Bucket List: Elk Bugling

Bull elk with members of his harem.

Bull elk with members of his harem.

In less than a month, Elk Bugling Season is back.

From mid-September through mid-October (and, if we’re lucky, even a bit later), elk rutting season commences. And with rutting season comes the renowned elk bugling. September is the greatest time of year for experiencing the distinct mating call emitted by male elks, especially in the crisp fall mornings just before dawn and the quiet, peaceful evenings near dusk. The elk bugle is practically indescribable: it begins deep and resonant, becomes a high-pitched squeal, then ends in a succession of grunts. Females are attracted to the males that bugle more often and have the loudest call.

Though living in bachelor herds and sociable throughout most of the year, in August, the males start building their harems. From that point until the end of rutting season, the bull elk jealously defends his harem, which can have as many as 20 cows, against other challengers. Rival challengers respond by bellowing (or bugling) as they assess the situation…fight or move along. Sometimes, the bulls participate in light sparring. Should neither bull back down, it’s on…a full-fledged, antler-wrestling, fight to the finish where the winner walks away with the harem.

Peak season is generally recognized as the last two weeks of September. Elk Bugling Season is so popular, Estes Park holds an annual Elk Bugling Festival. Based in Bond Park on September 28-29, this free festival features bugling contests, elk exhibits, the Rocky Mountain Raptor Program, elk seminars, elk-inspired arts and crafts, Native American music, dancing and storytelling, a children's area with elk-themed activities, and a craft beer garden. Live country, rock and bluegrass music will take the party into the evening Saturday and Sunday with popular Colorado bands performing on stage.

Once you’ve made the decision to check this experience off your bucket list, prepare to ensure the best viewing event:

·        Open meadows of RMNP are excellent places to watch the elk herding: Moraine Park, Horseshoe Park and Upper Beaver Meadows on the east side of the park and Harbison Meadow and Holzwarth Meadow on the west side.

·        Go at dawn; fewer crowds gather then, making it the best observation time

·        Stay on the roadside and keep your distance

·        Park, turn off engine and lights and remain quiet: avoid door slams and talk in low tones

·        Bring binoculars or a telephoto lens to get the best “up close and personal” views