September and early October was a whirlwind for me photographing rutting elk. If it weren’t for the 2.5 hour drive each way to the Pennsylvania elk range, it wouldn’t have been so hectic. Shortly after the rutting period of the American Elk ends, the White-tailed Deer doe (female deer) enters her estrus cycle and their world turns into chaos with every buck (male deer) within sniffing distance vying for breeding rights.
Rut activity of the White-tailed Deer is more difficult to photograph because of their fear of humans and their rut is relatively short compared to the American Elk.
I began photographing this year in mid-October and pursued deer until the end of November and the beginning of the Pennsylvania rifle season. I hope you enjoy the photography.
Many doe are still accompanied by their offspring from earlier in the year. Some attempts are still being made to nurse but the doe seems to push them aside and the fawns are feeding on plants, fruits, acorns, and other nutty goodies when they are available. Soon they will need to rely on whatever food is available such as fallen leaves, twigs, bushes, evergreens, and other woody plants to nourish them through the winter.
Most of the images in this photo blog were made with a Canon 1DX MKII camera body and either a Canon EF 300mm f/2.8L IS or Canon EF 600mm f/4L IS II lens. I needed the low light capabilities of that equipment to photograph this buck as it was nearing complete darkness.
I was positioned on the lower end of a hillside that had a well-worn trail etched into the forest floor when a doe came walking along. Just then, I saw her pursuer in a thicket about 10 yards behind.
The doe ignored me and continued to walk along the trail. Just then, the buck stepped out of the thicket and into plain view. He is a 6-point with a truly impressive spread. A huge charge of testosterone during the rut period can make a bucks neck swell up to 50% of its normal size.
This buck was rushing down a hillside when he stopped briefly, illuminated perfectly by the evening sun.
Notice the dark spot on the inside of his rear leg? That is called the tarsal gland and there is one on the inside of both hind legs. Smell typically comes into play when deer scent-check each other. Normally, identification is determined by smelling each others' tarsal glands. During mating, the dark, stained tufts of stiff hair reek with odors, besides urine added for sexual excitement.
This guy was in pursuit of a couple does when he crossed my path. The does stopped to feed on nearby acorns so, hiding himself behind the trees, he stopped to check me out.
I found this buck on a hillside meadow accompanied by about seven doe and their fawns.
As all the doe continued to feed in the meadow, he became more interested in me. He slowly walked toward me in a curious posture.
As he walked a little closer, he held his hoof high. He wasn’t alerted enough by my presence to flip his tail up or to give me a foot stomp. A deer communicates with other deer in many ways but both genders will stomp the ground to alert other deer, or attempt to lure an intruder into exposing itself.
Most of the time, especially when the weather is warm, I don’t see many deer until the sun begins to set, leaving little time for photography. This buck, holding his rack high, was following a few doe around a meadow. White-tailed Deer
After becoming wary of my presence, he headed toward the woods. He only paused in response to me yelling “hey buck, hey buck”.
Not all journeys into the field searching for a whitetail buck are successful. Many times the deer are frightened and run away or they hide unseen in a deep thicket. On the other hand, one might find a little buck that is cooperative, such as this guy illuminated by the setting sun.
With light diminishing quickly, I probably shouldn't have been photographing anything at this time. I saw this buck crossing a field and just as he entered the woods I whistled to get his attention. He stopped and turned.
I was sitting one evening just before dark watching a small herd of doe and spotless fawns. I was hoping a big buck would walk over the crest of the hill but that didn't happen. I did see a tender moment between one of the doe and her fawn.
I was drinking coffee in my living room one Saturday morning when our two Shelties began to bark at something in our backyard. This buck, who is frequently photographed on my backyard trail cam, came in to feed on our Crabapple tree.
This is a late November buck. With no doe to pursue, he is a little more cautious and is keeping himself protected behind branches. I was hoping he would move into the open but he didn’t. Instead, he turned and ran into an adjacent field.
With the rut over the bucks are a little harder to find. Couple that with the fact that rifle deer season is now half over, all of the deer are very cautious. Here is a doe that paused to see what my next move was going to be.
Female White-tailed Deer will fight to protect their fawns or a food source. I'm not really sure if these two were fighting or playing. They broke away a couple times and came back to each other. In either case, I wish my shutter speed was a little faster to stop the blur.
Well, that’s it for this year’s White-tailed Deer rut. I wish I had photographs of more obvious rutting activity like rubs, scrapes, scent marking, or fighting but I wasn’t able to find it this year. That’s okay, maybe I will be able to make up for it next year. I hope you enjoyed the experiences I was able to share.
