This morning Becky and Chloe and I drive in together. We stop in Blacktail to listen for Leopolds. I sit in my car with the windows rolled down and enjoy the quiet. There is something so wonderfully satisfying to be out here in the dark, alone with the wild things.
But the Leopolds are silent this morning so we move on.
Our group meets at the big pullout across from the Petrified Tree road. Calvin and Lynnette are here; Calvin is looking for Agates with his big binoculars. The rest of us are inclined to head east, hoping for Druid or Slough action today. I drive as far as Tower but then something tells me to go back. I radio Dorothy and Chloe of my plans so they won’t wonder what happened to me.
As I head back up the hill, I am startled when an animal crosses the road, not 50 feet ahead. I stop right away. I am amazed to see the animal come back into the road and stop in the glow of my headlights, even closer now.
It is an absolutely gorgeous mountain fox.
The fox stares directly at me, as if transfixed by the light. Then to my enormous surprise, he advances right towards me, still in my headlights, to about 20 feet! Then he makes a little hop-move, turning his body sideways but keeping his face towards me, like he wants to show off his full length and luxurious tail to best advantage. The fox’s face is so cute I could just squeal with delight. His wide and fluffy cheek-fur looks bright white in my headlights. Now, I am transfixed. I talk to him, the way I talk to my cat when she does something odd. I ask Why are you in the middle of the road, you little cutie? Why are you looking at me? What do you want? After another moment, the fox changes his mind and hops, once, then twice to the left and disappears.
I just sit there a moment, waiting for him to hop back out again. I restrain the impulse to get out to see where he went. Instead I continue up the hill, thrilled at this unexpected treat. What a beautiful animal he was! Absolutely beautiful.
I re-join Lynnette and Calvin and tell them about my fox encounter. We scope a while and I learn that the Agates are somewhere upslope of the lion kill. There are trees and overlapping hills all around, so finding these dogs is not gonna be easy. I find several bull elk grazing in the recovering burn areas and then we notice a sizable elk herd on a far slope.
Hmmm. That would make a nice target for the Agates. Wouldn’t it be nice if they just suddenly appeared chasing these elk?
We keep our eyes on this herd and sure enough, we start to see movement. The ones in front break into a nervous run but we also note that the ones in the back are relaxed, with many still grazing. That doesn’t look like a chase scenario, now, does it? We continue to watch this herd as more and more elk emerge from the folds in the hills. It gets to be comical, like a vaudeville gag that has a hundred leggy chorines climbing out of a Volkswagon. We giggle about that as we watch.
The elk are now stretching into a line as they move steadily downhill toward Yancy's Hole. And then Calvin announces that he‘s found the Agates! What? Hooray! He helps Lynnette and me find them. Well, well, well. They are right where they are supposed to have been, upslope of the cougar kill. Thanks, Calvin!
The Agates are bedded under a wide-spreading fir tree about half-way up the hill. At first I see three wolves, a pale-colored grey lying on his side, the black-turning-grey alpha female and another grey. And in a little while a black rock turns into another black wolf and a second grey wolf materializes next to the trunk of the tree. So that's five Agate wolves this morning. Where the other ones are we don't know.
We watch for a while but these wolves seem happily bedded and very sleepy and not plotting (at the moment) to go after the elk herd. So, after thanking Calvin many times for his proficiency, I pack up and head to Lamar.
And I get there just in time.
Dorothy, Ted, Becky, Chloe and I join Dan Hartman at Fisherman’s pullout. We set up our scopes and right away, Becky calls out “wolf!“. I see it! Oh man, what a great sight! The Slough Creek wolves have returned to Lamar.
On the rounded hilltop north of the road a grey wolf strides into view. It stops, silhouetted against the sky. Behind this wolf I see a black. Both wolves stop right on the ridge. They sit on their haunches and look down at us. You can almost hear the John Williams soundtrack swelling.
Then wolves start appearing all over the hills, black ones, grey ones, old ones, young ones. Some sit and stare at us and others mill around, more concerned with each other. I count 10! Then the ones furthest east begin to move off that way, and the others fall into a loosely organized line. I count them again, 6 blacks and 4 greys. The leaders are approaching a clump of trees. As they near this spot, more wolves appear from behind these trees and now we see them all converge in a festival of tail-wagging.
I am thrilled. It’s a great, close sighting and it looks like our position will afford us a relatively long-lasting view. Now the howling begins. How lovely! It’s not the same sound as Sunday night’s victory howl, but it’s full of their joyful spirits. The pack howl is answered by a lone voice that seems to come from a spot several hillsides to the east. After the howling is over, the wolves set off again, moving steadily east and seemingly with a new purpose, as if the lone howl prompted them this way.
Happily for us, the pack stays on the ridgeline. At one time I have six of them in my scope. Several times they stretch out in a line, making for easy counting. I get 14 now, 8 black and 6 greys. Now I wonder if the lone voice might be the 15th Slough Creek wolf?
I watch the leaders and find I’m able to recognize the grey-faced alpha female. She is all business, a very serious-minded wolf. I see two possibilities for the alpha male: one is a big black and the other a big grey. Both of them carry their tails high and I see both receive submissive attention by other wolves of the pack, muzzle-licking and fawning. Could this pack have two alpha males?
