I finally got my act together yesterday and headed into the mountains for a little leaf peeping and a fried trout lunch in Estes Park. Then I opted for wildlife over shopping and drove up into Rocky Mountain National Park for some daytime elk viewing.
Usually the elk only come down into the meadows in numbers at dawn and dusk, but with luck you’ll see a few during the day. Clusters of parked cars and gawking tourists tell you instantly where the best viewing is.
There weren’t a lot of elk — just one herd of about ten cows and a bull moving across the valley. I learned from the conversation around me that I’d just missed a confrontation between that bull and a younger one. So I settled in to watch one magnificent bull take his harem to the far end of the valley. I only snapped a few pictures with my pocket cam* on maximum zoom, having learned years ago it’s better to just watch and fully absorb the moment. (Click the pics for larger images. Click a second time to enlarge further.)
As it turned out, the show wasn’t over. The young challenger was following several hundred yards behind, like a kid. “No way, man. I’m not following you. I’m just grazing here, ya know?” So casual he even lay down at one point. Fooling no one.
Then a third bull appeared on the far side of the valley and started moving toward the cows. His intent was obvious and the old bull turned his attention to the newcomer. While they eyed each other, you know who seized the opportunity and moved quickly toward the cows. All the while, the bulls were bugling** at each other and anyone else in the valley who cared to listen. The eerie sound, not at all the bellow you’d expect, carries for miles in the thin mountain air.
The maneuvering went on for twenty minutes or so. Two bulls would be intent on each other and the third would try to move in and run off with the cows. Eventually the youngster gave up and moved off, leaving the two seniors to duke it out. And to my surprise, they actually did. Heads down, they went at each other. Even at that distance, I could hear the clacking of antlers and see the dust thrown into the air. It was over in a moment and the challenger yielded the field.
Wow. I’ve spent many late September hours watching elk in that valley, usually shivering in semidarkness, but this was the first time I’ve seen all the bluffing, bugling, and feinting come down to an actual locking of horns. Magnificent. What a privilege to have seen it.
*Canon PowerShot SD890 IS, auto exposure setting
**Elk bugling, the sound of fall in the Rockies: