I had the good fortune of spending three weeks in Yellowstone National Park in the fall of 2016, 2017, and 2018 just in time for the elk breeding season, more commonly known as the “rutting season” or simply “the rut”. What an incredible time!
For those who don’t know about this “time of year,” make time to visit Yellowstone in the fall. The park is beginning to “wind down” from all the visitors who have been frequenting the park over the summer. The daily pace is slower, the nights are colder, and the animals are coming back down out of the high country in preparation for winter. It is a time of tranquility interspersed with the screaming bugle of a “rutting bull elk”.
The fall season in Yellowstone is magical, a more gentle, peaceful time, a time where the hectic pace of park visitors is pretty much gone. It’s a time when you can travel down the road at a more leisurely pace, stop and move off the road, and not have to worry about holding up traffic. With fewer visitors it becomes a time where you don’t worry about someone stepping in front of that “perfect chance” for a great image. It is a time when you can hike through the park and not run into others, a time when taking images of Yellowstone’s animals is a wildlife photographers dream.
The rut is an annual event in Yellowstone. It is the time when cow elk come into estrus, and the bulls are beginning the struggle to form and/or protect their harems. And trust me, the “fight will be on.” Throughout the mating season, bull elk “bugle,” which is a challenge to other bulls to protect their breeding rights and a swan song and “wooing” to the cows. The image shown (below left) is of a mature bull issuing such a challenge. The “bugle” is a combination of a screaming and guttural sounds that some people may describe as irritating, or even as a somewhat unpleasant sound. For me, the elk bugle is truly a melody of the mountains. The sound of a bull’s bugle is a musical sound, somewhat mournful, yet bold and challenging. And when one bull bugles and another immediately responds, the immediate surroundings become electric with anticipation of what is about to happen. One who hears the breeding challenges of a bull elk, who witnesses the posturing and strutting, and then the potential for a subsequent fight, will never forget that event. We have yet to be fortunate to witness any actual fighting, but late one evening as the light faded into darkness, and while sitting on the tailgate of the truck having a late snack, we enjoyed a symphony of six different bulls all sending challenges to each other; definitely music to our ears. The bull pictured on the upper right, was standing by a swampy area with four of five cows that he had already gathered as part of his future harem. You will note the “battle scars” on his face.”
If you go to the Elk Gallery on my web site you will see other more pronounced images of this “tough guy”. He was approximately two hundred yards away and a little bit below my position. He appeared to be a little irritated at the fact that I was watching him. It was later in the afternoon and the light was beginning to slide away. I shot this image using my Canon 5D Mark II, with a Sigma 150 X 600 telephoto lens set at 600 mm with the camera set at f8, ISO 400, and 1/200 of a sec. I had more than sufficient time to set up a tripod to ensure I had a very stable platform especially when using the 600 mm to bring him in close. I managed to “stay with him” for about forty minutes, and he was the “perfect model”, giving me incredible profile and head shots. He finally decided that I was not a threat, or going to bother him or his “ladies” so he moved up the hillside and laid down. During my time with him there were four very distinct and “musical” bugles echoing through the valley floor, and he responded in kind to every one of them. In the lower right image I managed to catch him during one of those responsive bugles.
Yellowstone National Park in the fall is a nature photographers paradise. The fall colors are in “full bloom” and the sun, having moved further south towards the equator, is now casting light on features that one will not find during the summer. Features that in mid-summer often look a little flat or “bland” are exploding with better definition, great shadows and beautiful colors. For the wildlife photographer, the animals are in their prime, having spent the summer preparing for the harsh winter that will come. A quietness falls over the park, a more sense of peace. It is a time when nature will cause you to pause and gaze in wonderment at her beauty. It is a very special time for me.
I encourage anyone who has an interest in nature or wildlife photography to plan a fall photo adventure in Yellowstone National Park. You will never regret it. And now for me, it is time to layout the plans for a future winter Yellowstone adventure.