Bull Elk Obsession

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While in Yellowstone I really wanted to capture an image of a bull Elk in the act of bugling.  late September and October is breeding season for Elk, a/k/a “the rut.”  During breeding season the males — more or less placid the rest of the year — become obsessed with acquiring harems of females (cows) and mating.  The males, decked out in antlers, “bugle” during the early morning and evening hours, calling for females.  A bull Elk’s bugle sounds like a trumpet or bugle playing high notes, very loudly.  The call is a long, wavering cry, during which the animal will often run up and down the scale.  The sound that these animals produce can be heard from a long way off, and it has a decidedly eerie quality.

Elk are magnificent animals.  In Wyoming the bulls can weigh up to about 700 pounds and stand about five feet at the shoulder, making them the size of some of the lighter breeds of horse.  During the rut, the bulls look even bigger because their heads are capped with magnificent antlers.  One must use extreme caution around these animals during the rut, because their racing hormones make them very aggressive.  They may fight each other for dominance but they may attack non-Elk as well.  There’s a video clip on  You Tube that depicts a bull Elk in Yellowstone attacking a pickup truck.

Each morning while we were in Yellowstone  we went out to search for Elk.  It was frustrating.  We’d hear them and we’d catch brief glimpses of bulls but I had no luck finding one to photograph.  That changed on our final morning in the park.  Driving on a road near our hotel we saw a small throng of people standing by the roadside.  We parked, walked over to them, and saw a pair of bull Elk standing in a field about 25 yards away from us.

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Back in the trees and nearly invisible stood a third bull, larger than the two that were out in the open, watching the other two warily.  The shade was too deep for me to photograph the third male, so I concentrated on the two who were more or less out in the open.

I surmised that these two were bachelors, interested in mating, but foreclosed from that opportunity by the presence of a more dominant male.  The two of them loitered out in the open for quite a while and didn’t leave until the third bull and his harem disappeared.  The two in the field were probably hoping that they could kidnap a cow or two from the third bull, but he was having none of it.

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I enjoyed photographing these Elk, but I grew disappointed that neither of them bugled and I assumed that the shot that I really desired just wasn’t going to happen.  And, just when I was about to give up, the larger of the two young Elk threw back his head and bugled.

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Mission accomplished!

Images made with a Canon 5Diii, 100-400mm f4-5.6 ISII+1.4x extender, M setting.  The first two images shot at ISO 2000, f8 @ 1/640.  The third image shot at ISO 1000, f7.1 @ 1/640.

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