Saturday, October 10, 2015

Early October In Elk Country

As the calendar turns to October the Pennsylvania elk rut begins to wind down, for the most part. There will still be rutting activity and behavior throughout the month, though usually on a lesser scale and intensity. I have personally witnessed cows being bred in late October on more than one occasion. The real draw for me, as a photographer, is the opportunity to photograph the elk among the fall colors although the elk don't always cooperate with this.

Cow elk among the Asters.

After a month of making weekly trips to the elk range to photograph the rut, I found myself a bit burned out and contemplating giving it a rest for a few weeks. The pull of fall in the PA mountains turned out to be too strong however and I found myself back in elk country with camera in hand. 

Bull among the pines.

The fall colors are really coming on in some areas but it looks as if it's going to be one of those years where it is spotty. My last trip up found me in familiar haunts and most of the bulls I saw were ones I had already photographed the month prior. I spent the last few ours of the evening observing a young bull with a decent sized harem. There was a larger bull with a nice harem of his own not far from this location and they bugled back and forth quite a bit but as the sun became low on the horizon it turned quiet for the most part.

Announcing his arrival.

This young bull was pretty serious about keeping these cows together and more than once a few tried to head off to parts unknown but were herded back each time. Most of the cows seemed ready to leave this nonsense behind but he would have none of it and it was comical to watch.

Young bull in full rut mode.

As the light began to fade, I worked my way over to one of my favorite spots and sat down and watched the show. It was then that I noticed two young bulls feeding in a meadow on the opposite hill. They showed no interest in the goings on over here and seemed content to just eat and rest. The last few rays of the setting sun lit up the aspens around the meadow and here and there the red and orange leaves of maple added another splash of color. It was a beautiful sight and a beautiful evening, so much so that I sat and watched it all until it was nearly dark. These are the moments that keep me coming back.

An autumn meadow.

Saturday, October 3, 2015

Chasing the 2015 Pennsylvania Elk Rut

From my own perspective, the Pennsylvania elk rut this year seemed a bit off and I'm not sure I can put my finger on the exact reason I feel this way. Yes, there was bugling, bulls sparring and fighting, and everything that goes along with the rut, but somehow it all seemed to be on a lesser scale. Last year I took a little over 2,000 photos from early September to mid-October and as it stands now after one month I am at less than half that amount for this year. Perhaps I'm just getting more particular about when I press the shutter button but I don't think that is it.

The dry weather towards the end of summer had many popular food plots in the elk range looking less than lush and this, along with warm temperatures, was most certainly a factor to the apparent lack of activity. Most evenings elk did not come out of the timber until it was nearly dark, too dark for good photography. One of the biggest surprises this year was the areas that always have elk activity, and I mean always, sitting empty and quiet even during ideal conditions. At times it was a surreal experience.

I was able to photograph several bulls that I have photographed in the past and it is always interesting to see how their antlers have increased in size or regressed and to witness how their position in the dynamic of the elk herd has changed.

As usual, the last week or so of September found cows coming into heat and there was an uptick in activity, though not to the degree I have seen in the past. As the calendar turned to October the intensity of the rut seemed to be waning a bit already.

It was still enjoyable 'chasing' the elk rut this year even if it didn't seem to live up to expectations for the most part. Being out in the wilds of PA observing these amazing animals is never a disappointment no matter what time of year and I am thankful for every opportunity I get to do it.

Sunday, May 31, 2015

Spring Scenes from Pennsylvania

Maybe it's just me getting older, but our past winter was one of the longest, coldest, and snowiest that I can remember and lingered on into what should have been the change over into spring. I have always enjoyed what each season brings and am thankful to live in a place where I get to see all four seasons transpire. If anything, a winter like the one we just came out of will make you appreciate the 'good' weather even more.

I've always thought that the time of bud break was one of the more beautiful times of the year, when the forested hills took on the faint glow of green, red, pink, white, and orange. Perhaps not as spectacular as the show autumn puts on, but a close second in my book.

Much like in the fall, the conflict of warm vs. cold creates days of intermittent sun and rain (or snow) accompanied with wind and the dark dramatic background of the clouds when the sun pops out. These are usually the best days to see or even photograph a rainbow and I was lucky enough to do so on one such day this spring.

One of the highlights of the change of seasons, and a sure sign that spring is indeed here for good, is the arrival of our migrant birds. From robins to tanagers, they arrive sporting just about every color you can imagine. One of my favorite places to view and photograph warblers is the Quehanna Wild Area in north central PA and just about every variety seems to pass through at one time or another.

Common Yellowthroat

Magnolia Warbler
Other than the warblers, the influx of Orioles, Rose-breasted Grosbeaks, Indigo Buntings, and the like add a splash of color to our woods and fields that have been lacking it for so long and provide an accent to the new tree blossoms and wildflowers that are suddenly abundant.

Rose-breasted Grosbeak

Indigo Bunting
Eventually the peak of spring begins to fade and the transition to summer begins. For me this is a time where I can't help but begin to think of fall (my favorite season) which is now only a few short months away. Still, there is plenty to observe and enjoy in the midst of summer even through the heat and humidity. Each season brings it's own kind of beauty if you take the time to look.

