Late March began to feel like spring in Yellowstone, with temperatures on the warmest days spiking into the 50s. Marie and I knew better than to let our guard down, of course, given that a winter relapse was inevitable. But it felt amazing to pull up a chair on our deck and sit in the sun without wearing a coat, even just for an afternoon.
At the end of my niece Kate’s visit she joined me for one more morning in the park. We drove from Silver Gate to the black bear den by Tower Junction, as usual, but didn’t see much wildlife. Our luck changed when we were driving back through Round Prairie and noticed a small dark shape moving quickly across the snowy landscape. “What is that?” I asked Kate. “Is that a wolf?”
Yes! A black wolf, a good distance from the road but close enough to see without binoculars. We stopped at the nearest pullout, where a guide with Wolf Tracker had already set up a spotting scope for his clients. As I hoisted my big camera onto my tripod, Kate and I realized there was a second wolf – gray with a tracking collar – heading our direction. This must be 1228 and her mate, I realized. The Wolf Tracker guide confirmed it.
Collared Yellowstone wolves are assigned numbers for identification, and the gray wolf – 1228F – had only recently broken off from her natal pack, the Junction Buttes, to join up with an unknown black wolf. The new couple had been spotted pretty regularly between Soda Butte and Round Prairie. Kate and I caught a brief glimpse of them a few days before, when 1228 crossed the road by Soda Butte. Her mate, apparently much less comfortable around humans, balked at all the people gathering on the road and chose to stay back in the treeline. The scene at Round Prairie played out similarly. 1228 trotted closer while the black male hung back, spooked by the handful of people at the pullout.
Both wolves continued to move downstream along Soda Butte Creek and we all shifted to the next pullout to the south. 1228 crossed and re-crossed the creek, at one point coming so close that the Wolf Tracker guide felt compelled to scare her off by clapping.
What an incredible encounter. I stupidly missed some good shots when – thinking 1228 was heading farther south – I began breaking down my gear in preparation for moving to the next pullout. But 1228 lingered in our area and crossed the creek again. Scrambling to use my car’s side mirror as a tripod was not ideal.
Making eye contact with a wolf is always a rush. It was a perfect way to wrap up what had been a great visit with Kate.
As temperatures rose the black bear family in the den near Tower Junction began venturing out more often, especially on warm afternoons. I managed to catch them a few times but missed the big moment on April 3rd when they left their den for good. I felt extremely grateful to be able to observe a bear den all winter like that, and I’ll definitely be looking for the mom and her two cubs as they roam around the park this spring.
Most of April turned out to be slow for me in terms of photos. Often I’d return home from the park without taking a single shot. At one point a wolf pack and a grizzly bear converged on a bison carcass at Blacktail Pond and I missed the action by about 20 minutes. On April 9th I caught a fleeting glimpse of a red dog (a newborn bison), the first I’d seen this season, but it was too far away for photos. And the next day I had my first grizzly bear sighting of the year, but also from long distance.
About a week later I finally found a red dog close enough for photos. It always makes me happy to see baby bison experiencing the world for the first time.
Despite my efforts to resist, the relatively warm days of late March sparked a faint flicker of hope that spring had arrived. And then of course winter roared back for much of April. From what I can tell, winter in Silver Gate lasts six long months – November through April. Then we get one month of spring (May), three months of summer (June through August), and two months of fall (September and October). I shoveled as much snow in April as I had in February and March combined.
Snow and cold weather certainly don’t bother the wolves, and – thanks in part to turmoil in the Wapiti pack – there was a flurry of wolf activity in the second half of April. One morning I watched a lone black Wapiti male (maybe 1336) fearlessly flirting with two young Junction Butte females in Little America.
Back at our cabin later that week I noticed a small furry shape in the part of Soda Butte Creek that borders our back yard. It turned out to be a muskrat – only the third one I’ve ever seen and the first I’ve been able to photograph.
Temperatures began to rise again at the end of April, giving us some hope that spring will arrive for real in May. Fingers crossed!