Thursday, October 6, 2016

Poor Man's Lobster: Watching Elk

Moonlight in Yellowstone
I feel as though I went to the silent movies last night.  No Charlie Chapman and piano music banging in the background.  Instead the wind was my background music and a few murmurs from nearby mallards.  So what was the movie about?  It was well orchestrated …. The right time of year, the right time of day, and even the right time of the month, but no sound!
l'll back up to the beginning.  I got a bee in my bonnet to watch elk bugling and to watch the full moon rise over their meadow.  Many, many falls we have been in Yellowstone National Park during the peak of the elk rut.  I cherish the memory of 7 bulls on Swan flats and the moon rising over them.   Or another time, when I was sitting on picnic table (on, not at) with our daughter, Lita, and a bugling bull came within 6 feet of us.  I knew he was close, I just didn’t realize how close until I lifted up my candle lantern and saw his muzzle RIGHT THERE!  

Elk don’t need the full moon to fire up, but the rut and very dependent on the right time of year and much better during the hours of dawn and dusk then during the day.  A full moon adds a little magic. 

We aren’t in Yellowstone this fall, but I still wanted a taste of the elk rut.    An expedition to Dean Creek, near Reedsport, Oregon, would be sort of a ‘poor man’s lobster; not as good as a night on Swan flats or in the Norris Meadows during the rut, but an almost guarantee I'd see elk.    Dean Creek is a small Oregon refuge with elk viewing year around.  The meadow is about five miles from the coast and parallels Highway 38.  A quarter mile long viewing road has been built so we don’t have to cope with traffic.  The meadow usually has some waterfowl, a hawk or two, sometimes white-tailed kites, lots of little birds …

Dale and I headed to the coast the morning of the full moon.  When we passed the meadow about noon we couldn’t see an elk, but that didn’t worry me.  The temperature was already near 80 degrees.  The elk would be resting in the shade at the far side of the meadow.  Meanwhile we could have fish and chips on the coast and have a nice dose of the harbor at Winchester Bay – gulls, turkey vulture, great blue herons, and, I hope, osprey fishing.  The plan was to return to Dean Creek late afternoon and stay until moonrise.  I even packed a picnic supper. 

Winchester Bay was foggy!  Fortunately not dense fog.  We could still see the vultures and gulls enjoying the stiff breeze, we found four great blue herons already on the roost in the tall trees at the far side of the harbor entrance, but no osprey.  After all the hot we’ve had at home, a nice dose of cool was a treat. 

We returned to Dean Creek late afternoon.  It’s only about 5 miles inland, enough to get us out of the fog.  The meadow was lush and green, shadows were growing long, about twenty mallards gabbled in the little steam near us.  The ducks were showing some courtship behavior.  Funny how some birds briefly preform their mating displays I the fall.  
The elk weren't readily visible, but we found some directly across the meadow, at the toe of the forested slope.  There was at least one nice bull over there, several cows and a young bull.  The tall grass was waving in the wind.  Mostly I saw several backs and the nice rack of the bull.  His head tips back in typical bugling fashion, his mouth opens, but all I hear is the wind.  Fortunately I know what he sounds like, but that is a poor substitute for actually hearing it.  A bull's bugle comes from somewhere deep within.  On a still morning it can carry far, far across a frosty meadow. 
Yellowstone sketches.  The bottom ones shows a bull getting himself all stinky!
The bull started showing particular interest in one cow.  Head low he chased after her, caught up, and licked her side.  She was probably making higher, short cow-elk noises.  I have only my memory to rely on.  I am thankful I've watched elk many times under more favorable conditions.  I've been so close I can smell them, and seen bull's urine dripping off his long neck hairs when he pretties himself for his ladies.  A lucky bull has a damp patch of ground that he can urinate onto and then roll in.  We've even watched a cow decide the time is right and how she finally allows him close and encourages him to mount. 

None of these cows were ready.  The bull further fired himself up by raking the long grass with his antlers.  He ended up with long wisps of grass caught in this many tines -- 6 on each side for this bull, although the last two are just a tiny fork.  Maybe I should just call him a five-pointer. 

We were enjoying our silent movie, but soon it would be an invisible movie too.  The bank of fog we ran into on the coast was quickly coming inland.  The setting sun had already disappeared behind the cloud and the western end of the meadow was filling with fog.  No moon rise for us.  Better to head home while there was still some light. 
Elk at Dean Creek, Oregon
Followup:  We returned to Dean Creek six days later.  Here are my notes:

Dusk is coming to Dean Creek.  Warm, late afternoon sun fills the meadow.  It is much cooler than when we were here six days ago.  About forty elk are spread over the meadow: some lying down; some feeding; a bull checks a couple of cows, bugles, and lies down.
Pleasant here waiting.  I put on an extra shirt.  My fingers stay warm enough for sketching.  I like how most of the trees on the far side of the meadow are in shadow, but a few catch golden highlights from the sun.  I sketch while the bull rests.  Four Canada geese are amongst the harem nearest to us.  A few starlings are in the meadow.  Often two or three elk have starlings resting on their backs.

The sun is lowering, now softened by a thin haze.  Still beautiful light.  The bull stands and starts checking cows.  Another bull is farther off.  Alone.  They pay no attention to each other.  Maybe the rut is winding down.

I hear an occasional bugle and see a little sniffing.  None of the cows are interested.

Coolness seeps into the meadow.  Greyness takes over.  The breeze has virtually stilled.  A few elk bugles are finally carrying across the meadow to us.  A log truck honks and a cow responds with her call.  Happenchance?

It may not be Yellowstone, but it is pretty special sitting here, watching and listening to the elk.


  1. It is wonderful to get these glimpses into your world. It is so far away from where I live. It is other worldly. I have only seen elk a few times. I have heard one bugle. I thought it a strange sound. I can imagine it carrying over a damp meadow. Love your sketches too.

    1. I have to admit I feel very fortunate to live where I can reach out to a variety nature's treasures. Thank you for sharing it with me.

  2. What is the expected "season" for the rut at Dean Creek?

    1. Hi Jeanette: I'd say the third week of September, which is a week earlier than Yellowstone. But you can add a week at both ends. I also think the weather is a factor. Hot dampens things down.
      I'd love to be over there in the wee hours of the morning, but that is a bit far from here.
      This year they were definitely in the rut on Sept 16 and Sept 22 when we were there this year.
      Put it on your calendar for next year!

  3. We have been by there and seen them laying down, horns sticking up, but not in action so this was fun reading about and seeing your sketches.

  4. Great idea you had and fun that you shared it with us. Artwork well done as always.