For me there is an air of uncertainty about the coming seasons as some of the things I enjoy the most have more than likely changed forever. As the saying goes, nothing good ever lasts. We move on, adapt, and find our way I suppose. The photo below, while I wasn't thinking it when I took it, has proven to be very ominous. Perhaps the scarred remains of something that once brought so much light...

Thursday, January 29, 2015

Limpy...The Aftermath

My last trip to Pennsylvania elk country was October 23rd, approximately one week before the PA elk season. As I checked out familiar haunts for the possibility of some lingering rut action there was something missing from the experience and I was glad. For nearly a month and a half a bull known as Limpy was a regular sight in these parts, his distinctive bugle was unmistakable and it was almost strange not hearing it bellow out from somewhere among the hills. Most who journey to Winslow Hill and are even fairly familiar with the herd knew of Limpy as he has been one of the most visible and 'tourist friendly' bulls in the area. It was rare that I exchanged words with someone in the elk range that didn't know who this bull was. In a way, I suppose he had become the unofficial mascot of the herd in the Benezette area since the death of old Fred.

Limpy's absence on this day gave me hope that he was well on his way to where he had managed to survive countless hunting seasons. I had last photographed him on October 10th and on that day I was surprised he was still hanging around with a harem of cows. His rack this year, while impressive, was not his best and it appeared that he was on the decline in terms of antler growth. That, along with a broken tine gave me hope that it would increase his chances of surviving the coming hunt. It may be a strange train of thought coming from a hunter such as myself but I was definitely rooting for the old boy.

As a hunter I have put my name into the elk lottery drawing, not expecting there to be much chance of my name being pulled. Though I did not draw a tag again in 2014, I couldn't help but wonder what I would do if I had and met up with Limpy while out. With every encounter I had with this bull during the rut, many of them within range of a bow, I knew there was no way I could ever shoot a bull like this and have a clear conscience. To me, there would be no sportsmanship involved in the hunt of an animal that had absolutely no fear of humans which was the case with Limpy. It would be akin to shooting my own dog. Hunting is about more than a rack or mounted head on a wall, it is more than being about ego and bragging rights, it is supposed to be a challenge.

Limpy was killed on the second day of the elk hunt by a young hunter on a guided hunt. As soon as I heard about it I knew it would stir up quite a bit of controversy as this was a beloved bull to many. Even for a hunter like me it was a punch to the gut, it was hard for me to believe that anyone could guide a hunter to a bull like this and take money in return for doing so. Make no mistake, Limpy was a wild animal and certainly not a pet, nor should he have been considered as such. Still, he was probably one of the tamest elk around. You see, there is a heavy push for tourism in the elk range and it has been wildly successful. To those who have never been to Benezette in the fall you would almost have to see it to believe it. This is what acclimates elk such as Limpy to people. There have been attempts to cast blame on certain groups for acclimating the elk but there is no one group at fault. Nearly eveyone who travels to the area in the fall carries a camera or video recorder. Wildlife photographers and yes, even elk guides film and photograph bulls throughout the year. Horseback riders often have close encounters with the elk as well and the area is very popular for riding and hiking. There is no one group that is any more guilty than the other at getting these animals used to people. Still, there are certain animals that take to people more than others and they are usually very well known.

Now, in the aftermath of Limpy's death the controversy continues to stir. There are a couple of things that I think need to be addressed. Again, there is no one group responsible for acclimating the elk, it is a by-product of tourism and that tourism is pushed even by the likes of the Pennsylvania Game Commission. Secondly, I think there is a responsibility by those involved with the elk hunt to create a positive image of hunting. I don't believe guiding a hunter to a bull such as this accomplishes that, in fact, as we can see from the conflict it has created there has been the exact opposite effect. Why create bad press for hunting by doing something that you know is going to cause a stink? Yes, it was legal but it sure doesn't paint the picture of fair chase to target an animal that is known by so many to have absolutely no fear of humans.

There is no doubt that the elk need to be kept in check with the habitat and social conflicts with man. Hunting is by far the best way to do this but I don't feel that it should be done without regard to sportsmanship or the image it creates of hunting. Hunting is about far more than the kill and that seems to be lost in this age of antler obsession, tv hunting shows, and hunting celebrities. It has become all about money, ego, and who can shoot the biggest buck, bull, or whatever. Respect for the animal killed is thrown out the window to glorify those who took it down and animals are killed solely to gain that glory. I don't happen to be a fan of where hunting has been headed over the years, it seems worse to me now than ever before.

I've been heading to the elk range for many years, not always as a photographer. Elk in the state of Pennsylvania have always seemed to come with conflict in one form or another and it continues to this day. As the commercialization of Winslow Hill goes forward the conflicts about elk and how they are managed will probably only escalate. Increased tourism and social media will put the hunt for these animals further under the microscope. As a hunter and sportsman (being one doesn't necessarily make one the other) I hope that those involved with this hunt will take the time to see the image they are portraying and realize something that is legal doesn't always equate to it being right. To me, there is a real lack of hunting in it's truest sense with the PA elk hunt and that seems to be par for the course for the direction hunting is headed today.

As a hunter it is probably easier for me than some to come to grips with the loss of this animal, yet I do fully understand the sentiment of the non-hunting community on this issue. Limpy will be missed by thousands and there will be a void when September rolls around later this year. Do the gains of a few outweigh the loss that comes to so many and is it worth all of the controversy and negative publicity that this decision has brought?