SCHIESS: Bugling elk at Camas
As the sun threatening to rise turned the eastern sky a blood red around the distant Tetons, a young bull elk squeaked out a falsetto bugle to my right as I headed out to try to get some pictures of them during the rut.
He was answered by a deep throated male, probably a herd bull, on my left. I was not where I wanted to be – right in the middle of the scattered herd.
I sat down behind a sage, but it was too late; the lead cow had already located me and I could hear the herd moving to the east. By the time it was light enough for me to see the main herd was almost a mile away. Disappointed I decided to head west to see if I locate some straggling bulls.
I was on the Camas National Wildlife Refuge, two days after the fourth annual “Bugling, Birds and Brunch” activity had been held. Hosted by the Friends of Camas, the roads normally closed to auto traffic had been traveled by wagon loads of observers to look for and listen to the more than 100 elk.
The day was not wasted as I flushed a sage grouse, observed a coyote hunting rodents and was buzzed by two Swainson’s hawks. I promised myself that I would visit the area in a couple of days to see if the elk were in their rutting routine again. Promises to yourself, to kids and your spouse should always be kept and this one was.
Two days later in a light rain I was on the same closed road when the slight southwest wind drifted the sounds of bugling elk in the midst of calls from sandhill cranes and Canada geese heading out to harvest the unharvested grains. Slowly I worked my way through the tall sage to the west where the elk normally traveled between the private hay fields and Ray’s Lake where they spend part of the day in breeding activities.
The breeze brought to me the musky smell of the bull elk along with four different bulls sending challenges across sagebrush edged marshland so I settled down in some thick sage between two major elk trails.
The rain quit as the clouds thinned, allowing more welcomed light for me and my trusted camera. Soon a scattered herd of satellite juvenile bulls worked past me, stopping to feed and to practice their tweeting voices. Two of them decided to practice their combat skills with a little head butting. The younger one finally got a chance for an open side shot that sent the other trotting off with a jab in the rump.
As I was watching the teens of the herd an earth shaking roar of a bugle came from a ravine just out of sight over the sage-lined ridge. Adjusting my position, my body found a prickly pear and I thought of what my discussion with Adam is going to be like when I meet him; but I don’t think they will allow that kind of language where he is.
First came the cows and calves up the trail followed by large mud covered herd bull and a few more cows that included a small bull. Stopping frequently to test the air about 30 yards from me, the lead cow finally located me and started trotting off with the herd bull stopping to listen to the click of my camera.
He waited for all of the herd to leave before he slowly walked off, stopping in a low spot to peer back at me with his fever-red eyes, shake his large antlers and snort at me before joining them. He appeared to want to challenge me but thought better of it.
I removed what spines from the cactus that I could find before heading back to the truck as the rain started falling again. With my heart still pounding from the experience, I thought about how silly I must look if someone had seen me laying on the sand surrounded by sagebrush. It would be their problem not mine; as I am just doing what I need to do to live the wild life.