I begin the day with breakfast at the Yellowstone Mine. I am expecting a buffet but instead there is table service, which, in truth, I prefer. There are three couples here besides me and the friendly waitress is good to us all.
My favorite meal of all is bacon and eggs, hashed browns and toast and I especially relish it this morning. The coffee is good and I catch up on my notes between bites.
It's still dark when I set off for the Park but I have early light by the time I arrive in Lamar. I am hopeful when I see my Loon compadres at Dorothy's Knoll, scopes out and focussed on the valley. I whisper good morning and get set up. We don't have anything yet but we are hopeful. From the looks of things, Rick has probably gotten a signal of some wolf or other out there. Then Mark calls out "black wolf", then sees another. Soon we all have them. I see two blacks; one fluffy and serious-looking, the other smaller, thinner and more bouncy. They make their way uphill to a spot I could swear is awfully close to where Frank and I had our lunch yesterday. I do a Druid dance for myself, for Mark R and for any other Loon who might want it. Of course I don't know whether these are Druids or not but I figure the wolves won't mind.
Very soon a third black is spotted following these two. This one is close in size and attitude to the smaller black. They head uphill on a steady diagonal, as if they have a ways to go yet. I hear speculation that one of these wolves is #302M which is very exciting for me, since I sort of "know" him. I watched him for two days in early February as he courted the Half-Black and the U-black and was pushed around Little America by a determined 21 and 42. And 302 is featured in Bob Landis's latest National Geographic film, consorting with several Druid females. If I am seeing 302, there is a very good chance that the two smaller black wolves are former Druid yearlings.
Now we see a grey wolf above the three blacks. For a few breathless moments I think I am watching 21 because from the side it looks like this wolf has a similar markings. But it turns out to only be wishful thinking, because, as Mark points out, this grey is smallish and has a black tip on its tail. In addition, this grey wears no collar. 21's collar has stopped working but he still wears it. What I observe is the grey in the lead, the fluffy black is second and the four of them move and behave as a group, bonded in a common purpose, at least for this morning. They seem to be headed over the western end of Jasper Bench, for all the world following the very same route that Frank and I took about 16 hours ago.
We wait and watch as they top the hill and disappear. As I gather more information I learn that these wolves began the morning feeding on a bison carcass down at the edge of the river bank. No one knows how the bison died but there were reports of a wounded bison in the area yesterday. Perhaps the wolves finished the job begun by age, injury or disease or perhaps they just got lucky. But I am eager for more wolf viewing. Rick has suggested that we may be able to find this group on the flip side if we scope from Dave's Hill at Slough Creek. So off we go to do just that.
And sure enough soon after we set up on Dave's Hill we have the group of four again, well, we have two blacks and the grey, bedded down on a high slope south of Dave's Hill. Then we see the fluffy black alone, below the bedded wolves, seemingly attracted by something out of our sight. The lone wolf moves around in this area a while, howls a bit, is answered by the others, beds, gets back up, howls again and is again answered. He eventually heads uphill to re-join the other three. After the first set of wolf howls we hear two separate groups of coyotes howl in defiant response, one set behind us in the Slough Creek area and the other further west, somewhere in Little America.
We are able to determine from this sighting that the grey is not only NOT 21 but that there is really no resemblance at all. It's like someone mistaking me for Doug Dance. I feel silly indeed. Rick confirms that the larger black wolf (fluffy) is indeed 302M. The two blacks and the grey seem to be his dedicated group. There is speculation about the grey, whether or not it is male or female, whether or not it might be the "grey pup" of the Druids that I saw with the alphas in February or whether it is the "unknown grey" which has been seen hanging with 302 on and off in the last month.
When 302 returns to the others we see a happy reunion ritual with much wagging of tails. We see signs of submission being made to 302 but nothing to indicate to me the ranking of any of the three over each other. After a bit of romping and bouncing the four of them bed down, with 302 choosing a spot a little to the left of the others.
