It's that time of year again. I'd like to show you some of the photos I made during the elk rut season this year. This year was a very different year in good and bad ways.
Starting with the bad, the COVID-19 pandemic affected my visits to Elk County, Pennsylvania to photograph these great creatures during their mating season. I didn't want to stay in a hotel and ate at very few restaurants. I practiced social distancing with the people I spent time with and kept my distance from strangers. It was more tiring than past years because of the extra travel but it was still a great season.
Now for the good. The weather this year was as good as it gets for September. Unlike the past couple years, the temperatures were closer to normal for a Pennsylvania September. It was downright cold and frosty on some mornings. The cool weather makes it better for photography because the elk tend to stay in the open longer in the morning and come out of the woods a little earlier in the afternoon. Both providing better photo opportunities.
Let's get started with the photos...
The bull in this photo is an iconic bull people refer to as "Tippy". Tippy got his nickname because of the way he carries his rack. He always tilts it to the side as if one side was heavier than the other. Until this year, Tippy has always been one of the dominant bulls that visitors enjoyed watching in the fields behind the Elk Country Visitor Center. This year, he spent most of his time in the valley in fields along the Bennett Branch of Sinnemahoning Creek. The iconic Tippy is getting old and has injuries but he is still a player when defending a harem (herd of females and calves).
Myself, and other photographers, were puzzled as to why Tippy was spending time in the valley. As the days toward October continued, we discovered many more elk were in the valley and very few, if any, were visiting food plots in higher locations. Our conclusion to this mystery was availability of food. After a very hot, dry summer in which the food plots and other vegetation didn't grow as well in higher locations, the valley was green and lush.
Okay, let's continue with the photos. A common practice during the rut is for the bulls to scrape the ground and urinate on themselves. This is an attractant to the females (elk cows).
When a larger, stronger, more dominant bull elk is in control of his haram, there isn't much the young males can do except watch and learn. Someday, they will have large racks and gather female elk into their own harem.
People who watch White-tailed Deer in the fall will notice this familiar pose where they stretch their neck, curl their upper lip, and stand still only slightly moving their necks from side to side for 10, 20 seconds or longer. People will say, "It's lip curling!" Elk exhibit the same behavior. Why do they do that?
It's referred to as the Flehman Response, derived from the German verb "to curl". The animal has an extremely sensitive vomeronasal organ in the roof of their mouth and when air is sucked across it, they can detect individual scents like pheromones in a cow's urine to determine if they are ready to be breed. Of course, if no female is around they are probably smelling you.
This bull is checking for the cow's receptiveness to be bred. Her behavior indicates that she is not ready. Perhaps she may be too young and not had her first estrus cycle yet. He seems to understand her communication and is not aggressively pursuing her.
Several elk cow are in estrus and the bull elk can sense that. When more than one bull is in the area, a fight for dominance can break out. Most of the time one of the bulls will realize they are not the stronger bull and break away from the fight but sometimes these fights end in death by goring.
Notice the mud that covers much of the body of these two bulls. Bulls will find a hole filled with water and mud. They also urinate in it, crawl in, and roll around like a dog on a dead groundhog. He makes sure to get the smell under his chin and on his mane. All this to attract the ladies.
This big fella is a 10X11 (number of points on each side of his rack). People refer to him as "The King" because of his ability to gather a herd and even steal cow elk from harems organized by other bulls, without confrontation.
Bull Elk are very busy watching over their harem. They lose weight and sleep trying to keep their harem together and ward off other bulls.
This bull was busy raking his antlers through the weeds. Rubbing their head in trees and other vegetation is a way to assert their dominance. Sometimes, they emerge from the rub with a decoration on their antlers.
Notice the color of his antlers. When the velvet is rubbed off in late August and early September the bone is white, the color of the tips in this photo. They achieve the dark coloration by rubbing their rack in small trees, weeds, and evergreens. The sap, acting as a dye, darkens it. The tips don't hit the dye as much as the main beam and tines leaving them near their original color.
Here is a nice example of courting behavior. Once the cow comes into heat, bulls will approach them in hopes to mate. With antlers held high and tongue flicking, he is doing everything he can to win her over. This cow apparently isn't ready to mate. She is moving away holding her head low and weaving her neck side to side as if to say "stop".
This is a typical posturing by the bull when he approaches cow elk he wants to mate.
I'll end this story with a short video containing clips of some bull elk herding their harem and a few bulls, not ready for prime time, sparring as if they are casually testing their strength against peers.
I hope you enjoyed these photos from the 2020 elk rut in Pennsylvania. At the time of this writing the rut is over and bulls have begun to gather in bachelor groups again. Visitors to Benezette may find several large herds of cow elk, young bulls, and calves feeding in the fields. Bull Elk, on the other hand, tend to stay close to food, water, and a place of security. They most likely will not be found in open fields.
Thanks for looking,