Sounds of Autumn

Another autumn has rolled around, leaves are changing, days growing shorter, and temperatures are getting cooler.  Once again, the fall finds me in pursuit of autumn sounds, of which my favorite is the bugle of rutting bull elk.  A couple of years ago, I had a successful time recording elk at Quemado Lake in New Mexico, so that was where I returned this time, following my departure from southern Utah.  The campground at Quemado Lake closes on September 30 each year, but I was able to get one night of recording in before the Forest Service locked the gates.

Meadow near Quemado Lake.
Meadow near Quemado Lake.

It was a beautiful day when I arrived.   The lake was spotted with some Great Blue Herons and a few ducks, but it was still early for the fall waterfowl migrations.  But as dusk settled in, the place came alive with animal sounds.  It started with the elk, and they were soon joined by several packs of coyotes that called back and forth most of the night.  Some Western Screech Owls landed close to camp and started calling, too.

Some Great Horned Owls called distantly at some point during the night, and I could occasionally hear the ducks talking to each other on the lake.  Several bull elk bugled back and forth from various locations around the lake.  They were still bugling as the sun rose, but by then they sound a bit more hung over than horny.

After a lazy morning, listening to the ravens calling as the bugles became fainter and further apart, I packed up and headed back to Arizona.  I spent a night at Luna Lake, another good spot for elk, but the traffic on the nearby highway makes recording a challenge.  I took a hike up Escudilla Peak to monitor the recover after the Wallow Fire.   Like the fire, the recovery was patchy.  Some of the thick aspen patches were rebounding vigorously.  In other places, acres and acres of spruce and aspen skeletons covered the hillsides.

Aspen stands coming back after 2011 Wallow Fire
Aspen stands coming back after 2011 Wallow Fire
Spruce-aspen stands showing little recovery.
Spruce-aspen stands showing little recovery.

I also camped near a lovely meadow between Big Lake and Springerville.  Unfortunately, two RVs pulled in on either side of me right at sunset.  One of the RVs was full of elk hunters, who spent most of the evening and following morning trying to call in elk.  So I heard lots of bugling, but it was all man-made.   I didn’t hear any real elk answering their calls.  By that time, I had been on the road for almost two weeks, so I decided it was time to head home, back to the heat of Tucson.

Sunrise in the White Mountains, Arizona.
Sunrise in the White Mountains, Arizona.

 

 

Photo of bull elk by Diana Robinson, via Flickr, under Creative Commons license.

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4 thoughts on “Sounds of Autumn

  1. I was up on Escudilla this fall, too. Judging by the color of the aspen along the road I bet I got there just a few days after you did.

    Are you able to tell the difference between the hunter elk calls and the real thing?

    • Hi Del. Sometimes I can tell. The low guttural groans seem to be difficult to make, and sometimes the fluty portion is a little too perfect. The group of hunters I heard at my last camp described here did a range of bugles. It sounded like maybe a father and a couple of sons. One good bugler, two pretty bad ones. But no groans, just the fluty part of the call (I also heard them talking to each other, so I know they were making the calls). The last time I was at Quemado Lake, a guy in the campground was bugling and had me fooled until I realized where the call was coming from. Again, no groans.

      • I hadn’t thought about the guttural groans. I bet there are large parts of the real calls that our ears can’t hear and to the elk the hunters’ fake calls don’t sound like other elk at all. The elk probably respond to the calls not because the hunters are mimicking another dominant elk but because they’re curious what the strange garbled voice in the trees is or angry because something is messing up the soundscape and interfering with their mating activities.

        • Actually from looking at the spectrograms, which is how I edit my recordings, the calls are entirely within our range of hearing. But what another bull elk gleans from an artificial bugle is another thing. To me, without the groans, the bugles sound like subordinate bulls, which may bring in a bull trying to defend his harem. Or, like you say, he might be reacting to the “noise” in his environment. To me, the amount of information in these bugles is fascinating.

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