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 Post subject: Elk rut in Pennsylvania (mid-Sept, 2013)
PostPosted: March 10th, 2014, 7:48 pm 

Joined: October 28th, 2010, 3:26 pm
Posts: 372
A one-tank trip I had been wanting to do for a couple years now finally came to realization last September, when my father and I traveled to Elk County, Pennsylvania, for the annual elk rut. The vast majority of my trips are for either birds or herps; a trip exclusively for mammal-watching was completely new to me. Of course, I flipped through my guide to reptiles and amphibians of Pennsylvania, carefully studying the county record maps to see if any neat salamanders or snakes might be present in the area. Nonetheless, it was the elk I was most desiring to see (and good thing...not a herp to be found!).

We left the night before and got a room at a motel in Benezette. It was actually an old house turned into a bar/motel. Not a five-star suite by any means, but rooms in Elk Country are quite limited. We had to walk down the hall to get to a bathroom (new for me at a motel). During a visit to release my bladder around 4:30am, I could hear the bugling of my first elk from outside the window. I don't know if I'll ever forget that sound...easily among the most beautiful animal sounds I've heard. Needless to say I couldn't get much shut-eye thereafter, the anticipation of the elk rut running through my veins.

We got an early start that morning. The weather was surprisingly chilly (low 40's to start the day) which was a nice respite from the recent HOT weather we had been having. It didn't take long to find our first elk, a female right alongside the road before even hitting the famed elk-viewing areas. I hopped out of the car to get a few shots (my first elk ever!), and then noticed this fellow approaching from behind:

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I quickly jumped back in the car, remembering those videos of nature-watchers getting chased down by elk from Yellowstone. I wasn't in a fighting mood that day 8-) . This shot was taken with a 70-200 lens so this bull was quite close. The rest of the images were taken with a 24-105 (scenery) or 500mm (elk). Normally I use a 1.4x teleconverter for wildlife, but these guys are so big that it wasn't necessary for the most part. As well, they are very used to humans, so it was easy to get close. Note that the individual above sported a radio collar (most did not) and seemed to have injured its ear, perhaps in a fight with another bull.

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And here we see how used to humans these guys really are. Just relaxing in somebody's front lawn...the bull eating out of someone's wheelbarrow (are they being fed?). It was a pretty comical sight. While photographing these elk, my dad excitedly called me over to see a creature that was foraging in a nearby field. It turns out I just missed it, but my dad pretty much described a gray fox. Crap! Would've been two mammal lifers in a day.

Our next stop was up to Winslow Hill. I was anxious to photograph some elk in a more natural setting, without radio collars, wheelbarrows, and driveways. But conditions became very foggy in the crisp morning air, so we just wandered about a bit and waited for the visitor center to open. Here is my dad posing next to an elk bronze (trying to pretend he's grabbing its genitalia...us Mizanin boys aren't very mature):

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The grounds here were gorgeous. Beautiful trails (but ugh, so short!), an awesome visitor center, lovely landscaping...property fit for a king. We did see a couple more elk, including a HUGE bull, but miraculously we lost the creature in just a patch of open woodland. So odd as I am used to tracking down tiny warblers weighing a few ounces in the treetops, but can't keep up with a slow-moving 700lb beast. Here's another shot from this locale (informational displays were erected throughout Elk Country...I'll show you just one):

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We then hit another locale, a pull-off alongside the Elk Country "driving tour loop" with beautiful views. My photos do the beauty no justice:

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White-tailed deer and wild turkey could be seen in the distance, as well as a few elk. Bugling announced the presence of a few bulls we never did see. If only us Ohioans were fortunate enough to have the luxury of hearing these bulls here! Later in the day we revisited this same spot; here's a shot of a male with a nice little harem all to himself:

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We did a bit of hiking at a few locations, and as the day progressed the weather became very comfortable (reaching about 70F). The middle of the day wasn't very productive for the elk, and I began to get worried I'd never get the shots I wanted. Elk being few and far between, we settled for some decent birdwatching among great scenery. Small flocks of warblers and tanagers moved through the trees, adorned in their fall attire, and a few ravens croaked loudly as they passed by. A walk through the woods startled a ruffed grouse or two, which exploded into flight when I thought it would have been better to have remained still (we would've never noticed them).

We drove around the tour loop for the next few hours, stopping here and there for a quick hike without seeing anything too interesting. Frustrated, we headed back to Benezette and grabbed a nice meal at a small diner. I almost chose the elk burger...but in the end split a homemade pizza with my dad. It just didn't seem “right” to eat what I traveled three-plus hours to see. We came up with a late-afternoon/evening plan, and hopped to.

We wound up back at an aforementioned spot (where I photographed the distant herd of elk, shown above). We did a bit of hiking, following the bugling songs of the bulls across rolling hills. At one point, both of us had to take a piss so we found our own private spots on either side of a small mound at the edge of a heavily forested ravine. About the time we were both finishing our business, this bruiser seemed to pop out of nowhere right in front of us:

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It was a huge bull indeed. This was our first close encounter well away from our car. I started to retreat, not knowing how aggressive these guys get during the rut, when another male popped out of the woods behind us. Next, a female appeared and panicked upon seeing us and fled off down a nearby trail. All the commotion made me a bit nervous, but the bulls largely ignored us and one another. We finished our hike and started driving back towards town. Lines of cars lined the open hillsides and many people were standing about, binoculars raised, watching dozens of mostly distant elk graze in the fields. It was nice to see so many nature enthusiasts out. We stayed awhile, then decided to take one more crack at the fields around the nature center to see if anything was stirring. I'm glad we did!

