Elena and I woke to our 5 o'clock wake-up call on this chilly Sunday morning, the 25th of September. Usually, when we go out of town, we like to eat a nice breakfast at a local diner but we don't get to do that during the rut. It's a quick breakfast sandwich at GetGo and off we go down the "Caledonia shortcut" to Benezette. We decided since the action was so good on Saturday morning, we would go to the same location. Plus, since the location is near the water and I don't have many photos of elk crossing water, I was hoping I'd see that too.
It was 39 degrees and foggy when we reached our destination. The sun hadn't come up yet when we met up with Tom Dorsey and made our way through the woods to the back meadow. A few of our friends were already in place watching a growing herd of elk, a dominant bull, and a few smaller "satellite" bulls. Satellite bulls get their nickname because they always seem to be orbiting the field similar to a satellite orbiting earth.
This bull came from a far field in response to the bugles of the dominant bull.
When you’re in the field watching and documenting the rut one can easily distinguish the various levels of experience in herding. The larger, middle aged bulls are clearly in charge. They are studs! Competitors are usually nearby but they know they can’t compete with a mature bull’s deep bugle or growth of their antlers. The mature bull easily gathers his cows along with spike bulls and calves.
If you look around you will usually find one or two frustrated bulls waiting on the sidelines. Occasionally, the dominant bull will be distracted and one of the wannabes will manage to trap a cow. They are seldom successful as the cow will run to the rest of the herd or the dominant bull will notice and quickly approach leaving the smaller bull feeling helpless.
This bull was slowly approaching the large herd in an adjacent meadow while pausing occasionally to announce his presence with a bugle.
PA Elk (Sept, 2016)
The rut is nothing more than a bunch of bull elk, jacked up on testosterone, sizing up each others bugles and size of their antlers all while trying to impress the ladies. Sometimes they square off in a dominance fight but that is not their first intentions. Bulls can seriously injure each other, lock up antlers, or gore one another and be left to die. Smaller bulls seem to be aware of those possibilities and stay out of delicate situations. When the big guys throw a pose and a bugle like the one in the photo below, I understand why the smaller bulls keep their distance.
The cool, crisp Benezette air condenses his breaths into consistent puffs of water vapor.
Even with all the commotion of the rut going on all around them, a cow still makes time to nurture their calves and reassure their safety.
During the height of the rut, the bull elk has a massive thickness to his body, a physique very different than the same bull in July and August.
In this video, I'd like to show you how a morning is spent in the life of an elk during the rut. The dominant bull elk will spare no energy keeping his herd together. Other, usually smaller, bulls will stand at the woodland edge waiting for an opportunity to steal a cow or two but usually get caught and, unwilling to fight the big guy, they retreat frustrated. So this video will be full of bulls chasing cows, bulls chasing smaller bulls, elk cow and calves grazing, and a lot of bugling so turn up your speaker volume. In a couple instances, when the dominant bull turns his attention to another bull, I placed video of the intruding bull in a picture-in-picture format for the few seconds that he reacted.
During all three videos in this photo blog you may hear some shutter clicks from other people's cameras and an occasional conversation between fellow photographers. We tend to help each other and keep each other informed of other activity. This video is over six minutes long so, depending on your internet connection, it could take a few seconds before it begins to play.
Here is the "King of the Harem" checking on one of his cows.
Fog comes and goes in the valley. The photo below was made as a haze began to cover the valley floor.
The next photo is a piebald cow with her calf. Piebaldness occurs due to a genetic variation.
Satellite bulls will bugle too. It seems like the only thing they accomplish is to get the attention of the dominant bull and then chased back into the woods or into the next field.
The bulls get all the attention of wildlife photographers but I also like to photograph the females too.
As the morning continues, the elk continue to do more of the same. We have the dominant bull keeping his herd together and displaying a few attempts at mating. As he paces the meadow making sure his herd doesn't stray too far he does it while keeping an eye on the collared, satellite bull who is still attempting to steal cows from the herd. Here is another video; a continuation of our morning in a meadow during the elk rut.
The action began to slow down just like the ending of that last video. Elena and I spent the late morning and early afternoon visiting local gift shops and wineries only to end up at the hotel for a much needed nap before heading to the Elk Country Visitor's Center for the evening.
I wanted to check out the action at the visitor's center because the bulls up there have been fighting a lot. That evening, we were there until it was too dark to see and didn't see a fight. These bulls were on their best behavior while I was around. The bull in the photo below is known as "Tippy" because one antler is much larger than the other and he walks with a head tilt. I bet he's really happy in March when those things fall off.
The bulls at the visitor's center are usually too far away for good photography but we hung around that evening until the sun began to set. As we were walking back to the parking lot we found another bull and a small harem much closer. Below are a few photos of him as darkness fell.
Once again, the camera makes the scene look brighter than it really was. For those who understand camera settings, my shutter speed was 1/30th of a second and iso was set at 2000. We could barely see this bull moving around with the naked eye. You can see the last glimmer of light edging his antlers, back, and rear end.
Here is a short video of this bull roaming the hilltop and responding to distant bugling.
I'll finish this blog with a few more photos from the darkening fields of the visitor's center.
He probably continued to bugle well into the night but this was the last photo I could make of him on this day.
The evening ended on a high at the visitor's center and continued in town at the Benezette Hotel. Elena and I met up with Tom Dorsey and longtime Facebook friend Bill Potter and his wife Merilee. It was great to finally meet Bill in person. Few people on Facebook like to critique the photos we make. Tom and I appreciate the honesty of a good critique and Bill and I sometimes get into deep conversations about our photographs and why we made them the way we did. We talk about the feeling they create and that is something I enjoy.
After an evening of great travel and photography conversation, Elena and I headed the other way on the "Caledonia shortcut" to St. Mary's. It was another late night in Elk Country and we finally made it back to the hotel looking forward to another five hours of sleep.
See you tomorrow,