SIGHTS AND SOUNDS OF

THE ELK RUT

It's the start of fall in the Rocky Mountains.  Late September to be exact.  The air has turned cooler and the aspens are taking on a golden color.  If you are up and about in the early morning you're more than likely to hear the unmistakable sound of a bugling elk.  This high pitched call from a male  elk (also known as a bull elk) in search of a female (also known as a cow) reminds you of that time of year-the time for the elk rut. 

The bulls are running high on testosterone and can be seen sniffing the air, trying to find that one cow in his group that is ready for him to mate with.  The ultimate goal is to win prowess with the females and to propagate the herd.  The bulls become more aggressive during this time and occasionally two rivals will charge each other and lock antlers.  Actual fighting can break out, but more often than not this ends up just being a competition to see who has the bigger antlers and body.  In due time one of the pair will back off and slowly leave the scene.   I have had the opportunity on a couple of occasions in the past few years to witness this event-in Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado (2014) and Waterton Lakes National Park, Canada (2016).


Bugling Elk, Rocky Mountain National Park, September 2104

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A pair of bull elk battling for domination, Waterton Lakes National Park, Canada. 
September 2016



In late September 2020 I travelled to Yellowstone National Park with the hope of witnessing this year's elk rut.  This is one of the world's premier destinations to view and photograph wildlife in a spectacular natural environment.  Autumn is a great time to be in Yellowstone, as the huge crowds of people that are there in summer have for the most part dispersed.  The animals are more active at this time of year as they prepare for the brutal winter that is soon to come. 

Since I was staying in West Yellowstone, Montana for four days I had to drive along the road from the west entrance of  the park to  Madison Junction every day.  This route parallels the Madison River for the most part, an area well known for elk activity.  It seemed that every morning during my drive I would see several elk in the meadows on the opposite side of the river, although they were too distant to get a good look at.  So for the first three days of my stay I did not have any good photography opportunities.  It wasn't until the drive out of the park on my final day that my luck would change.                                                      

It had been a long day of driving around the park, searching for wildlife and exploring the geothermal features that make this place so special.  There were just a few more miles to go before I would exit the park.  I then looked to my left and caught site of this large bull elk crossing the Madison River, accompanied by two smaller females.  I immediately pulled into the adjacent parking area to get a closer look.  I exited my vehicle, camera gear in tow,  and walked a few steps through a thicket of trees.  It was then that I could see where he was headed-a wide open grassy meadow, full of his harem of females.  There must have been at least fifteen female elk spread out amidst the landscape.  I now realized that this was going to be an opportunity to witness one of nature's greatest wildlife spectacles. 

I got into a safe position where I could observe the male as he moved around the field, never approaching too close.  It's important to give wild creatures plenty of space in their territory, especially ones as large as these.  There are too many stories on the news of people who made the mistake of getting too close and paid the price.  I surely didn't want to be one of them.  At this point there  were many more people who had joined me and were watching the scene unfold.  There was also a park ranger on site to warn us when we might have to back off and give the elk more space.  While you can't approach them, they can certainly approach you.  Just another thing I had to be aware of.  

It wasn't long before I realized that the bull had drifted out of sight.  The field in front of me was full of females, separated into different groups.  They were mainly grazing on grass or just laying around.   After a few more minutes I decided to move forward a bit and looked to my right  to see if I could spot the male again.  It was then that he suddenly reemerged from a stand of trees.  He immediately lifted his head and began to sniff the air, a sure sign that he was now intent on finding a mate. 

He quickly moved through the field, coming ever closer to my position.  He seemed to find a female that he was most interested in about fifty feet in front of me.  He then walked around her from back to front, checking her out for several minutes, before finally deciding she wasn't right for him.  It was at this moment that he turned around, looked in my direction, and started approaching.  "Time to return to your vehicles", the ranger shouted.  Which I promptly did.  I got one last good look at him as he was now only fifteen feet from my car.  Elk have been known to charge a vehicle when they are energized like this, but fortunately that did not happen this time. 

A few full grown females were in the trees across the road from the parking area, which quickly got the bull's attention.  He then walked right in front of my vehicle, crossed the road and charged up a hill, disappearing into the forest.  One can only wonder how the rest of his day went.  I decided to call it a day and return to my hotel, knowing I had once again witnessed one of wildlife's greatest shows.  



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