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The Mighty Elk Rut
The Winter Park & Fraser Valley (and nearby Rocky Mountain National Park) is a hot spot for migrating elk during their annual rut, and a fabulous place to witness the natural world up close & personal.
The elk (wapiti) is one of the largest species of the deer family, and one of the largest land mammals in North America. Elk range throughout the US in forest and forest-edge habitat, feeding on grasses, plants, leaves, and bark.
Adult elk usually stay in single-sex groups for most of the year with the exception being during their elaborate mating ritual known as the rut. The elk rut runs from late August through early November and is a spectacular display of strength , aggression, showmanship and courtship from this fascinating species.
Boys will be boys
In order to attract and keep a harem of cows by their side, a bull elk must put on a near continuous display of dominance and strength. To draw the attention of far off females, the bull elk will perform a bugle call into the air that be heard for miles, the louder the call, the more interested the cow will be. Bugling is most common early and late in the day and is one of the most distinctive sounds to be heard throughout the Winter Park & Fraser Valley in the fall.
If a bull crosses the threshold of another’s harem, it is considered a challenge by the residing bull. A theatrical battle of posturing, bellowing, strutting and pawing will ensue until one party backs down, or a they engage a fight using their antlers to wrestle. In the event that bulls do lock antlers, the fight tends to be short in duration, but incredibly physical and dangerous for both parties, often causing one, or both of the bulls to sustain serious injuries. For this reason, the bulls will spend many minutes trying to out-psyche their opponent before committing to a physical interaction (and it is this display that is most widely witnessed during the rut).
Girls just a wanna have fun
In the elk world, it seems a bulls’s work is never done. Having conquered his opponent, the winning bull must return to his harem and resume the task of out bugling and out battling any future opponents, or risk losing them to another suitor. Although the bull may appear at first glance to be the dominant party within the harem, it is the female who ultimately decides which harem she will be part of, and will not hesitate to leave if her bull fails to hold her interest. In the course of a single day, it is not uncommon for a bull to engage in multiple spars and courtship displays of bugling, thrashing and rounding up, mating with and guarding his harem.
Amid these incredible displays of nature is the ever enduring back drop of fall in the rocky mountains. Vibrant yellow aspen burn into brilliant blue skies, while the deep purple and orange hues of the willow offer protection and forage for the marauding elk herds. Photography enthusiasts will travel from all over the world to capture the action of the rut against the stunning vistas of the Rocky Mountains. For more details on the best areas in Winter Park for fall leaf peeping, click here.
Although elk are frequently seen around the Winter Park area, our recommendation for viewing large herds of elk during the rut, is to take a day trip to Rocky Mountain National Park (approximately 35 miles North of Winter Park). RMNP is home to many huge herds of elk, in addition to many other species of fascinating wildlife that are often more visual and active in the fall months (including moose, bear, deer, big cats, big horn sheep).
As with all wildlife, humans need to be respectful of the elk and their need for space, particularly at this time of the year when hormones are literally running high. To learn more about the wildlife in Winter Park and what you should do if you encounter it, click here.