In mid-October of 2013, I went on an expedition with friends to witness the bugling of Elk (Cervus canadensis) in a free-ranging herd near Benezette, Pennsylvania. Although we arrived at the tail end of the rutting season, we were not disappointed.
Elk (also called Wapiti) once roamed freely across Pennsylvania, but early settlers gradually drove them out and by 1867 they were extirpated from the state. In 1913, the Pennsylvania Game Commission began a reintroduction program and now there are healthy populations at a number of locations, with a total of around one thousand individuals statewide.
The herd near Benezette is a tourist magnet. Thousands of people converge on the area in late September and early October to marvel at the mating behavior and learn about what they’re seeing and hearing at the Elk Country Visitor Center. We arrived late in the afternoon. I was disappointed at first. While there were plenty of elk to observe, there was little mating behavior and none of the males were bugling.
We found a place to camp in a patch of forest not far from the herd. There was no bugling in the evening, so we retired early, hoping for some action in the morning. Around 4am, I was awakened by distant bugles. I grabbed my soundscape mic and carefully made my way toward the herd. Soon, I emerged from the woods at the edge of a large meadow. I shined my flashlight into the field and counted about a dozen elk (actually … a dozen “pairs of eyes” reflecting light), the nearest being around a hundred feet away. I quickly set up my soundscape mic and then hunkered down next to a large tree.
Aside from occasional bugles and calls, the herd was relatively quiet for about an hour. But the situation changed rapidly during the half hour before first light. Distant males came closer and by 6am there were at least five or six males bugling in my vicinity, with other individuals (probably females) giving expressive nasal calls. The recording featured above, which I’ve edited down to around five minutes by reducing the length of quiet sections, depicts the variety bugles that occurred over a ten minute period.
If you want to just hear the exciting sections, here is a super-condensed version lasting a little over a minute:
Elk bugles are one the most haunting and captivating mammal sounds on the planet, unlike any other that I have experienced. I especially like the way they echo across the landscape, bouncing off surrounding hills and forest. How fortunate to have been able to gather such a pristine recording of this outstanding vocal event!
Please let me know what you think of my recording. Have you ever witnessed such bugling firsthand?
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