Roosevelt Elk on the Northcoast

Rosie Elk SM11-24

The largest land animal on the northcoast of California (other than perhaps a grossly obese Sasquatch) is the Roosevelt Elk, the males of which average north of 800 pounds. Severals herds tend to congregate north of Trinidad and south of Klamath. Most of the herds are predominantly made up of females. These herds can run from 25 animals to over 50. Smaller herds of male Elk, sometimes consisting of only three or four beasts, but rarely exceeding a dozen, also exist.

For the photographer, the male, with his immense rack, is the primary focus of one’s efforts to translate light into digitalized pixels. In early spring, the males dispense with their antlers and commence on the tedious business of growing a new pair. Once they have shed the old rack, they appear as rather pathetic critters, as follows:

Equine SP11-23

Notice the supine saunter, indicating complete humiliation. He knows his pride and joy has left him, and it will be a bit of time before he can once again strut with confidence. But the new antlers do start to grow back, and the old attitude begins to return to the beast:

Northcoast Misc SP11-364

All in all, a good start; but not that impressive. Nonetheless, the rack continues to grow, approaching something resembling majesty:

Northcoast Misc SP11-388

Meanwhile, new Elk are born and greedily take in the mother’s milk, while siblings wait in anxious anticipation:

Rosie Elk SM11-2

But the best time of the year is rutting season, which is fast coming upon us. The bull elk shed the velvet on their rack and get ready for bugling and battling:

Prairie Creek SM10-271

Sometimes the bulls even get a bit demented:

Prairie Creek SM10-266

This year along Highway 101 several herds that can be observed strutting their stuff and chewing up the foliage. A small herd tends to hang out just to the east of Big Lagoon. Because t this section of the northcoast is dominated by private land, it’s difficult to access this herd, though they can sometimes be seen nibbling at the marshy grass on the east side of Highway 101.

A larger herd tends to hang out around the old schoolhouse just south of Stone Lagoon. This herd can sometimes disappear to the east for hours, if not days at a time. But sooner or later they come back to their old stomping ground. This herd tends to be dominated by one older bull elk, with several younger ones showing great deference to the beast’s immense rack. Below is one of the younger males of this herd:

Rosie Elk SM11-21

Another herd sometimes can be found in the prairie around Davidson Road. I haven’t seen this herd as often this year, and it strikes me as being a bit smaller than previous years. It’s a rather desultory herd, with a lone female sometimes becoming separated from the main body and munching on the grass all by herself, ripe for some mountain lion to come make a dinner of her.

Finally, there is an all male herd that tends to hang out at Elk Prairie, in Prairie Creek State Park. Last winter, there were only three or four bulls in this herd, often hanging out near some bungalows belong to the rangers. But in the spring, I must have seen close to a dozen of the animals grazing in the field.

Elk are usually fairly docile and will move away if you get too close. However, both the males and the females can be dangerous when roused. The following Elk, a member of the Prairie Creek all-male herd, had blood on his antler and tufts of hide hanging down his face when I crossed paths with him a year ago:

Prairie Creek SM10-146

So they are capable of injuring other animals, even of the featherless biped variety. It’s best to keep a safe distance from Rosie Elk of either gender. They are best photographed with a telephoto lens, preferably something around 300mm (for an APS-C DSLR — or 400mm on full frame).

One of the challenges of photographing elk is getting them to pose. Most of the time they are intent on stuffing their snouts. The following elk posed very briefly, and then stuck his nose into the grass and began munching away, with hardly a care in the world: