The Elk Sing-off at Quemado Lake

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

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.


Dawn at Quemado Lake

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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7 thoughts on “The Elk Sing-off at Quemado Lake

  1. del

    That is an awesome recording. Thanks for sharing it.

    I once spent a very cold, very strange Fall night high up in Mt. Baldy Wilderness with the elk bugling like that all around my camp. They started just after dark and kept at it for most of the night, stopping only about an hour before dawn. I could hear them moving loudly through the trees just yards away from my tent. I didn’t get a lot of sleep that night. Heh heh.

    Another time I was hiking on the San Francisco Peaks in October and I kept hearing elk bugling back and forth to each other on either side of me. The bugles seemed a little “off” but I didn’t think much of it. Later, after I’d climbed a bit higher and had a view of the landscape below I discovered that I’d walked between two groups of hunters who had been faking each other out with those elk calls, answering each other’s bugles. I was very glad that I’d been wearing my orange blaze vest and hat.

    What software do you use to enhance and amplify the recordings?

    1. Christine Hass Post author

      Del, the night in the Mt. Baldy wilderness sounds magical. Much better than sleeping!

      Mostly, I use Adobe Audition for editing. I also use Audacity and Wavosaur occasionally.

      1. del

        Ah, okay. Your recordings are so clean that I thought maybe you were using some kind of fancy high-end software or something. Turns out it’s just good equipment and skill. 🙂

        I use a Zoom recorder for recording birds and soundscapes when I hike but found it too noisy for the really quiet stuff.

        1. Christine Hass Post author

          Del, I had the same trouble with the Zoom. My current combo of the Sony and AT mics is better, but I think no matter what equipment you have, it’s really important to be very close. Not easy to do with distant wildlife. I find the Audition software is the best at removing the background noise from the wind and the mics.

      2. apenino

        I’ve recently changed my Zoom H2n for a Sony Pcm-m10 too, and I’m very happy with it. I found it more quiet and confortable. The stereo image of the internal mics is not good, but they have very nice quality.


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