Though, because of the weather and unexpected budget cuts, the 2011 observations have been a challenge for all involved, I have seen some rewarding behaviors with the bands. Thunder and his mares are most often a challenge to get close enough to evaluate for condition and pregnancy. They have been coming up on the flats on the east side of the park quite regularly, so it pays to be patient and wait for them to appear on top and avoid having to search for them in the breaks below. On a warm morning in April, I found them grazing near the southeast corner. Not wanting to disturb them, I walked in to about 200 yards and sat down with my scope to get a behavioral observation. It is impossible to see them on the upper flats without them seeing you, but even though they had seen me come in, they were OK with me watching from that distance. The mares quietly moved along as they munched what they could find of the new green grass just poking through. Though I was sure Thunder had seen me walk in and sit down, after about 20 minutes, he decided to check who this new intruder was. We don't like to see any reaction to our presence, but it was not to be avoided that morning. Thunder trotted around me to the north to get down wind of me and get a better look. Usually, if he approaches, he comes alone, but this time the mares and yearlings started to follow. In family groups they trotted past me and formed a semi-circle east of me about thirty feet away. I just sat on the ground snapping pictures as they, all lined up side by side, looked at me as if the question what I was up to sitting out in their new grass. After a few minutes they walked away and resumed their grazing. It was a rare visit by some of the most skittish mares in the park and I relished the gift they had just given me.
One of my other challenges earlier this spring was to find Sidekick to record any new foals. Sidekick and his band had been hanging in the area east and southeast of Buck Hill most of the last month. Generally a team would go in on horseback since it is a long hike from anywhere, but I didn't have my horse with me this trip. Earlier, one of the Biologists had seen Bella from afar and determined that she was close to foaling. I wanted to check on her so started in from the east side. Sidekick saw me, but was unconcerned, but when Bella saw me, she moved off to the west with her new foal. I sat down and started a study with them. They were moving among the breaks and sagebrush, so it was difficult to see them all from my distance. I had to get a little closer. Sidekick had moved to the bottom of a clay butte to the left while his mares grazed on either side of a butte to the right. My only way to see them all was to try to get on higher ground. Since Sidekick was paying no attention to me, I headed for a rise beyond him. Bella, by that time had settled in to grazing. I was able to get to the small rise and sit down to wait for the other mares to come over the top and join Bella. As I hoped, the other mares gradually came my way over the small butte to graze with Sidekick and Bella on my side of the butte. I was now committed to stay where I was because I did not want to frighten them. I was able to start a new observation while Bella and her new foal laid down and slept about 60 feet from me. Still not wanting to frighten them and needing to determine the sex on the foal, I waited until the foal rose to nurse. The little filly pestered her dam until Bella stood and allowed her to nurse. Bella then turned and brought her week old filly within 30 feet of me as if she knew I wanted to get a photo of this pretty little bay. After they had moved off and Mist had allowed me to determine that she was close to foaling, I walked back out the way I had come, marveling at how trusting these horses are of me. I truly think they remember those who have tracked them in the past and sometimes even welcome us into their herd. The little filly's name is Larkspur.
On that same trip, I saw Sidekick and his band from Buck Hill one cold snowy morning. There was a new foal, so I had to slide down Buck Hill to check out this new baby of Mist's. They were in the exact place where Eileen and I had been caught in the terrible storm that had damaged 100 home in Dickinson a couple years earlier. This time the ground was sloppy with melting snow. I didn't take time for a study this time but walked in so they could see me and know I meant no harm. To my surprise, I realized it was Ember's Girl who had foaled, not Mist. The little foal was very new and miserably cold. Every time it tried to lay down, it would immediately get up again because of the cold snow. I was able to get close enough to get a photo by kneeling in the snow, but since it was a dark, cold day and a dark foal, I was having trouble telling the sex. After Sidekick had come by to check me out, I finally got on my stomach to get a shot of the little one's under side. Having me flat on the ground upset Embers' Girl and she uttered a strange alarm, so I popped back up again. She was fine with me again as long as I stayed upright. Checking my photos confirmed that the new foal was a colt. I thanked Embers' Girl for her patience and headed back to the top of Buck Hill through the muck and up the slippery slope to the car. We called the colt Hawthorn.
Another week, after our riding team had covered the whole area by horseback and never seen them, I walked to the east rim with a scope was lucky enough to find them on top of a flat butte. Al had ridden on that butte the day before, but no ones knows where they were hiding. Again I took off on foot for the bottoms southeast of Buck Hill. This time I could see them from quite a distance without them seeing me, so I started a study while walking in. I could see that the expected foal from Mist had been born and Mist was already in her foal heat. I was struggling to see all of them so decided to move around the south to higher ground and have a better angle on them. Unfortunately, by the time I got to my vantage point, they were coming down for water. I had to retrace my steps and get an advantage from another small butte. Mist and Snip's Gray were uneasy seeing me there, but there was nowhere else for me to go where I could see them. I sat down to east my lunch and wait them out. I was finally able to get my 30 minute observation just before they moved behind another small butte. Knowing I didn't have time to find any other bands that day, I decided to go in to determine the sex of Mist's foals and maybe get a photo. I carefully crawled onto a tiny outcropping and watched as they grazed. Eventually they were on all sides of me, seeing me, but now not caring that I was close enough to photograph the foals. I was able to photograph tiny Primrose, one of Ember's last foals, a cute bay roan filly.
In all of these instances, the horses accepted me when I was patient and allowed them to see and smell who and what I was. These experiences are gifts that I will never forget. There is nothing like the feeling of acceptance by these marvelous animals.