It's mid-September and the elk rut is usually at its peak. This year, however, the rut action has been a little slow on Winslow Hill, usually the center of rut activity. Unusually warm weather has been the blame for keeping the elk in the woods until after the sun goes down. My wife and I had a two day trip planned for a long time. We had a hotel room booked in the nearby town of St. Mary's and vacation days already scheduled so we were going to make the best of the trip. Incidentally, in the same week last year, the rut activity was very high and we were there to witness the action. Within a few days of returning home, I created the blog "An Evening With Limpy - A Pennsylvania Elk". We didn't know for sure but this year was destined to be different.
The morning of September 17th started out normal; just like we were going to work. Elena and I got up at 6 AM and prepared ourselves to go. We had noon lunch plans with a wildlife photographer friend and his wife, Tom and Jeanne Dorsey, so we could take our time getting to St. Mary's. As we left the house, I mentioned a spot we were going to pass by in State Game Lands 095 that I would like to attempt to photograph some migrating birds. Elena, being the sport she is, sat patiently texting her family while I watched the bushes. During the 1/2 hour we were there, I was lucky to photograph this Philadelphia Vireo.
There were several other common birds flitting around but my other highlight was this Yellow-throated Vireo. Although he can be a yearlong resident, I don't see them very often.
Enough is enough and we needed to get going.
After checking in and having lunch, we traveled the last 18 miles into Benezette, the heart of the Pennsylvania elk herd. We stopped at a few gift shops and the Benezette Wines winery in town and simply killed time until evening was upon us. The hills, normally echoing the sounds of bugling elk, were still quiet as temperatures remained just shy of 80 degrees.
It was 3:00 in the afternoon and we decided to follow an old trail into the woods where I've had luck, in the past, finding elk bedded down during mid-day. While hiking in, we heard two bulls bugling way down in the valley. I knew the location the sound was coming from so we hiked back to the car and drove, following the bugles. We finally reached an area, near a small clearing, that the bugling was loudest. We hiked into the clearing until I could hear the thrashing of antlers against small trees. I set up my tripod and decided I was going to wait until he came out of the woods. I could see the tops of the 10 foot trees waving back and forth as if a hurricane was going through. As he continued to answer a distant bull, he began to wander away from us. The end.
Later that evening, Elena and I did a lot of walking in the area known as "the saddle" hoping to find at least one bull. As darkness fell, we decided to call it a night and head back to our hotel room. As we drove down Winslow Hill, we came upon several headlights and red taillights shining on the road ahead. Sure enough, one lone bull elk was walking through a field. Pausing occasionally, he would bugle, only to be answered by one other far away bull. With the barrel of my 600mm lens resting on my car door, I made a few photographs while he was still. I didn't think any would be in focus but I was lucky to capture this image during a bugle.
The next morning, we woke up early enough to be in Benezette before daybreak. Even the hotel's continental breakfast wasn't ready yet. We stopped at the local GetGo convenience store for a breakfast sandwich and coffee.
The morning continued on and, as far as viewing elk, it was less productive than the night before. As usual, a thick fog blanketed the area and even though it was going to be another very warm day, the morning temperature lingered in the 50's. The fog didn't affect us this morning because we couldn't hear any bugling anyway. As 9:00 neared, and fog lingered, I suggested we travel down Route 555, toward the town of Driftwood, and visit Bucktail Overlook, also known as the "Top of the World". It's only about an eight mile drive through a very scenic area of Pennsylvania. Once we found Mason Hill Road, we turned left and started up the mountain. I'm going to estimate the road from the bottom to the top is about two miles. About half way up the mountain we drove through the raising fog. As we drove a little further, we climbed above the fog and saw the first sunlight of the young day.
See the steep hillside to the left? It was just as steep going down to the right.
Along the way I saw a little bramble of bushes and wild grape vines so I asked Elena if she minded if I stopped and watched for birds for a little while. She didn't mind. "We have all day", she said. Soon, I spotted a little yellow bird jumping around and was able to photograph this Magnolia Warbler in its fall plumage.
We've been to the "Top of the World" several times and we're always amazed with the scenic beauty. The fog, still trapped in the valleys, made it look like we were in an airplane. I created this northward panoramic vista using three images.
Since we were the only people up there, we had to take a selfie to prove we really were there.
Here is another photo of the beautiful vista.
Time to head back down the mountain. On our way down, we came upon a covey of our state bird, the Ruffed Grouse. If you've ever walked up on a Ruffed Grouse in the woods, they can scare the pants off of you with their thunderous wing beats as they lift off. Needless to say, I was excited to find a few before they were startled.
After reaching the bottom and heading towards Benezette, we decided to take a detour on more bumpy roads through the Elk State Forest. It is in deep, dark forests like this where you can find elk during the day. We came upon these elk cows and calves.
PA Elk (Sept, 2015)
This little calf looks comfortable in its leafy bed.
The other elk calf was so sleepy it could barely hold its eyes open.
The Facebook group "Benezette Elk Camera Club" was having their fall picnic the next day so quite a few members were in town. I am a member of the group but was unable to be there the next day. After a filling lunch at the Benezette Hotel, we visited for an hour or so with some of the members including Donna Groves Shaffer, who coincidentally, is from Butler. Afterwards, Elena and I found a remote, shady, spot to pull off the road for a much needed nap.
Before continuing our day in the field, we decided to have a quick hot dog at the Old Bull Cafe. While sitting on the porch waiting for our food, a cow elk came walking between the parked vehicles. Needless to say, this cleared the dining area and suddenly, we weren't alone. I captured this scene with my cell phone as Elena was preparing to do the same.
Cow Elk at Olde Bull CafeBenezette, PA
All of a sudden, the rut was happening around us. I just finished my hot dog and a bull elk and another cow entered the woods behind the cafe. At that point I decided to get my camera. The crowd gathered to watch the bull keep the cow where he wanted her. A Wildlife Conservation Officer showed up to make sure everyone gave these animals their space. I can't repeat it enough but these animals are wild animals. They aren't afraid of people because they see people all the time. However, they are not tame and a person could easily be killed.
At times, she showed some admiration but continued to resist him.
We decided to leave and as we were driving away, the State Police arrived to break up the traffic jam. Our next planned stop was to hike the trail to the new overlook built by the Pennsylvania Game Commission on their newly acquired land known as the Woodring Farm. On a break along the trail, I snapped this photo of the trunk of a pine tree. It just looked interesting to me. I added what I think is an appropriate quote.
We were here last year, before the construction. The views are still beautiful and there is always a chance of seeing elk in the fields behind the overlook and in the valley below. I also took a picture with my cell phone and immediately posted on Facebook saying "People go on vacation for views like this. So fortunate to have close to home".
Our next stop was at the bottom of Dewey Road and access to "the saddle". Just as I was setting up my equipment, another friend, Jim "Muck" McClelland arrived and asked if were were going to Tom Dorsey's campsite on Winslow Hill. That sounded like a great idea so we followed him to the campsite. There wasn't any elk activity in the hills so the four of us sat around a campfire, had a cold beverage, and shared photography stories. Soon Donna (mentioned earlier), her friend Kathy, and another camera club member, Donna Mohney, arrived. As the sun set, I couldn't resist the photo opportunity.
Although darkness prevented anymore photography, the elk didn't disappoint us. Bugling could be heard echoing over the miles of darkness, giving us hope that the next day would be better. I don't know how it could be!
Thanks for letting us share our experience with you,