The Slough wolves stop several times on their journey east. One of these times, two black wolves pause and sit close together on their haunches in the same pose; ears, shoulders and haunches perfectly outlined against the overcast sky. They stare down at us two-leggeds, enigmatically.
I wonder what they think of us? We are whispering but I am sure they can hear us. Are they curious? Do they want us to all go home? And what effect does our presence have on their plans for the day?
The pack moves again and I am drawn to the silver-faced alpha female. She is not only distinctive looking, but she seems to have a “personality“. I hope I am not offending anyone by saying she reminds me of 42 in her no-nonsense “I’m here to hunt” manner. Chloe and Becky notice the same thing. Chloe points out that this wolf may very well have been the one that killed 217 and perhaps Half-Black, too. Hmmm, then again, my beloved 42 probably killed 40. I guess it’s just part of being alpha.
Dan Hartman has been keeping an eye on the elk in the area. He has a herd on the move in the high meadows northeast of the wolves. They are bunched and wary, but look much too far away from the wolves to be targets. Yet this herd takes nothing for granted. They move steadily higher on the mountain, sometimes running, sometimes walking. It is strangely beautiful to see their reaction to the wolves even when so far away. They walk in a line along a high snowy ridge, then stop and turn their heads, backlit by golden winter sun.
We follow the progress of the wolves from one ridge to the next. At one point I am the first to spot them as they re-emerge between hills. Then they disappear again. My impression is that they are on a serious elk hunt that has not yet kicked into high gear.
We pack up and head to Mid Point and turn our scopes northwest. We find another alert group of elk here on the backside of the hill. We know the wolves are headed in this direction and we hear some radio reports that indicate a chase may be in progress on the far side of the hill. The foothills surrounding the Institute are full of hollows where many elk often hide.
Suddenly we see movement. A running wolf! And then a lone elk appears running down the hill right toward us. The wolf is the grey-faced alpha female - circling the hilltop about a third of the way from the top. She doesn’t seem to be after the elk but the elk probably spooked at the sight or smell of her. She continues around to the road-facing side and now I see a second wolf, a grey, ahead of her. I only get a brief glimpse and that wolf disappears out of my line of sight. The alpha female stops, panting. Then I see another lone elk, or possibly the same one, come dashing full tilt down the hill toward the road.
Where is the rest of the pack, I wonder?
I watch the alpha-female make her way around the hillside and move progressively higher. Eventually several more wolves join her. Then I lose them all behind the hill. With a lull in the action I check to see what happened to the wary elk herd. Ah, there they are, much, much higher on the hill. They seem calm at the moment.
Over the radio I hear a report of a badly wounded elk calf in the Valley near the river. There is speculation that the Sloughs may have wounded it but then I hear Calvin say that he noticed this poor creature near the river much earlier in the day, before the Sloughs appeared.
Chloe suggests we head further east to get a more complete view of this hilltop. We set up at Picnic and sure enough, she’s right. I now see five wolves, including the alpha female, a big black, a big grey, and two others, slowly making their way up the hill. We watch them climb up to a sunny, snowy bench and bed down. The big black walks in a tight circle, tamping down the snow and then lowers himself for a nap.
Well. It looks like the excitement is over for a little while. I never found out the whole story of the action this morning. Some say the Sloughs made a kill, others say they flushed several elk but did not kill one. No matter, I suppose. For me it was a long and interesting sighting.
So our little group heads east in search of other items of interest. We have been told that the elusive Druid disperser 348M is still somewhere out here, between rendesvous and Soda Butte Cone. We stop at the Footbridge pullout to see if we can find him.
The view from here is gorgeous as ever. The clouds over The Thunderer look suspiciously snow-laden and I wonder what tomorrow will bring? But where we stand, the sun is out and it has gotten quite warm. OK, well, warm-ish. We glass the hills and the flats. We see dippers and a few ducks and bull elk in just about every hollow of every hill. Chloe finds bighorns right on top of Norris, a bedded ram with a nice curl and 5 ewes.
Actually we do more socializing than scoping! We have lunch in the lull and Lynnette is the star sharer today with her tasty onion-flavored crackers and chopped fresh veggies. My contribution is cookies.
A pickup pulls in and out of it hops…greywolf! I think she smelled the Milanos. 8~) We have a Loon hug and wish each other Merry Christmas and she introduces me to J who is very nice and friendly. Also very tall. We catch up and talk about the wolf sightings we‘ve had.
The talk keeps turning to otters, though, and Chloe, Becky and I are determined to find them, or at least the resident beaver. So, while the others head back west, we stop at the confluence.
We walk along the roadway for a good long while, examining the riverbanks for tracks. Besides the straight-line coyote trails we find two sets of tracks; one set suggests otter and the other, flatter impressions suggest beaver. Still we see no movement, other than bison and a mousing coyote.