Thanks for looking,
After taking a week away from photographing the elk herd in Benezette, I was getting anxious to go back. I decided one more trip was in order and after seeing a lot of activity the previous weekend, I knew exactly what I wanted to capture on this day. On Monday, 10/3/2016, I awoke at 3:00 a.m. in order to make it to Benezete before daybreak. I ran into some fog on the way but once again, the valley in Benezette was clear.
October is when the elk rut slows to a stop and the bulls are magically friends again but it hasn't reached that point as of October 3rd. Bulls were still gathering small herds and bugling back and forth. In this final photo blog of the 2016 Pennsylvania elk rut, I'd like to show how the bull controls his herd when it's time to leave the meadow and enter the woods for the day.
In the last three blogs I talked about photographing the animals until they went into the woods. My goal on this day was to document that process. There were two bulls and two separate herds for me to photograph in the meadow this morning. The bull in the next photo had a small herd of nine elk cows and calves.
However, the bull in the next photo felt that his herd wasn't large enough and promptly came in and stole the other bull's cows. Remember, it is October 3rd and these bulls are probably tired and sore from the action of the last few weeks. Team that with malnourishment and you will have bulls that aren't interested in fighting.
The first bull left the meadow only to return later and gather a portion of his herd back. That leads me into this first video lasting about eight minutes. It begins with a couple young bulls calmly crossing the creek. Afterwards, I watched the bull with the large herd chase some cows around while answering bugles from the bull that ran about 1/4 mile away to the other end of the meadows. You will see the bull across the field attempt to corner a cow but she runs back to her herd. Turn your volume up to listen to the calves talking in the crowd. One calf in particular is very vocal and at one point, it sounds like it is mimicking the large bull's bugle. I have to smile when I hear it. Then, you get to see how the bull moves his herd in the direction he wants them to go. Obeying every command, they eventually cross the creek and enter Elk State Forest. I personally think this is one of the better compilations I made so I hope you enjoy it as much as I do.
Please be patient after pressing the icon to begin. Your internet connection determines how fast it loads.
Now that you've seen the video here are a few stills of that herd.
I was positioned in the creek 80 to 100 yards downstream from the crossing site. Even at that distance, a look like this makes a person wonder about your safety.
One look is all I got before he paused for a drink and then attended to his herd.
These two cows and a calf paused in the middle of the creek to take some time to groom the calf.
So, remember the bull that ran to the other side of the field? He returned and picked up a couple cows and a young spike on the way. This short video shows him taking his herd in the same direction as the previous bull.
One of his cows was the piebald that we watched the previous weekend.
Here she is in the Goldenrod on her way to the creek.
It is typical to find a young spike in a bull's herd. They aren't a threat and are basically ignored.
Finally, the big guy slowly crossed before heading into the forest.
This was the fifth and final photo blog documenting my experiences during the 2016 elk rut in Pennsylvania. I hope you enjoyed them and felt the thrill of the bugle through my lens.
In case you missed any of the previous four, here is a link to view them.
9/15/2016 - Sights and Sounds of the PA Elk Rut
9/24/2016 - The Beginning of an Elk Country Weekend
9/25/2016 - Dominant Bull and Frustrated Wannabes
9/26/2016 - The Meadows Are Full of Elk
Until next time,
The morning of Monday, 9/26/2016, was once again chilly and foggy. Since it was our final day of our stay in Elk Country and the hotel breakfast seemed to be served a little earlier than schedule, Elena and I decided to sit down and have a breakfast today. We ate quickly because we didn't want to miss anything down in the meadows we've been visiting each morning.
We arrived in the valley and was happy to find there was little fog, much unlike the surrounding mountains. You will see in the following photographs that the fog will move in and out before the morning is over.
Having made photographs and video of the same herd the past couple of days, I decided to spend a little time photographing some of the unique individuals we've been seeing. I found this young guy and his handlebar rack very interesting.
It didn't take long before the fog began to roll into the meadow. These two young bulls ventured off alone and it was nice to photograph the interaction between them.
Even though they are not "players" during the rut, the youngsters go through the motions just like the older bulls. I don't have video but it was comical hearing this young guy try his hand at bugling.
We've been watching this piebald cow and her two calves all weekend.
This guy came from a distant field chasing in one cow which you can witness in the first video after this photo. The dominant bull of this herd made sure that he didn't get any closer.
Since this is our last morning of this visit I, once again, want to share with you the activity of a typical morning of the rut. This six minute video contains clips over a two and a half hour period. You will see the clear air become foggy and finally lift again. Occasionally, a bull tries to enter the field but is promptly chased away by the dominant bull, and you even get to witness some of the downtime when they finally get to lay down or simply eat.
