Elk

All posts tagged Elk

By Derek Stoner, Family and Conservation Program Coordinator

An elk herd grazes as dusk settles in the Pennsylvania Wilds. Image by Derek Stoner.

As the sun set amidst a wash of pink and gray clouds, distant lightning danced across the green-carpeted mountains.  A herd of 45 elk grazed in the lush field before us, their reddish coats contrasting with the bright yellow of the wild mustard flowers.  Hushed voices pointed out the bulls with the big antlers in velvet, and the many cow elk ready to give birth to their calves.

While this scene is more-expected in Wyoming or Montana, our group from Delaware Nature Society experienced this sight just 225 miles from the First State.  The Pennsylvania Wilds in north-central PA is home to the largest herd of elk in the East, and the scenery there is quite reminiscent of Western landscapes.  Wide-open vistas, iconic wildlife, and stunning scenery abound.

A very-pregnant cow elk, very ready to welcome a new calf. Image by Derek Stoner.

After two wonderful trips in autumn to see the drama of the elk mating rituals, we decided to visit the Wilds in spring, for a sampling of “Spring Splendor.”  Over the first weekend in June, Sheila Vincent and I led the tour of places near the litle village of Benezette, visiting natural areas like the Quehanna Wilds, Marion Brooks Natural Area, and Wykoff Run Natural Area.

The elk herds gave us excellent close looks, as our first encounter found us within twenty yards of several cows whose bulging bellies signaled the impending arrival of baby elk.  Perhaps these are the exact same lady elk we saw being courted by the battling bulls last September?  

A Mountain Laurel in full bloom in the Pennsylvania Wilds. Image by Derek Stoner.

The wildflower show is fantastic in early June, and we hit the peak of the Mountain Laurel bloom.  These beautiful bushes covered entire hillsides in pale pink blossoms, and the state flower of Pennsylvania lived up to its reputation as a delicate beauty.  We reveled in the electric colors of Pink Lady’s Slipper, Devil’s Paintbrush, Blue-eyed Grass, and Gay Wings, while the subtle greens of ferns like Ostrich, Sensitive, and Cinnamon delighted the botanically-inclined.  Wading through the waist-deep ferns in the largest white birch grove in Pennsylvania, we felt like we’d stepped into a prehistoric forest .

A White Admiral, with beautiful blue hindwings courtesy of hybridization with a Red-spotted Purple. Image by Derek Stoner.

One of the best surprises of the trip is the encounter we had with an unusual butterfly: a hybrid cross between a White Admiral and a  Red-spotted Purple.  A new butterfly for everyone (including butterfly guru Sheila!), we marveled at this insect’s combination of black, white, and electric blue.  Other butterflies encountered include Spicebush Swallowtail, Little Wood Satyr, Common Ringlet, and Dreamy Duskywing.    

Spectacular looks at songbirds like Blackburnian Warbler, Magnolia Warbler, Chestnut-sided Warbler,  Scarlet Tanager, Indigo Bunting, and Blue-headed Vireo rounded out our wildlife experience.

Our grand finale was a visit to the Wykoff Run waterfalls, where the bending boughs of hemlock and rhododendron shaded the crystal-clear waters.  The gentle murmur of the small cascades and the peaceful scene gave a strong hint as to why the area is called “The Wilds.”  We look forward to returning to experience more of the magic!   Enjoy the video highlights of our adventure:  

The Pennsylvania Wilds is an amazing assemblage of public lands and wilderness areas.  Learn more about the region at this site:  http://www.dcnr.state.pa.us/info/pawilds/about.aspx    The Delaware Nature Society will return this fall for “Taste of the Wilds,” to enjoy the wildlife and sample fine wild game cooking.  Join us for this adventure September 21-23, when we will visit the brand new (opening in September ) Elk Country Visitor Center, an incredible educational facility highlighting the signature species of the Wilds:      http://experienceelkcountry.com/vc.html

By Derek Stoner, Education Program Assistant and Sheila Vincent, Group Programs Coordinator

A crowd of elk-aholics gather to watch their favorite show: Battling Bulls!

A crowd of elk-aholics gather to watch their favorite show: Battling Bulls! Photo by Derek Stoner.

After a spectacular sunset and good views of a bull elk and his harem of cows the first evening, what would our second evening bring?

Once again our DNS van navigated the steep hills above the village of Benezette to arrive at the legendary Winslow Hill wildlife viewing area.  A long procession of vehicles and camera-toting tourists soon signaled our quarry’s presence.    

A mature bull elk bugles in defiance! Photo by trip participant Molly Daly.

A mature bull elk bugles in defiance! Photo by trip participant Molly Daly.