You might think standing on a hill in a cold windy morning to watch four sleeping wolves to be a waste of time but stay tuned. This turns out to be a most interesting sighting. After about 20 minutes of watching them sleep, raise a head, shift position and re-bed we hear a crackle on the radio about another black wolf. Someone further west in Little America says a black wolf is heading purposefully toward the position of 302's group from about a mile away.
Who is this, we wonder?
We watch the bedded four for signs that they know another wolf is approaching but they remain heads down, seemingly unaware. Very soon, I spot the encroaching black and I am struck by this wolf's appearance. It seems small and delicate to me, almost with a fox-like or coyote face, and very, very pretty. The wolf comes into the area very boldly it seems to me. Finally we see heads up from the three bedded wolves but they seem markedly UN-concerned so much that I speculate that the newcomer is someone they know. Then again, I should know better that if it were someone they know they would more likely get up to greet him/her. The newcomer trots behind the three on the hill and makes for 302. I miss the moment when he got up but I see his tail flying high and I watch him approach the newcomer. A collective groan goes up from us all as we see both wolves disappear behind a low hill, so we miss the drama of their actual meeting. Shortly after we see two black tails pop up above the hill, both high and wagging. The distance between them suggests their noses are still a foot or so apart. We also see the three wolves on the hill standing very still and quiet, watching the other two intently as if waiting for a signal.
Finally we are relieved to see 302 and the pretty black (whom I now dub Black Beauty) move out from behind the hill. I am enthralled by what I see next. We all are. We watch what seems to us a re-enactment of the "Acceptance Ritual" scene in "Return of the Wolf" in which 21 is questioned and approved by first 40 and then 42. Black Beauty plays 21 and 302 plays 42. I see her stand still and stiff, with her back legs slightly extended and her tail lowered but flipped up at the end, just like a little plastic toy collie I used to have. Her pretty face is sharp and still as she waits for 302's every move. 302's tail is high and in constant waving motion. He sometimes bounds towards her and raises a paw as if to place it on her shoulder. When this happens she seems to spin out of his embrace and freeze again, waiting for her next cue. This happens about six times. It is absolutely riveting. Twice I think he lunges at her but both times she avoids harm and snaps back to attention.
I check back with the other three and see them still standing on the hill, watching the drama and waiting, it seems, for some sort of cue. I also get the sense, I'm not sure why, that the grey has some sort of command authority over the two blacks.
Then, something seems to change and Black Beauty seems to be released, approved or forgiven by 302. The two of them bound over to the waiting three and I see Black Beauty's tail a bit higher than before. There is a lot of bouncing and then some sort of lightning fast altercation between Black Beauty and the grey. 302 immediately jumps in and seems to break that up. More stiff-legged nose-to-nose posturing ensues between 302 and Black Beauty and then more tail wagging by the blacks. I wish I had paid more attention to the grey at this point but my eyes were mostly on Black Beauty and 302. Anyway, whatever it is that we just watched, it all seems to end pleasantly because we now watch the five of them take off together. This time Black Beauty leads, 302 is closely behind, then the grey and the two blacks. They move quite purposefully up the hill as if heading right back over the hill to the bison carcass.
We watch until we can't see them anymore. I am so psyched. That was so cool! Carol reports to Rick all the things we saw and corrects some mis-information we gave earlier. No one seems to know who Black Beauty is or where she came from but we are pretty convinced that we saw a strange wolf being accepted by another, if not the whole group.
Over the radio we learn that Rick has seen 106's group in the Tower area earlier today and I am sorry to have missed her but perfectly content with the sighting I got instead.
After a bit more yakking we decide to pack up and head back over to Dorothy's.
Charles and Barbara and I set up in the pullout while Carol and Mark head up the hill for a more comprehensive view. It's not too long before we catch sight of them. I see 302 and Black Beauty romping and cavorting down a high slope together, looking like some slow- motion movie montage of young love. I note that both their tails are sky high. They stop and seem to replay the "stiff-legged love-tap-spin-around" ritual again and then they enjoy a playful romp. They stop again and rest, a few feet from one another.
