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Astounding nature delights with autumn wildlife viewing

Elk ruts thrill autumn's nature lover: Yellowstone National Park near Madison River.
Elk ruts thrill autumn's nature lover: Yellowstone National Park near Madison River.
Dr. Joseph T. McGinn & Florence McGinn

When seasons change, the human spirit responds. Autumn, with its rich colors and deepening coolness, stirs wanderlust. Writer George Eliot describes the season’s wonder as “Delicious autumn! My very soul is wedded to it, and if I were a bird, I would fly about the earth seeking the successive autumns.” For wanderers responding to autumn’s call, nature offers special delights. Animal instincts stir in primal ways, and certain locations become filled with wild wonder for the autumn traveler. As autumn kicks in, thrill at two, key events of nature. Be awed by autumn’s magnificent elk ruts and the season’s extraordinary raptor migrations.

Elk and people can get close and personal in elk rut season.
Dr. Joseph T. McGinn & Florence McGinn

Bull elk bugle in autumn ruts

One of fall’s most memorable sounds is the raw and haunting bugling of powerful bull elk in rut. It is a magnificent, haunting sound, part whistle and part grunt, as it rings through the semi-light of dusk and dawn. Add the sensory audio delights of bull elk bugling and the clash of their antlers to the visual magnificence of male elk defending harems of cows. The sensory experiences of hearing and watching restless, rutting bull elk fight for the right to mate is a true autumn spectacle.


Caution needs to be taken during the elk rut when massive bull elks are pumped and aggressive. Whether along the golden meadows of Yellowstone National Park’s wild Madison River or on the sedate lawns of its village of Mammoth, do not approach bull elk, who have been known to charge even vehicles. Enjoy the awesome spectacle of massive, rutting elk in their natural environments, but remember to be cautious.

When wild elk enter human environments, a tendency kicks in to feel they are tame. Don’t let caution get lulled away. Bull elk are preoccupied with nature’s call to breeding, and if the ladies are in a town such as Colorado’s Estes Park, Wyoming’s Mammoth village, or Pennsylvania’s Benezette, then amorous bull elks are willing to shed shyness about human proximity and bring their challenges and needs into town. The juxtaposition of wild and town can be jarring and intriguing. Take care to remember that even in town, the nature of a bull elk in rut remains wild, aggressive, and often unpredictable. Be cautious.

View some of the pictures in the slideshow accompanying this article to see magnificent bull elk in rutting season, both in the wild and in town environments.

Elk rut locations in the West

Autumn is the exclusive time to enjoy the elk rut with its primal sights and sounds. Certain locations abound with the elk rut’s natural music and extraordinary wildlife viewing. Rutting and bugling elk can be found in Yellowstone National Park, where they gather both in the village of Mammoth and along the Madison River. Indeed, it’s not unusual for a magnificent male and his harem to stop traffic in Yellowstone National Park’s Mammoth village and along the roads at Madison Junction.

Another famed elk rut location is Rocky Mountain National Park, where elk can be found regularly at Horseshoe Park and in the town of Estes Park. In Estes Park, town elk can be traffic stoppers. In Rocky Mountain National Park, productive locations are Moraine Park, Horseshoe Park, and Upper Beaver Meadows. Volunteers, known as the Elk Bugle Corps, at Rocky Mountain National Park help guide visitors in viewing the massive bulls and their harems safely. It’s a delightful opportunity to view rutting elk in autumn’s crisp, golden environment.

Elk rut viewing and listening to the bugling of elk is a memorable treat in Wyoming’s Jackson Hole area and in magnificent Grand Teton National Park. Favored elk rut locations, especially for hearing elk bugle, are at Lupine Meadows, near Beaver Creek, near Jenny Lake, along the Moose-Wilson Road, and at Willow Flats.

For further details on planning an independent excursion to Yellowstone to view and photograph the elk rut, go to the article and slideshow at “Astounding nature brings elk rut adventure to Yellowstone.”

