Friday, October 29, 2010

2010 Arkansas Elk Rut Update & Other Photo Opportunities

We are now entering the late middle period of the 2010 elk rut. Viewing is still very good and bugling, while less frequent, is still common. The pecking order of the bull elk is established, challenges are still possible as are bull fights, but the likelihood is slowly winding down.

After the early fights and the establishment of the pecking order, bull elk space out their herds. This is what we are seeing now. There are three major groupings of elk with herd bulls. The first is in the first Ponca field, kind of pinned there by cattle in the next few fields. This group could migrate to a couple of nearby fields including Steel Creek, but for now they have been pretty locked into this position. This herd could move to the Lost Valley fields, but that is always rare at best. It is such a good photo opportunity that it should always be checked in any visit.

Later Rut Herd Bull Keeping Watch
The second group is in the mid-valley area on back fields that are quite far from the road. This is where the Boxley Beast and his harem have moved. They have been here for over a week now so this is a pretty established position.

The third group is at and around the 43/21 intersection. This is two herds at least, with pretty complex mixing due to their proximity to one another. This are extends from behind the mill pond to the first field south of the 43/21 intersection. There are back fields in this south area that herds might go to now and seem to disappear for a day now and then. I believe the Boxley Stud and Bubba Stud bulls are both in this area.

I have also noticed the first formation of a bull herd in the south valley area. This would be around where the Buffalo River cuts across 21 south of the church. These are satellite bulls that are detached from herds and may or may not resume satellite status.

Your viewing results may vary, but these are pretty stable patterns. When I don't report on the movements of the elk herd, it is because there is nothing new to report.

What is next on the elk viewing calendar? Soon we will transition into the post-rut period. Like everything about the elk herd, this is not a bright line that is crossed, but a gradual blending from the rut pattern to the post rut pattern. While we have the first signs of the post-rut pattern now, the majority of elk activity is still full on elk rut. Slowly this mix shifts until most elk are post-rut, and there are stragglers still rutting.

Post Rut Herd Bulls in late December
How long does the rut continue?  Last year we saw herd bulls running cow elk in December. The determining factor are the estrous cycles of the cow elk. As long as there are cow elk returning to estrous, there will be bull elk to help them out. We have at least another month to go in the rut, and the stragglers rutting will extend into December.

What about great pictures of big bull elk?  Great photo opportunities for the big bulls will continue until around April 1 when the antlers drop. During the post rut period it is possible to get pictures of groups of huge bulls that return to male-only herds generally further divided by size. The photo on the left shows one of these herds. It was taken in late December in the south end of Boxley Valley. If you are an antler fan, this is the best bull elk shooting of the entire year.

Post-Peak Fall Color Reflection Picture
There is a lot of interesting activity at the Boxley Valley mill pond now as we are in the migration season. Any trip to see the elk should include a visit to the mill pond. Soon we will see the annual bald eagle migration and the mill pond is a favorite haunt for these majestic birds. There is an eagle pair hanging around in the valley now, but these are probably permanent residents of the valley. The normal migration period is considered to be Thanksgiving until Valentine's Day.

Fall color is past peak. More accurately, we have patchy color probably due to the droughts this fall. Rain has been scarce, so leaf-off has come early. There are still great opportunities for fall color photos. Pockets of color along the river offer unique color photo opportunties. Fewer leaves means more trunks in your compositions. Look at this pocketed color as a creative opportunity, not an off season. Some of these pictures are amazing.

Friday, October 15, 2010

2010 Elk Rut and Fall Color Update

The elk rut is now in the thick of prime time. Yesterday I visited the rut both morning and evening. It was active both times, but per normal the morning was more active, and I could see REAL bull elk fights from a distance. The elk bugling filled with aggression was more common. There was a lot of counter-bugling when the dominant herd bull would answer satellites, and in some cases true challenging herd bull sized animals. This always sets the table for fights, but bull fights may or may not occur depending on many circumstances.

Bull Mistaken for Tree in Ponca Field
Elk seem to be just about everywhere now. Bulls are still coming down to the valley from points unknown. With more cow elk entering estrous, the scent is on the wind. While nobody could know for certain, it feels like the hot spell we had stalled rutting behavior for a while, and our current return to cold weather has things back on track. For about a week we re-entered a summer weather pattern and it tamped things down a bit.

Yesterday, October 14th, there were 5 herd bull and cows herds in the Boxley Valley. I did hear about a 6th, but did not verify it personally. Going from north to south, the first herd is in the upper 3 Ponca fields. A second could be observed along the cane line in the mid-valley area, way back where most viewers would not notice them. A third has been hanging out behind the Mill Pond, I think this is Bubba Stud, but this is an educated guess based on watching movements. The fourth and fifth herds are concentrated in the 43/21 intersection fields.