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Here's the same statue as above...sans the fog and elk molester. It was the fields in the background that were NOW loaded with elk. I'd say a good fifty or so visitors, along with a couple naturalists and at least one law enforcement official, were present to watch the elk. The elk here were much closer than at the previous locale, and numbers and activity were much higher. The trail wanders just a hundred yards or so through a very open woodland overlooking the adjacent field. The elk stayed in the field, but at times hugging the very edge, sometimes wandering in within 50 feet of us, usually within 200 feet, and sometimes wandering out a long way. Here are a few shots:

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Wasn't expecting to see one still wearing spots!

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This young guy has some growing to do...

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Most elk were females, like this one above.

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The real crowd pleasers were the bulls, however!

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The males spent much of their time herding the females together, bugling, and occasionally chasing off intruding males.

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And then it happened...FIGHT! I'll admit, it wasn't the nastiest, goriest, bloodiest match, but it was still interesting to see. Unfortunately, the bulls at this time were probably a couple hundred yards out, and there would have been no reason at all to photograph them if it weren't for the clashing of antlers. Speaking of which, the CLASH was LOUD, and at the distance took a second or so to reach us onlookers. Here is a heavy crop that didn't come out too bad:

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The fight was mostly fought behind a couple large coniferous trees in the field. I'm not even sure who won, but I believe in the end both elk just rejoined their respective harems. Not sure what the fight really accomplished!

I'm not really the one to like crowds, but a good time was had nonetheless. A few comical comments were made by some of the onlookers. One middle-aged woman kept remarking, "Why does that one bull keep chasing that other bull away? He has thirty girlfriends. Why can't he let the smaller bull have one or two?" Hehe!

Anyhoo, I'll wrap it up here as the action faded into the darkness, but I wanted to share my experience. I might edit the post and add a video of the bugling elk if anyone is interested. MILLIONS of people live within a few hours of Elk Country, and part of the reason for this post was to encourage anyone living nearby to consider a late summer-early fall visit to view these impressive beasts. It would be a great way to spend a day with family (indeed, many families were in attendance). There was even a young bear that was trapped locally, exhibited at the visitor center for all to see, and then released. We missed that (darn!) but there's always next time. After all, I'm sure I will be back!


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 Post subject: Re: Elk rut in Pennsylvania (mid-Sept, 2013)
PostPosted: March 11th, 2014, 1:56 am 
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Joined: June 8th, 2010, 3:02 am
Posts: 878
Great post! That looks like it was a really cool experience. Seeing elk in the wild is high on my list. I would be interested in seeing your video of the elk bugling- what an otherwordly sound! You sure don't expect an animal like that to make a sound like they do.

Thanks for taking us along. I'll look forward to reading this post again and again.
--Berkeley


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 Post subject: Re: Elk rut in Pennsylvania (mid-Sept, 2013)
PostPosted: March 11th, 2014, 5:11 am 
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Joined: June 7th, 2010, 8:23 am
Posts: 2173
Location: Unicoi, TN
Very good post.

(Our western folks viewing are probably going "ho-hum", but here in the east, they are very special!)



PS
If you’re a city dweller, and you want to see elk in rut, sit outside your local B.P.O.E. building in the evening. You’ll see them bugling, bellowing, drooling over females, sparring, and, occasionally battling. :roll: :lol: ;)


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 Post subject: Re: Elk rut in Pennsylvania (mid-Sept, 2013)
PostPosted: March 11th, 2014, 7:03 am 
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Joined: June 7th, 2010, 9:37 am
Posts: 897
Location: NE Ohio
Awesome experience Jared! After my failed attempt to find any herps in the spring during our after wedding weekend in the Alleghenies, I decided to make another trip out there in late summer. Found Wehrle's Salamander (lifer) and then randomly found myself in Elk County. I decided that the trip won't be complete until I see an elk. Got a female and calf eventually and then called it a day out there (DOR Timber en route back towards Allegheny Forest). Later last fall I heard them bugling in Colorado. Cool, cool animals.

Back home, in Lake County, there is an introduced population of Sitka Deer (been here for decades, but I have yet to see one) and they are closely related to elk, same genus, and my coworkers hear them buggling on occasion.


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 Post subject: Re: Elk rut in Pennsylvania (mid-Sept, 2013)
PostPosted: March 12th, 2014, 2:18 pm 

Joined: October 28th, 2010, 3:26 pm
Posts: 372
Berkeley--Glad you enjoyed it! I will try and see if I can upload a youtube vid soon. It was my first day with a Canon 5D2 so shooting video was not something I was familiar with.

Bill- Good idea! I will travel downtown to witness the same behaviors in our own species and I'll document my findings here!

Andy- Wehrle's and Timbers were my most hoped for herps, but really I didn't look much for either of them. Glad you got the salamander...and the girl! As well, you'd have imagined I would've heard about those Sika deer, but I have not. That is pretty cool. Too bad they're so elusive.


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