approach the Yellowstone Bridge we see cars stopped on both sides. If this were Spring I would peg it a bear jam but I am not as sure what to expect in the fall. We pull over on the far side of the bridge and see a young couple across the road, looking down into the canyon. To my delight, the lady turns and says "there's a bear down there".
Doug and I join them, scanning the edge of the river for a glimpse of him. Doug sees him first and points him out to me. It's a black bear, nosing around the rocks at the water's edge, perhaps even the same one John saw yesterday. It's good to see him after hearing from so many folks that bears have been scarce this fall. He prowls and grubs his way along the bank, then wanders uphill a bit, only to turn and go down again, out of sight.
On we go into the beauty of Little America. We stop again opposite the the aspen grove to watch another family of pronghorns. Doug sees a situation here that I am oblivious to until he points it out. An intruder male hangs around the edge of the group, seemingly intent on making a play for the members of this band. The resident male is larger and older than the intruder and he rests, calmly chewing. Doug predicts that when the intruder gets too close, that the resident male will stand up. Sure enough, that's exactly what happens. It is all so extremely subtle, you would never get a sense of such drama unless it is pointed out. The resident male conserves energy and avoids contact with the other simply by small, meaningful poses and movements, which the intruder male understands. He reacts with subtle moves of his own but we never see him get the better of the old male.
We leave the pronhorn drama and head further east. We see no-one scoping at Slough so we head up into the Canyon. Here we see a number of pick-up trucks pulled over and a small group of folks looking intently back west. I think about stopping but there is no-one in the group I know and I figure if Doug doesn't stop, then he must not know them either. I mention it to him later and we both have a hunch that they are watching a bear although we never find out.
The pullouts in Lamar are mostly empty, too, but the valley itself never disappoints. There is a bison herd at the Rendesvous and scattered bison and pronghorn on the flats. I see a half-dozen folk up on exclosure hill which looks somewhat promising, but from their casual stances and the presence of the bison in the Vous, I am skeptical. Doug and I have decided to drive up to Round Prairrie and back but just as we near Hitching Post I see a blue Durango headed my way. That's Mark and Carol. They recognize Doug and wave. We both turn around and meet up beneath Exclosure.
It is great to see Mark and Carol again. They fill me in on their sightings and tell me Charles has been worried about me. He is up on the hill and I start to pack up my stuff to join him. Then I am introduced to a lovely lady named Barbara who has made the trip here from Houston with Charles. Now here comes Charles heading down the hill, scope on his shoulder. Apparently there are no wolves in sight.
Mark and Carol suggest we try our luck above Antelope Creek.
Charles makes it down to the road and we have a merry meeting. He tells me what I missed and that the Druids have been scarce. 21M (whose collar has not been working in quite some time) has not been seen for 3 weeks. It is somewhat typical of the Druids to be up on the Mirror plateau this time of year, teaching their pups to hunt. He says many of them were seen there on the last fly-over so there is reason to remain hopeful.
After a bit more chatting, we begin caravan toward Antelope Creek. We see a melancholy sight on the way; a lone cow elk in the meadow below Junction Butte. It seems unusual to see a cow by herself this time of year and I can't help but wonder if she is ill.
We head up towards Dunraven Pass and I find it a treat to see this section of the Park. There are many stands of colorful aspen in among the conifers and the views are wide and beautiful. We manage to fit all the cars into one pullout and get out our equipment. We find a few bull elk and a handful of bison but not a single wolf. I invite Charles, Barbara, Mark and Carol to dinner tomorrow night at the Antler but as it would require nearly a two hour drive home in the dark afterwards, they regretfully decline.
Still, even unsuccessful scoping on a Yellowstone hillside with Loon companions is a pleasant way to spend an evening, and there is animated though hushed conversation about this sighting or that, of the overlapping territory of the Agate Creek wolves and the Druids, of the part that 302 may play in the Druids future, and lots of joking and teasing.
As we lose the light, the moon pops up in the southeast and begins to grow bright. Doug and I figure it's time to head west so we bid our fond farewells. I am better than usual at keeping up with Doug on the drive back. I suppose I am finally becoming more comfortable with it.
Then at the Hotel turn we see a line of stopped cars and elk in the road. The old man bull is after one of them, bugling in place at the edge of the parade grounds. The cows simply stand in the road, as if they are using the cars for protection! The line of tourists in cars seem entranced and make no move to the right or left, oblivious to the jam-up they are causing. After a formal period of patient waiting, Doug and I get the same idea at once and slowly drive down the empty wrong side of the road. Once past the bottleneck we slip back over to the right side through the convenient turn-around lane.
As we head downhill I wonder to myself if anyone's car paid the price for sitting between a bull elk and his escaping harem?
At Doug's cozy cottage I find a great feast. He's made a delicious and hearty beef stew simmered in burgundy and spices and he has a fresh salad and warm bread. There is more burgundy reserved for glasses. We talk about The Book and what he wants to accomplish and how I might be able to assist him. It is a very exciting prospect for him and thrilling for me to have a shot at contributing. He pulls up some photos on his computer and I see so many superb shots, it is clear the hard part will be not what to include but what to leave out.
I call Ballpark and firm up our hiking plans for tomorrow and then have another half-glass of wine. That does it! I am now about to fall asleep on my feet so I thank Doug profusely for dinner and wobble out into the night for the short hop to the Best Western. The moon is blazing and Mars is bright. What beauty is here, every, every second!
Good night to all.
Today I saw: antelope, a black bear, bison, ducks, elk and 5 Loons.