The Bugling Boxley Beast and Harem
The Boxley Beast has been in the fields just south of the intersection with his harem. Yesterday he suffered repeated attacks from other herd bulls and last night he was showing the damage. He seemed to be limping a bit, it will be interesting to see how he fares going forward in the near term. I did see the Boxley Stud hanging around nearby, and it would not surprise me if he knocked the Boxley Beast off in a fight as things stand now. It would be a great fight in any case, but the Beast is tired and a little gimpy now, so the odds favor the Stud.

Contrary to what might be considered common sense, the dominant bull position in elk herds changes often during the rut. It is hard work for a herd bull to fend off the frequent challenges of candidate herd bulls and the frequent visits by satellite bulls. Often an attack by a herd bull is accompanied by incursions by satellite bulls. This was evident yesterday morning. In one case the dominant bull was under attack by a herd bull and 3 satellites. When he fought the challenging herd bull, the satellites took some of the cows. This happens fairly often. Researchers have determined that the satellite bulls actually breed more cows than the herd bulls. The herd bulls spend a lot of time protecting their harems and have less time for breeding.

Fall Color at the Ponca Access 10/14/10
Fall color is beginning to show much more now. I would put the peak next week. This will not be one of those spectacular years, but fall color is always good. It is very hard to make generalizations about good or bad with fall color because it varies so much from location to location. For a photographer, the great compositions are where you find them. Fall color opportunities come and go fast because they often center on just one tree. Light is everything in fall color photography. Last night I got a picture of the Buffalo River at the Ponca Access in late afternoon light that I like. The cutting light illuminated distant banks on the river and provided dramatic animation of the river level bluffs. This picture will probably be in my personal top 5 landscapes for the year. Like all this stuff, you can plan and prepare, but chance factors large in the best pictures.

Buffalo River, Bee Bluff East of Kyles
Color Fest is now just one week off on the 22nd and 23rd at the Ponca Elk Education Center. This annual art show is worth a visit. There will be artists selling nature works as well as art demonstrations.  I will be doing a free elk photography workshop at 2PM each day that should be of interest to wildlife watchers. I will review my personal "bucket list" of elk photos and discuss the context, the relevant elk life cycle, and the approach elk fans must take by the season to get these pictures. I will display my photos during the art show for sale too. Come by and visit.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Hot Weather Shortening Elk Viewing & Fall Color

The weather of the last few days has changed elk movements back to a more summer-like pattern. What this means is that the viewing periods are shorter, more compressed into the ends of the day. Elk despise heat and sunlight. This is predicted to change early next week.

The Boxley Beast and One of His Harem
This morning the elk viewing was over at 8:30.

How this impacts the rut is not very clear. Two small bulls put on a show for us this morning and they have only recently scraped off their velvet. This is pretty easy to ID because first their antlers are bone white, and second, their were still small pieces of velvet on them. This would place them roughly three weeks late.

Crowds of viewers are still enjoying the daily show. This morning there were signs that some of the elk herd has migrated to the north end of the valley. A few were visible when we drove through and a few cars were parked in the area.

Fall color is in its earliest stages now.  It is time to be thinking about landscape photography. I have spent a little time scouting out destinations on the river. One of the interesting things about river landscape photography is that it is quite different each year. Flash floods move huge rocks around changing the look of many areas. This year's low water makes the river look better to my eye. Straight bank lines are transformed to scalloped lines as gravel bars emerge in low water conditions.

Mark you calendars, fall color is just a week or two to peak color.  Also remember I will be doing a free elk viewing workshop at the Ponca Elk Education Center at 2PM each day on the 22nd and 23rd of October. These are the dates of the annual Color Fest. Stop in and say hi. Mandy and I will have a booth there as well.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

2010 Elk Rut in Full Gear -- Many New Bull Elk

Many more photographers are enjoying the elk rut this year. Without question Ponca is the elk viewing capital of the South. The Buffalo River in Boxley Valley has carved a relatively narrow canyon with fertile bottom lands where elk pool for the annual elk rut.

The Boxley Beast,  photographed from the road
On my website I have posted hundreds of elk photos from the elk ruts. The 2010 galleries include brief narratives explaining the "back story" of each photo to help viewers better understand what happens during the rut.

With the large numbers of elk viewers, there are problems with crowd control. The most glaring issue remains trespassing on private land. It is a very bad idea to jump fences and enter posted land to get closer to the elk. Besides being the wrong thing to do, moving very close to the elk during the rut could trigger an attack from either a bull or cow elk resulting in serious injury.

The solution is to stay near the road. The movement of the elk herd will provide many great viewing and photo opportunities. Chasing after the elk chases them away, it is futile. Respect the privacy of the landowners in Boxley Valley. Don't block their driveways and farm gates.  Do not park in the road and create traffic hazards.

Be safe and be considerate. Quality elk viewing does not require trespassing. Safe elk viewing means staying behind the fences and off private land.