About mid-morning it got pretty quiet in the meadow but we could still hear distant bugling so Elena and I went in search of that bull. About a half a mile away we found the following bull with a small herd.
He paced the field keeping his cows together.
There were still bugles in the distance and he answered every one of them.
I thought she was very pretty surrounded by Goldenrod.
A few hundred yards away in the back of the field this bull had accumulated a small harem for himself.
Between this bull, the one in the front of the field, and the bull we were watching earlier in the morning, there was some three-way bugling across the valley.
This video shows the two bulls working their harems before heading into the woods for the day. At the end of the video you will see the first bull of the morning rubbing and thrashing a small tree before making his way down to see where the other herds were.
Here is the early morning bull crossing into the new field before disappearing into the woods.
With all the herds entering the woods, it marked the end of our morning. Heavy rain was forecast for the afternoon so Elena and I decided to go home and get some rest before our work week began on Tuesday.
Thanks for looking,
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,
September 24th was the first day of a full three days in Elk Country for my wife, Elena, and I. We arrived in St. Mary's on the evening of Friday, September 23rd and made sure we had a good night sleep for an early morning departure for Benezette. We reached our first stop at 5:30 a.m. which was to attend a biannual gathering of our Facebook group "Benezette Elk Camera Club". We grabbed coffee and donuts, talked with a few friends and met some Facebook friends for the first time. 6:30 came fast and the sun was beginning to glow in the eastern sky so everyone said their "see ya laters" and headed in all directions to where they thought they would see elk.
It was still dark so Elena and I used a flashlight while walking through the woods to distant meadows. Once there, we and several other people with the same idea, began to set up. As soon as there was enough light, I began to make photographs. You see, one never knows how long an elk herd will stay in the fields so you have to act quickly. My beginning camera sensitivity, called iso, on my Canon 1DX MK II was set at 3200 which is about 8 to 16 times higher than normal daytime shooting. That was the minimum setting I could use while keeping a decent shutter speed.
The camera brightens the scene a lot but this was my first look at the herd this morning. If you look closely, you can see the dominant bull standing in the woods in the left side of the scene.
This first morning started out really good. We got to watch several bulls jostling for position to intrude on the herd that was obviously following a dominant bull. This bull spent most of the morning "on the sidelines" because he knew he couldn't compete with the leader of this herd.
Bull Elk generally lose weight during the rut because they burn a lot of energy and are too busy to eat. Here's another look at the same bull as he takes time to eat. I guess when you don't have your own harem, you get to enjoy breakfast.
I saw this young guy getting ready to cross the creek so I ran into position to photograph the crossing.
I keep mentioning the dominant bull and you got a glimpse of him in the opening photo but I've kept him a secret long enough. This next photo is the bull that was "ruling the roost" so to speak. Although others tried, no other bull could shake loose a cow for themselves with this big guy watching. PA Elk (Sept, 2016)
This video contains two scenes. The first scene is the smaller bull making a move to enter the herd and the second scene is the dominant bull chasing the intruder into the woods. Unfortunately, they are not close to each other during the chase so you will only see the dominant bull.
After the herd left the meadow, Elena and I hooked up with Tom Dorsey, Jim "Muck" McClelland, and new friends and Baltimore residents, Mark and Carolina Hendricks, to go porcupine hunting. After a couple hours of hunting, we went back to the picnic without any photos.
We ate lunch, BS'd with a lot of the club members, and even won a White-tailed Deer fleece blanket in the Chinese auction. About 2:00 Elena and I went to the hotel for a few zzz's before the elk became active again. Sorry, club members, I didn't take any photos at the picnic. I was too busy talking. Go figure!
Benezette was really crowded on this Saturday and the evening wasn't panning out to be very good for elk viewing. About an hour before dark, Elena and I drove east on Route 555 to the Hick's Run viewing area. We met a friendly couple in the parking lot who gave a tip on a large bull a couple miles back toward Benezette. Thanks to new Facebook friend Sarah Glatfelter, we knew where to stop to get the next two photos.
This bull had a small herd of about six cows and they were all his. We watched the "Rt. 555 Bull" until it got too dark to photograph and we didn't see any challengers.
Here is another view of the "Rt. 555 Bull".
Before going back to the hotel for the evening, we visited the campground of Tom and Jeanne Dorsey. It was a great evening with a great group of friends. While we were there, Muck taught me how to photograph the stars. Below is my first attempt of shooting the Milky Way Galaxy. Not too bad for a beginner.
Cheers to a great group of people!
It was very late when we got back to the Cobblestone Inn in St. Mary's. Wake-up call in five hours.