Viewing the elk rut in the East

While the Rocky Mountains in the West hold traditional elk rut viewing sites, the elk rut is accessible to Northeastern travelers, too. Pennsylvania has the largest free-roaming elk herd east of the Mississippi River. In Northwestern Pennsylvania, wildlife watchers can catch the elk rut in Benezette, location of the Elk Country Visitor Center. Along roadways near Benezette and from designated elk viewing areas, it’s possible to view wild elk. Combining the opportunity to spot elk with the beauty of a rural countryside colorful with fall foliage, the area’s 127 mile Elk Scenic Drive is a unique, Northeastern autumn treat.

Pennsylvania Great Outdoors provides an excellent, free Elk Viewing Guide in PDF format. The 20 page guide offers drive routes and identifies specific viewing locations that include Benezette and the Elk Country Visitor Center. Additionally, PennsylvaniaWILDS offer an Elk Scenic Drive Map in PDF format with locations clearly mapped.

Add soaring birds of prey to autumn’s delights

Albert Camus once stated, “Autumn is a second spring when every leaf is a flower.” Nature’s winged migrations occur both in the spring and autumn, and for enthusiasts of winged spectacles, the fall is Mother Nature’s second spring. Each autumn season, birds of prey, in the thousands, leave northern breeding grounds and fly south, some as far as southern South America. Rivers of raptors flying through the United States is a breathtaking thrill for nature lovers.

Raptor migration in the Northeast

The Northeast holds several premiere locations for viewing nature’s spectacular autumn hawk migration. At Pennsylvania’s Hawk Mountain Sanctuary, it’s possible to sit atop rocks near the Appalachian Trail and view migrating raptors, such as broad-winged hawks, sharp-shinned hawks, bald eagles, Cooper’s hawk, and more, soar overhead and fly by within binocular view. It’s breathtaking to watch dozens of birds of prey “kettle,” circle, rise, and soar on thermals, to speed their autumn migration. With the 2014 mid-August through mid-December count underway, the 2012 overall count of 19,983 raptors and 2013 count of 15,271 raptors offer a glimpse of Hawk Mountain Sanctuary’s thrilling avian parade.

For further details on planning a visit to view the spectacular hawk migration at Pennsylvania’s Hawk Mountain Sanctuary, go to the article and slideshow, “Wild magic on Hawk Mountain cast by fall raptor migration.”

Another world-famous, East Coast location for spotting migrating raptors is the elevated Hawk Watch Platform in Cape May Point State Park. That park’s location at the very tip of New Jersey, the last, possible land stop for birds flying across the Atlantic Ocean or the Delaware Bay, creates a location that is a natural funnel. Thousands of southbound birds of prey, including peregrines, merlins, sharp-shinned hawks, ospreys, Northern Harriers, and Cooper’s hawks, are sighted from the Hawk Watch Platform at Cape May Point State Park.

Hawk Watches in the West and Midwest

Hawk Watches are an ideal way for both beginners and experienced birders and nature lovers to enjoy autumn’s hawk migration. At Hawk Watches, an experienced counter is on hand to gather data, and the watcher and aides generally “call out” as migrating birds of prey approach, often facilitating with identification.

A major Hawk Watch location for the Midwest is the Hawk Ridge Nature Reserve in Duluth, Minnesota, where raptors flow out of Canada and along Lake Superior’s north shore toward the southwest. A well-situated West coast Hawk Watch location is California’s Golden Gate Raptor Observatory, where the Marin Headlands facilitate the migration of birds of prey.

Wild nature

William Wordsworth once wrote, “Wild is the music of autumnal winds.” Autumn marks the year’s transition from summer to winter. Human society marks the fall season with apple cider, pumpkin pies, and football games. Wild nature marks autumn, too, with the challenges and battles of the autumn elk rut and the spectacular flow of mighty, winged rivers of migrating raptors. Get close to wild nature by experiencing autumn’s wonders, especially the season’s magnificent elk rut and flights of migrating raptors.

Find the take in this article to be helpful? National and International Travel and Recreation as well as National Education and Industry materials come from a husband and wife creative team, who travel extensively as photonaturalists and writers. One is an experienced research scientist with a doctorate in Material Sciences and background in optics research. The other is former Vice President of GKE (Global Knowledge Exchange), who served as a US Web-based Education Commissioner during the Clinton administration, and was a former US National Tech&Learning Teacher of the Year.

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