"The Bugling Elk of Rocky Mountain National Park"
by Tommy Dykes
Rocky Mountain National Park is just close enough to my home that I can make it in a long day trip, at the same time, it’s just far enough away that I want to stay the night.
My first trip searching for the bugling elk came on September 11th, 2017. I drove north from my home in Colorado Springs with the intention of photographing a bull elk during a bugle and while I did manage to capture a large 6x6 during his bugle, the entire brought more than I expected.
I arrived at Moraine Park, an area in RMNP that tends to fill with elk during the autumn, earlier than I had expected, and I could already the hear elk. I even drove past several that were right alongside the road, their ghostly trumpets coming through the moonless morning. Hearing an elk bugle has both a fascinating and spooky experience that I don’t believe is duplicated anywhere else in nature.
I parked at the Cub Trail trailhead and spent a few minutes waiting for the sun to come up. It was an early fall morning and I was quite comfortable with a light jacket. This is a wonderful time of the year in Colorado as the nights are cool and the days warm.
When I felt that the time was right, I started the short hike up the Cub Trail. My goal was the rock outcropping that I had read about some 300 yards from the trailhead. The rocks were easily found on the left and were quite safe to climb out on, so I set up my tripod, camera and 400mm lens, in a somewhat hidden area.
As the day began to break, it was obvious that Moraine Park was much larger than it appeared when viewed from the road, and from my position high on the rocks, I had a commanding view of the southwest corner. Elk were bugling on both sides of me but it was still dark enough that I couldn’t find them. I cranked the camera’s ISO, which is its sensitive to light, all the way up to high and zoomed to 400mm and started making images toward where I was hearing the bugles. The downfall to high ISO photograph is the input of digital noise and while these images were very noisy and unusable, they did allow me to find a bull and his 8 cows straight across the park, right along the trees.
Now the light was much better and I could start working with a usable ISO. However, it only took a few images to see that unless you are in the middle of the park somewhere, 400mm is not a long enough lens. I was able to make decent wide images, but the elk were just too small to make the composition that I was looking for. For this place, I would recommend an 800mm focal length with a 1.5x or 2x multiplier. The multiplier is a short piece installed between your camera’s body and the lens. While the multiplier does increase the focal length, it requires an increase in light. You must use your lens to reach out and touch the animals that are in the open park.
It had become morning light while I was up on the rocks. So far I was not seeing what I thought that I had come to see, a park full of animals. I watched the big bull across the park slowly push his harem up into the trees. I was disappointed to see them go.
I decided that I would walk down the Cub Trail a little farther to see what things looked like. I was happy to discover that the trail hugged the edge of the park, crossed a small steam then turned east toward where I had just seen the elk. The trail was in very good condition and made carrying a tripod, camera and a bag full of gear easy, while keeping the noise to a minimum. The trail paralleled the park staying just inside the trees. The forest was only about 50 yards wide before the ground turned up a steep hill that ran the entire south side of Moraine Park.
While walking I noticed a small, marshy pond and recognized that this body of water might be another good place to spy wildlife. Here, I was immediately confronted with the scent of elk in rut. I stopped walking and looking into the trees, I saw the cow elk standing there looking back at me. Immediately to her left I saw a movement. It was the bull elk that I had observed from the rocks.
He was a very fine animal too. Thick through the body with a large set of antlers, there was no doubt from his posture that he was in command of his surroundings. He appeared to be pushing the cows along the bottom of the hill.
I set up my tripod and started shooting through the trees at about 50 yards. I’m sure that all the animals had saw me, while the bull seemed indifferent, the cows kept a closer watch on me.
Shooting moving animals in the Colorado dark timber has its challenges. It requires a higher ISO or a longer shutter speed. Shooting at 800 ISO I got the results that I wanted, except I never saw the bull in plain sight. He always seemed to be behind a tree or in the bush.
After making several exposures I decided to try my luck and press in a little closer. The cow elk took note of this and started up on to the hill and I expected the bull to do the same. When the cows were 20 yards or so up the steep hill, they must have become comfortable with me and they settled into their mid-morning grazing. Now I had a clear look at them. There were six cows and two calves.
Suddenly, the bull was cautiously moving toward me. I set up my camera and expected him to come right up to me. About 20 yards from my position, the elk found his spot and lay down and began chewing his cud. Since I was so close I was sure that he was aware of me either through sight or scent. After making several images I decided to press in a little closer. I still had my 100-400mm lens on the camera and after a few steps I was to the point that the animal filled up my entire frame, even at 100mm, forcing me to back off a few steps. I was afraid that too much noise and motion from me would frighten the animal off, but I chanced it and changed to a 24-70mm lens so that I had a wider field of view, allowing me to capture more of the scene.
The bull stayed down for maybe 20 minutes allowing me to photograph him from several angles. Finally, the elk rose and I figured that this shoot was about over, but to my surprise it was just beginning! The bull moved into a small clearing and started hoofing up the ground and raking it with his antlers all the while peeing on himself and the ground. Behind us, at some distance, I could hear the other elk bugling and it always seemed to catch my elk’s attention, each time he would pause from his rutting and look their way. Finally, he couldn’t stand it any longer and bellowed a very loud bugle of his own! After that he went over to a small tree and commenced to rip it apart polishing up his antlers for the fight that I am sure is to come.
Now I felt that it was time for me to back out. I had spent nearly an hour with the bull and while he seemed to ignore me, he did graciously give me his time.
Once back onto the trail it was a quick and easy walk back to the trailhead. What a fantastic morning of photography this was!