September is one of my favorite months of the year. It starts to cool down, the light is a little less intense, and in the high country there’s a hint of fall in the air. It’s also the time when the bull elk start bugling, broadcasting their fluty calls throughout the forests and meadows. I love that sound. To me, perhaps because I don’t currently live in elk country, it speaks of wildness, of raw animal nature, of danger and of mystery.
In most places outside of the national parks, elk are heavily hunted and quite shy. During the summers, I see large groups of cows and calves sneaking into the meadows at dusk, but in the fall, as hunting season approaches, they become even more cagey and hard to spot. But the bulls, unable to help themselves, start singing to attract a harem and to keep other males away.
I spent a night at Quemado Lake, in west-central New Mexico, in late September of last year. When I arrived at the lake in early afternoon, I took a hike to the lake inlet, looking for elk sign, trying to see if it was worth trying to record elk calls at the campground near the lake. The inlet was loaded with elk sign: lots of tracks and scat, and the ground was pretty scuffed up. So I set up camp and waited for darkness, biding my time by watching the ducks, herons, and osprey at the lake.
Sunset at Quemado Lake.
I heard the first bugle at just after 4 p.m. Much earlier than I expected, and much closer. Another bugle a few minutes later allowed me to pinpoint the source of the sound – it was coming from the only other campers in the tent section of the campground. As I found out the next day, they were elk hunters out scouting for a good place to hunt, and practicing their bugling to draw in a bull elk. They were good at it, too, producing a near perfect bugle, although they couldn’t produce the guttural cough that a harem-holding bull produces (see Mountain Monarchs).
They continued their bugling well into the night, drawing quite a response from the bulls in the vicinity. As soon as darkness fell, the lake basin started echoing with bugles. I didn’t particularly want to record man-made bugles, so I waited until around midnight before I turned on the recorder, when their camp got very quiet and it seemed like they had gone to bed. I’ve never heard so many elk bugling at once – it was quite a thrill. They bugled on and on through the night and into the chilly dawn.
Misty dawn at Quemado Lake.
As the sun rose, highlighting a light fog on the surface of the lake, there were still a couple of die-hard bulls bugling across the lake, their voices mingling with those of the early rising fisherman as they prepared their boats for a day of fishing.
Recording notes: Recorded with a Sony PCM-M10 with an Audio-Technical AT2022 mic with Felmicamps SK3.5 pre-amp. Recording subject to amplification and equalization.
Photo of bull elk by Larry Smith, via Flickr under Creative Commons license.
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