Now I see the other three wolves appear on the ridge above them. They stop there, in perfect silhouette against the sky, looking down on the happy couple. A little while later the two groups converge. Unfortunately for my perspective this occurs behind a mask of trees. I see 302 and Black Beauty heading uphill and the other three heading down. Then I see the grey emerge on the left and stand alone, looking back intently at the others. Then I see the grey dash at full speed behind the trees. The next thing that happens I don't see but I hear others saying "the black is running, full speed to the right of the trees". For several beats I can't find her or the others but hear people in the pullout describe her with her tail tucked so far between her legs that it seems to be gone and that she's running for her life. I swing my scope to the right but don't ever find her. I finally give up when I hear she is now out of sight behind a hill. Someone says she never stopped and she never looked back but just ran and ran and ran.
I swing my scope back to the tree tops and catch the remaining wolves just as they appear in the open. I see the grey now in front, tail way up high, and I see 302 romping right alongside the grey, just as he had done moments ago with Black Beauty, a second perfect picture of young love. At a distance behind them come the two blacks. I watch the grey and clearly see the pride and confidence of victory. The whole story now clicks neatly into place. The grey is a female and she just defended 302 from the advances of a rival.
Being the romantic that I am, I can't help but feel sorry for Black Beauty, especially since it must have seemed to her (as it did to us) that she had been accepted by the group. Such a rude dismissal must hurt. And who knows how close she came to injury or losing her life? Perhaps she committed some grave wolf sin while she was behind those trees? Became too cosy with 302? Pushed her luck with one of the blacks? Perhaps the grey was willing to have a new female in the group as long as she kept her pretty paws off the handsome 302? Anyway it will be interesting to see what develops between the grey and 302. At least we know she is capable of defending what she perceives as hers, which is certainly a quality that will serve an alpha female.
We watch these wolves come all the way down the hill to the river. One by one they reach the carcass and one by one they being to feed, pulling off great bloody chunks and gulping them down. We watch them cache a few mouthfuls, chase ravens and have a rest. They explore a bit along the river flats and then return for a second helping. We watch several coyotes wander about at a safe distance, scolding and insulting the wolves with their plaintive cries and barks.
The wolves' bellies are now visibly bulging so we expect they will soon climb the hill and take a long nap. And they do. As they follow the leader up the hill, Rick asks us to be especially attentive to any scent markings we see. Double scent-marking by a male and a female wolf is an indicator of pair-bonding. In no time we happily report just such an occurrence. Then the wolves reach a sunny spot and bed down for the rest of the morning.
It's been a terrific morning and I am thoroughly satisfied. Barbara tells me I must have breakfast again tomorrow since it seems to bring wolf luck.
We figure it's likely the wolves will sleep the day away so I decide this is a good time to check out the other areas of the Park. I bid everyone adieu and head back west. I have a vague plan to go to Hayden Valley, sit at an overlook and eat some lunch.
The weather remains bright and sunny all the way. I enjoy the fall views in Willow Park and the strange boilings around Norris. I stop for a while to watch some elk at Norris Meadows but they soon move into the trees. Along the drive from Norris to Canyon I find myself amazed at how different things look. Its been over a year since I've been on this road and it seems to me that the new tree growth is phenomenal. And with the weather being so warm this whole area of the Park looks and feels like summer.
I turn right at Canyon into Hayden Valley. The Yellowstone is lower than I've ever seen it but I'm still happy to be looking at it! Then I hit the construction area that Charles warned me about. A long line of us have to wait for a pilot car. I turn off the engine and get out some lunch fixings. How I wish New York traffic jams could offer such views! While I eat I watch geese and ducks and then spy two great blue herons on the far bank, searching the shallows for fish.
Very soon the wait is over and we move forward into the valley. But the construction is more extensive than I had thought and it seems to have chased all the bison away from the road. The herds are here but way off near the trees. So I change my mind about going all the way to the mud pots and turn around. Hayden Valley is still a beautiful place, even dry and dusty and I'm not sorry I came.
I am stopped again on the way back and the friendly stop-sign girl says it might be a half hour this time. No matter. I finish my lunch, replace the bandaids on my pair of blisters, and write some notes. I also look out over the valley and check the river for smaller creatures. In about 20 minutes we are moving again. I say farewell to the Yellowstone for a while and head back toward Norris.
