"The Bugling Elk of RMNP"
The 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 went up with the intention of photographing a Bull Elk during a bugle and while I did manage to capture a large 6x6 during his bugle, it wasn’t the image that I had in mind.
I arrived in the park well before sunrise, earlier than I had expected, and already I could hear elk. I even drove past several that were right alongside the road. I parked at the Cub Trail trailhead and spent a few minutes waiting for the light 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 out cropping 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 kit in a somewhat hidden are.
As the day began to break, it was obvious that the 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 side of me, but it was still dark enough that I couldn’t find them. I cranked the ISO all the way up to high and zoomed to 400mm and started making images. 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 was able to 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 800mm with a 1.5x or 2x multiplier. You have 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 wasn’t seeing what I thought that I had come to see, a park full of animals. I watch the big b ull across the park slowly push his harem up into the trees. I was a bit disappointed.
I decided that I would go ahead and 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 weaved through the edge of the forest. The forest was only about 50 yards wide before the ground turn up a steep hill that runs the entire south side of the park.
While walking I noticed a small marshy pond and thought that that may be another good place to set up. It was about now that the scent of rutting elk became very strong. I stopped walking and looking into the trees, I saw the cow elk standing there looking at me. Immediately to their 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 6x6 antlers. He appeared to be pushing the cows along the bottom of the hill.
I quickly set up the tripod and started shooting through the trees at about 50 yards. I’m sure that all the animals had seen me, while the bull seemed indifferent, while the cows kept a closer watch on me.
Photographing a moving animal in the Colorado dark timber has its challenges. It requires a higher ISO or a longer shutter speed. Shooting at 800 ISO I was getting 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 decide 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 down to just browsing and grazing. Now I had a clear look at them. There were six cows and two calves.
Now the bull was slowly moving toward me. I set up the camera and expected him to come right up to me. At about 20 yards the elk found a spot that he like and laid down and started chewing his cud. Since we were was so close, I was sure that he had smelled or seen me. After making several images I decided to press in a little closer. I still had the 100-400mm lens on the camera and after a few steps I was to the point that the animal was filling up the entire frame, even at 100mm, forcing me to back off a few step. I wanted to change to a 24-70mm but I was afraid that too much noise and motion from me would frighten the animal off.
The bull stayed down for maybe 20 minutes allowing be to photograph him from several angles. Finally the elk rose and I figured that this shoot was about over, but it was just really 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 marking rutting and look their way. Finally, he couldn’t stand it any longer and bellowed a very loud herald (bugle) of his own! After that he went over to small tree and commence to rip it apart polishing up its antlers for the fight that I am sure was to come.
Now I felt that was time for me to back out. I had spent nearly an hour with the bull and while it seemed to just ignore me, I felt I had taken my share.
Once back onto the trail it was a quick and easy walk back to the trail head. What a fantastic morning of photography this was!