Chloe takes matters in hand and bravely scales the steep and muddy trail up the hill. As soon as she reaches the top she calls out happily and points. Beaver! I grab my binocs and move further west along the road. And then I see him! What a fatty! I see a large beaver waddling across the snow between braids of the river, gathering a mouthful of reeds and willow branches. How can he possibly fit any more into his enormously stuffed mouth? The he suddenly disappears. I look up at Chloe and she confirms she just saw him dive into the water with his payload.
I figure it’s my job to spot him wherever he comes out while Chloe finds a less-steep way to come down. For a long time I don’t see anything. Chloe and Becky head east while I wander west. Just as I am about to give up, I see a telltale “V” in the water and there he is! I see his fat whiskered face and his beady eyes poking just above the water. I signal Becky and Chloe that I’ve found him and they head this way. I watch his steady progress against the river current and note that he stays close to the western bank. Then he disappears underwater and I see bubbles and water disturbance on the surface for a moment. The place where this happens does not particularly look like either a lodge or a dam but when he pops out again he no longer has his payload.
I watch him as he lets the current carry him downstream away from me. Just as he reaches a eastward bend he hauls himself out of the water and waddles across the snow and out of sight. Becky and Chloe join me and we watch him as he repeats this pattern, each time with another bulging mouthful.
Chloe describes the many beaver tracks she saw from her vantage point on the hill. She says they consist less of footprints and more of wide swaths of smushed-down snow from his fat beaver tail.
We watch the industrious creature a while and just enjoy being in this marvelous spot. The Confluence has always been one of my favorite places in Lamar. The sun is still out and there are countless birds singing. Dippers are bobbing and flitting here and there and bison are grunting in the distance. The river itself is endlessly fascinating. I watch the play of bubbles moving under the ice, alternately trapped and then streaking forward, chunks of ice breaking off and floating free for a few yards, then becoming trapped under a larger ice-slab at the next curve.
Dorothy, Ted, Lynnette and Calvin return and update us on their sightings in the Valley. One thing I am glad to have missed was the death of the wounded elk calf. Calvin said the calf was just standing still near the river, seemingly in shock. No one knows if it had been hit by a car, wounded in a chase or just became ill and incapacitated. There are times when nature is not pretty at all, and this was one of those times. But the animal was now out of its misery, just another carcass, and its death would sustain the life of coyotes, ravens and countless smaller creatures.
Dan and Cassie Hartman drive by and tell us they just saw a glimpse of the lone black pup that we watched a few days ago. Dan says it was moving west along Soda Butte Creek. Hmmm. No one knows much about this little guy, what pack it came from and whether it might be trying to find friends or remain on its own. We head east to see if we can spot him. I remember that 348M is still in the area and I start to imagine what might happen if the two loners meet. We still don’t know if the black pup is male or female.
We stop west of Trout Lake and set up. The wind has kicked up and now I am sure some new weather is coming in. Snow perhaps? We train our various eyes on both sides of the landscape but have no luck. I do see four coyotes running this way through the sage and I enjoy watching them a while. Judging by their friendliness to each other I assume I am seeing a family group; parents and two pups. The pups begin a playful wrestling match. They hop and pounce and roughhouse with each other, while their parents wait nearby, watching tolerantly.
After a little while we abandon this spot and drive back west. At Picnic we find the napping Sloughs on the hill right where we left them, although, now I only see three. It has gotten quite a bit chillier so I suggest to Chloe that we warm up with a walk down to the river to try once more for otters. Although we don’t find them, I highly recommend a walkabout in this area to anyone visiting in the winter. Riverbeds are so full of interesting things, tracks, debris, little stories in the snow all over the place.
Our last stop of the night is at Dorothy’s Knoll where Calvin shows us the elk-calf carcass. He said at one point there were as many as eight coyotes on it. Now I see three and they are all squabbling. Then I hear a yip-howl. There’s a fourth coyote. I spot him in the flats to the west of the carcass and watch him make his approach in the typical coyote hunch-backed, mouth-agape posture.
I hang out here with Tonya and J for a while and then we dead back west. As I descend through Lamar Canyon I see the first flakes of snow. Oh boy, here it comes.
By the time I near Mammoth the snow has turned to rain. I decide to pay another visit to Allison so I follow the road behind the hotel into the cabin areas. It is wonderfully dark and quiet here. I spook a cottontail rabbit and watch it scurry to safety between two cabins. I stop by the blocked-off road enjoy the pattering of rain on Goldie’s roof.
I rejoin the others for pizza dinner at Outlaws and more Loony fun. There are some left-over slices which the waitress puts in a box for me for munching on the road tomorrow. When I return to the table I find everyone has signed the box! I kept that top, you Loony Lurkers, and still have it displayed at work!
When we get back to the Inn, John and Carlene join us for a nice fireside chat about wolves, elk, Park politics and life in general. The rain continues and we are all convinced that when we wake up tomorrow we will find snow. The drive in tomorrow will be interesting indeed.
Today I saw:
1 beaver, 6 bighorn sheep, bison, coyotes, dippers, elk, 1 mountain fox, 21 wolves (including 5 Agates and 14 Sloughs) 3 Loons, 7 Lurker Loons and the spirit of Allison