The drive back is uneventful but thoroughly enjoyable. I stop at Twin Lakes and see two sleeping swans, thanks again to a tip from Charles. They float close to the shore, their heads tucked tightly under their wings. I would love to get closer for a photo but wouldn't dare wake them up, so I tip-toe back and drive on.
When I arrive in Mammoth I see several big glass photographers set up in the sage right across from the Dining room. The attraction is the elk herd and the beautiful background provided by the westering sun, which lights up the golden cottonwoods across the road.
I make the turn to head east but slow down as I see the two prime bulls on my left. One of them is alone in the sage, thrashing his antlers. As he raises his head I see how the ends of his tines shine. I roll down the window and snap off a picture. Then I see the second bull walking in the background. I snap another shot, two bulls in one! Then the bull stops his polishing and stares at me. He takes a step, another and another. Uh oh. I start the car and he steps onto the road. Oh lord! He has taken a dislike to F'Ugly! I move slowly down the road hoping he will not follow. The bull stands in the road and bellows his insult. He turns and gives F'Ugly a look of pure disdain.
I am happy to escape and promise to leave the bulls alone from now on. I head happily to Lamar where I feel a lot safer!
On the way I see a mule deer near the Yellowstone Picnic area and a coyote running in Little America. And there are bison and antelope scattered here and there.
I find the Loon group at Dorothy's and I am surprised to learn that I missed the wolves coming down again for a snack and also, a bear! A grizzly came to feed on the carcass not long after I left the area. The wolves have not been seen for several hours since they bedded on a high slope. I look in vain for a pair of ears or a tail.
On the carcass I watch the usual ravens and magpies and there is a bald eagle waiting in a tree. Several coyotes come and go and we watch a bit of posturing by one of them as it chases off another. Doug arrives and we tell him what we saw this morning. He is happy to learn there is a carcass here. I didn't think it would be close enough for pictures but he says Fisherman's is. You can read in his face that he will be out here tomorrow morning.
We chat and scope and I speculate that the Druids ought to head back now that there is free food in their valley. I train my scope on the rendesvous area in hopes of catching their arrival. But instead, just as the light is seriously fading, someone spots a grizzly. A grizzly! Wow, that gets our blood going. Sure enough, I see him, lumbering along in a mostly straight line, headed, no doubt, for the carcass. This may be the same bear that was here this afternoon but there is no-one here who can confirm it. We watch him come out of the Amethyst drainage and make his way along the edge of the bench. I watch him as long as I can but I run out of light.
I remind Doug that I still owe him a dinner. He's up for that and we quickly decide on The Mine. Soon I am following Doug's distinctive tail-lights along the winding ways back to Mammoth. We are relatively encounter-free until the dark curving hill between Undine and the Bridge. I see brake lights on the car ahead of Doug, then his. As I pass the spot I hear an elk mewing in forest and worry that one has been hit. Doug assures me later that that was not the case. I suppose the elk were just complaining to each other how hard it is to get across the road sometimes.
Then as I am coming out of the hairpin turn before the campground, I suddenly see a HUGE brown body coming towards me. I brake but gravity and intertia carry me even with him. F'Ugly and I are now stopped at eye level with a giant rack of antlers. I swear I could have reached out my open window and touched them. But I do NOT do that, I touch the gas and move past him. If this is the same bull elk I met earlier, he holds no grudges. Neither F'Ugly nor I even exist to him and he continues across the road.
I am glad for a drink once I get to the Mine! Doug and I talk more about The Book and the wolves and what we hope to see tomorrow. It's a great dinner and fine company but all good things...well, you know what they say.
Even as sleepy as I feel, I know I will have no trouble waking up early tomorrow. I have to be out there at first light because I know the bears will be waiting.
Today I saw: antelope, 2 blue herons, bison, 5 coyotes, ducks, elk, geese, 1 grizzly bear, 2 swans, 5 wolves (including #302M), and 5 Loons