September and early October marks the mating season of the American Elk. The rutting call of bulls, called a bugle, is heard echoing through the Pennsylvania hills from just before dusk to dawn. The bugle of the bull elk is a distinctive sound that begins deep and becomes a high pitched squeal before ending in a series of grunts. Hearing your first bugle is an experience you will never forget and one that will leave you wanting more.
This year, I was able to spend five days in the Benezette, PA area to photograph the rut activity of the American Elk. I made two day trips alone and my wife, Elena, and I had a nice three day stay in nearby St. Mary's. Over those five days I logged a lot of time in front of elk and have numerous photographs and a few videos to share. I'm going to use five separate blogs to tell the story of the 2016 American Elk rut in Pennsylvania with this one being the first.
9/14/2016 - While preparing for a day trip to Benezette I checked the weather forecast and saw they were calling for heavy fog overnight. Benezette is usually foggy in the morning so that was not a surprise. Because of the forecast, I decided to get a good night sleep and go later in the morning.
9/15/2016 - Temperatures reached the mid-80's on this day making it less likely to see many elk come out to feed before the sunset. However, about 5:15 in the afternoon, I spotted a large bull elk laying in the grass near the edge of the woods. I parked my vehicle and joined a small group of people already watching. As soon as he turned his head, I recognized the U-Bull. He has been dubbed U-Bull because of the U-shape of his rack. Beginning at the base, the shafts point out before lifting up giving his rack a much wider U-shape.
He was resting at the edge of the woods but at one point an elk cow exited the woods and stood by him. He seemed to be very interested.
After the cow approached the bull and retreated a couple more times, U-Bull gave us is first bugle of the evening.
Another reason to look forward to the rut is meeting up with people that you see only once a year or you've met on Facebook and share the same interest of viewing the elk. I watched U-Bull for about 30 minutes when my friend Dave Anderson arrived from the Pittsburgh area. We stood there and "shot the bull", no pun intended, while waiting for something interesting to happen.
There were bugles in the distance which got the attention of U-Bull. He stood and prepared for an evening of assembling cows and calves into his meadow.
Bull elk often dig holes in the ground, in which they urinate, lay down, and roll their body. The urine soaks into their hair and gives them a distinct smell which attracts cows. Elk can mark themselves by spraying urine on their bodies from an erect penis. That type of scent-marking behavior in elk is known as "thrash-urination". That's exactly what U-Bull is doing in the photo below. You can see the spray along his neck.
After a while, the U-bull climbed the hill ahead of us and disappeared into the woods.
We knew he was going up the hill to a food plot so we walked up a path on the perimeter of the field. By now we were beginning to lose photography light fast. The surrounding mountains were blocking sun rays several minutes ahead of sunset. When we arrived at the top of the field, we found U-Bull thrashing a small pine tree on the other side.
Elk rub trees and shrubs like this to deposit oils on their antlers, turning them from bone white to the dark, burnt umber color seen in the next photo. Notice the tips remain somewhat white because they don't make direct contact with the sap.
In my own personal observation, I noticed that while a bull is doing this, he will stop several times to lick the sap coming from the shredded bark. I'm not sure why they do that. Maybe they just like the taste. It looks like he's really enjoying this rub.
As he exited the woods, he stood in the shadows, reluctant to enter the warmth of the sun. Even at this early stage of the rut, U-Bull already has three broken tines and walks with a limp caused by an injured left, rear leg.
Even though they were a quarter mile apart, taunting continued between U-Bull and the bull in an adjacent field.
Here is a video of U-Bull as he entered the food plot, thrashed the small evergreen tree, and kept his herd together while another bull answered his bugles. The video is about 5 minutes so the load time will depend on your internet connection.
As the meadow became too dark to photograph, Dave and I decided to walk to the adjacent field to find the bull that has been taunting U-Bull all evening. The next field over was a little brighter so we were able to photograph him. The bull we found is a 10X8, not the most tines ever seen on a bull in Benezette but it is the most tines that I have ever seen.
At the close of the evening friends Tom and Jeanne Dorsey arrived. There we are standing along the edge of the road in darkness talking about the rut that was just getting underway when I realized I had a two and a half hour drive home. I was enjoying the evening but I got in my vehicle and drove home.
The day started slowly but finished pretty well which got me excited about the next couple of weeks. As the air cooled over the next 10 days, the rut really began to heat up.
Thanks for looking,