A weedy field served as the parade ground for a mature bull elk and his seven cows.  The bull sported an impressive six points (tips) on each antler, making him a 6X6 in elk-watcher parlance.  This 800-plus pound beast bellowed and bugled to advertise his dominance.
The enraged 6X6 bull, drooling from the mouth and nose, does his best to look intimidating.  Photo by trip participant Molly Daly.

The enraged 6X6 bull, drooling from the mouth and nose, does his best to look intimidating. Photo by trip participant Molly Daly.

Caught up in frenzy of the mating season, this bull was drooling and showing the whites of his eyes.  He raked bushes with his antlers, pawed the ground, and orbited the herd, checking on the status of his cows.   

The 6X6 bull heads back to be with his harem of cow elk.  Photo by trip participant Molly Daly.

The 6X6 bull heads back to be with his harem of cow elk. Photo by trip participant Molly Daly.

The distant bugle of another bull captured the attention of the 6X6 and riveted the dozens of viewers along the field edge.  From the valley below, the interloper emerged. 

Amazingly, the new arrival sported an even-larger rack (7X7) and larger body.  The two bulls postured and bugled, slowly approaching each other.  With the moment of truth arriving, the viewer’s held their collective breath.  Would they clash and lock antlers?

Heads turned sideways to guage each others size, the bulls circled round like a couple of heavyweights unwilling to fight.  The more-energetic 6X6 would make short charges towards the interloper, who did not seem to have much aggressive drive.  The showdown lasted nearly an hour.  As dusk fell, the 7X7 finally backed off and left the scene.

Our group felt priveleged to witness such a display of nature’s wild side.  While difficult to fully convey the feeling of the moment, this compilation of video clips from the bull encounter may give you an idea of  the power of this experience:    http://animoto.com/play/PDFHo3NjExcdCm1y0DC0sw?autostart=true  (Click on “Full Screen” for best viewing)

By Derek Stoner, Education Program Assistant and Sheila Vincent, Group Programs Coordinator

Brightly-hued maples color up the hillside on a rainy day at Parker Dam State Park.

Brightly-hued maples color up the hillside on a rainy day at Parker Dam State Park.

On September 27-29, Sheila Vincent and I led a DNS trip to the Pennsylvania Wilds, a swath of 2-million acres of protected forest and wilderness in the north-central part of the Keystone State.  A great array of wildlife can be found here, plus spectacular scenery.  The fall color looked great , despite the gray rainy weather when we arrived.
Part of the large colony of White Birch at Marion Brooks Natural Area, the largest such stand in Pennsylvania.

Part of the large colony of White Birch at Marion Brooks Natural Area, the largest such stand in Pennsylvania.

On our first venture into the Quehanna Wilderness, we visited the largest colony of White Birch known to exist in Pennsylvania.   Primarily a northern species, these tree thrive in areas of disturbance.  In fact, this section of wilderness is part of the vast Allegheny Plateau, created by the grinding of glaciers during the last Ice Age.  The birches are part of the Marion Brooks Natural Area, a preserve that also features unique plants such as Cucumber Magnolia,  Lady’s Slippers, and an array of ferns.  
A cluster of Redcoats or British Soldiers, a type of fruticose lichen.

A cluster of Redcoats or British Soldiers, a type of fruticose lichen.

In the disturbed soil around a man-made pond, we encountered a tremendous concentration of Redcoats, a striking lichen.  A lichen is the pairing of a fungus and algae in a mutualistic relationship.   Most lichens are gray or dull green– few are as vivid as the Redcoat.
A blooming Gall-of-the-Earth, also known as Tall Rattlesnake Root.

A blooming Gall-of-the-Earth, also known as Tall Rattlesnake Root.

A mysterious wildflower drew our attention.  With purple stems, asymetrical leaves, and straw-colored blossoms, the Gall-of-the-Earth is a distinctive member of the Aster family.  There is disagreement as to the origin of the plant’s name.  One camp holds that the drooping flowers look away from the sun, thus symbolizing the bitter descent of fall into winter.   The other camp suggests that the bitter-tasting roots, used to treat dysentery and rattlesnake bite,  gave the plant both its names.
A paper wasp nest seemingly impaled on a hawthorn bush.

A paper wasp nest seemingly impaled on a hawthorn bush.

For a bunch of naturalists exploring an unusual ecosystem, every discovery seemed noteworthy.  This bizarre paper wasp nest, built just a foot above the ground, had the extra protection of hawthorn spikes.   
An incredible sunset greeted us on our first evneing in elk country.  The elk grazed in the misty valley below while we watched.

An incredible sunset greeted us on our first evening in elk country. The elk grazed in the misty valley below while we watched.

The botanical diversions were great, but of course the big attraction up here is of the four-legged variety.   Would we see any elk?  Would we get to hear the haunting bugle of battling bulls?  Stay tuned for the second half of our story…

Photos by Derek Stoner