The sound of a bull elk bugling during mating season is one of the most plaintive and captivating things that you can hear in the mountains. It begins with a few growly bars, increases a few registers to a high pitch scream and then ends with a series of grunts. Sounding a little something like (bear with me): aaaaaaaaaa-eeeeEEEEEE-oheeuhoHEEEUH! Got that?
The elk rut is a wild time of year—both for the elk and for us human onlookers. From a safe vantage point, say the edge of Moraine Park or another mountain meadow, you can watch the bulls (males) attracting, herding, and fighting for their harems. He uses that high-pitch bugle to attract cows (females) and his rack and boldness to fight for their honor. The bigger and more mature bulls have the best chances of mating. The drama doesn’t only unfold in the mountains: It is not uncommon to see a harem of 30 cows with one or two bull elk sprawled across the lawns of the golf courses in town.
The annual timing of the rut varies, but you know it’s close when the bull elk begin shedding the velvet on their antlers. The bulls follow their prime directive so closely that they often don’t have enough time to eat and lose a significant amount of weight before the end of the season. The sounds of the bugling begin at dawn and can go on into the wee hours of the night with the peak of the season being marked by the increased frequency of their calls. After a long day, bulls can be so exhausted that you sometimes see them lying down and lazily bugling in the light of the moon.
The rut typically begins in mid-September and lasts for a month or so. During this time Estes Park hosts its famous Elk Fest, which is now virtual. While it's still in the planning stage, we expect there to be educational wildlife videos, live question & answer sessions with wildlife experts and more. Okay and maybe it's not entirely virtual... Estes hopes to have an in-person scavenger hunt, a photo contest for kids and adults and live-streamed musical entertainment. Just like most of 2020, this is all subject to change so continue to check the Elk Fest events page for updates.
And don’t forget to maintain proper wildlife safety when observing the majestic creatures. The most important is to give them their space. Keep at least 75 feet between you and the elk, about the length of two school buses. If the elk notice you, you’re too close! And if you're looking for some tips to improve your elk photography, here are 11 from a local pro.