It’s fall in Rocky Mountain National Park and love is in the air. Rutting season is here and bull elk are looking for a mate — or several dozen of them.
From September through mid-October, bull elk fill the air with their high-pitched squeal, known as bugling. A bull bugles to let the ladies know he is fit and ready to mate, and to tell competing males that he is a force to be reckoned with. Cows know how to size up a bull just by the sound of the bugle.
It’s fun to see the bulls herd their harem and fight off competitors. Watch the fringes and you may see other males wait for a bull to be distracted and then sneak in and make off with a few cows. It’s nature’s dating game right here in our own backyard.
If you’ve seen the aspen leaves and are ready for some action, here are some tips for photographing the elk rut in Rocky Mountain National Park:
What, when, where:
- Get out early in the morning before the crowds arrive. Elk are active at dawn and are often closer to the roads after a night of little to no vehicle traffic.
- Look for elk in Moraine Park, Horseshoe Park and other areas where forest meets meadow.
- Listen for the bugle and work your way to the sound.
- Get away from roadsides and sit quietly to observe and listen for wildlife. Be patient.
- Keep a safe distance. If you cause an elk to move away from you, you’re too close.
- If you’re shooting from your car, pull off the road to photograph the animals. Don’t block the road. Turn off your engine to reduce noise.
- Be ready, even in your car. Keep your camera out of your bag and on your person. Keep it set for the current lighting condition.
- Don’t use elk calls or lures— they’re illegal in all national parks.
- Don’t forget to have your camera at the ready in Estes Park. Elk are everywhere around town as well as in the park.
- Be ready to freeze action. Set your camera on “shutter priority” selection (mode S on Nikon, and TV on Canon) and use a fast shutter speed, i.e. 1/500th or faster to freeze action.
- Use the “Continuous high” release mode if your camera has this selection. This will give you a higher burst rate (more frames per shot) and a better chance of getting that “peak action” photo.
- Keep the light at your back to avoid poor exposures, unless you really want that silhouette shot.
- Look for pictures within the herd. Focus on the bull or on active animals. Don’t just shoot group shots.
- Photograph action. An elk sleeping or grazing with head down isn’t very interesting.
- Keep your eye on the animals and away from your LCD. You can look at your shots later. Be ready for the next great moment.
- Good wildlife shots require long glass. A 300mm lens or more is preferable. If you don’t have a long telephoto, consider renting one for the weekend. Camren Photo in Denver rents Canon and Nikon lenses and bodies. Pick up on Friday and return Monday for a one-day rental rate.
- Use a tripod, rather than a monopod. You can leave the tripod set up and be ready for the next shot without having to swing that monopod around.
- Use a cable release for more stability.
- Spare batteries.
- Extra memory cards. You can burn up a lot of card space making action photos of elk.
- Rain cover for camera and lens
- Hat and rain gear for you.
- Boots or sturdy shoes.
To see more of Roberts’ photos, visit his Web site.