Saturday, November 20, 2010

Photos From The Whitetail Rut

This blog has been entirely devoted to issues concerning the Pennsylvania elk herd during the month of November, but today we take a break from Pennsylvania elk to post photos of some of the bucks I photographed during the whitetail rut.

In our area, the rut begins in late October, intensifies in early November, peaks around November 12th, and then declines until it is brought to an abrupt end by the rifle deer season in late November. Whitetail deer have not been nearly as easy to see this autumn, either at home or at Shenandoah National Park due to a bumper crop of acorns.  As a result they are not frequenting the meadows as much as usual, but spend more time in the woodlands.  Also, here at home we have been plagued by a large group of youths and young adults that have embarked on a thrill killing spree, driving about at night with spotlights and firing at deer.  In several instances we have found deer shot and left to rot.  To date Pennsylvania Game Commission Officers have not been able to bring them to justice in spite of an  intensive effort to do so.

My best encounters with whitetail bucks this autumn have been in Shenandoah National Park.  The first photo is of the largest buck I photographed this fall. Since I am an incurable video addict, I actually began this encounter by filming the animal with my Canon 7D and 500mmF4 lens as he walked through the woodlands.  When he paused I pushed the shutter release and managed to capture one still image before he ran.  I prefer to film wildlife with the Canon XL-H1, but find myself using the 7D more and more as one has the option of taking high quality stills, which cannot be done with the XL-H1 (The H1 can take acceptable stills if one is content with less than stellar quality and a small print size).

Shenandoah 9 Point
The next encounter occurred in Big Meadows when a beautiful buck pursued a doe across the meadow and into the area around the visitor center.  My brother Coy and I have photographed this particular animal since the autumn of 2007 and it was good to get to photograph him again this year.

Another SNP 9 Point

Coy and I photographed a beautiful 10 point near Big Meadows Campground, and late in the morning of November 6th.  I heard several other photographers talk about seeing him on subsequent trips, but I did not see him again.

10 Point At Big Meadows Campground
This animal had a doe lying near by. When a small buck approached he stood up and confronted him, but lay down again as soon as the threat was over.  The early to mid-stage of the rut is characterized by the bucks frantically chasing does as most of the does are not yet ready to stand for them.  They are highly visible at this time, but hard to photograph as they can cover ground so quickly.  Once the does become receptive to them it is common to find them spending a lot of time either lying down or standing for long periods.  It is at this time that mating is likely to occur and the animals are more easily photographed.

For more Camera Critters photographs, Click Here!

Thursday, November 18, 2010

They Don't Shoot Tame Elk In Pennsylvania-Or Do They?

I had really wanted to avoid this subject but then I happened to read an article,"Range of area elk herd expanding".  This was published in the Nov.5, 2010 edition of the Daily Press a newspaper from St. Marys, Pennsylvania and was written by Becky Polaski.   The article is constructed around an interview with Tony Ross, the Regional Wildlife Biologist for the PGC in the Northcentral Region.

I have reason to believe that I met Ms. Polaski that day as I was at the elk check station late in the morning of November 3, 2010 when I overheard a young lady introduce herself to a hunter as a reporter from a St Marys newspaper.  Soon we were engaged in conversation and she told me she had heard reports about tame elk being shot in the hunt and she wanted to interview a PGC official so that the record could be set straight about this subject.  As she was leaving the check station, she told me she had interviewed Tony Ross about this subject and felt that he gave a fair presentation of both sides of the controversy.

In the interview, Ross explains about the No Hunt Zone and claims that this gives sufficient protection to the elk that are completely acclimated to humans as these animals remain in the No Hunt Zone and do not go into areas where hunting is permitted. He goes on to point out that people see how these elk behave and then wrongly assume that all elk in Pennsylvania are as tame as The Winslow Hill herd.

Today we will focus on one particular incident, which occurred at the Porcupine Run-Winslow Hill Viewing Area (The Gilbert) on Dewey road, which proves beyond any doubt that the acclimated animals that frequent the viewing areas on Winslow Hill are subject to hunting at times.

Most visitors to Pennsylvania elk country do not realize that the Hunt Zone begins just beyond the double gates at the PGC parking lot at the end of Dewey Road. If one walks through the gate to the left and follows the road to Benezette, the area to the left of the road is No Hunt Zone, while the area to the right is Hunt Zone (check the PGC Hunting and Trapping Digest for a more detailed description of Zone boundaries) . This is the hillside that is plainly visible from Winslow Hill Road.  This year a tremendous herd of elk (well over 100 animals at times) utilized this area and passed freely between the Hunt and No Hunt Zone.

Dawn of November 1, 2010, the first day of elk season, came in cold and frosty. At first nothing could be seen but the piercing bugles of bulls rent the air signifying that elk were present. Soon a hunting party became visible on the crest of the hillside. This is the area that long time elk watchers refer to as "The Saddle".

Hunting Party In Saddle At Dawn
Simultaneously, one was able to make out the forms of a large herd of elk spread out along the hillside below and in front of the hunting party.  Legal shooting hours were at 7:10 a.m., but it was still very dark at that time. At about 7:25 a person dropped into shooting position and fired one shot at about 7:30.

Hunter Prepares To Shoot
The elk did not show any significant reaction to the shot.  A still capture from video taken of the herd within a minute of the shot being fired shows that some of the animals have their heads lifted, but they do not look alarmed, while others continue to graze.

Elk Herd Moments After An Elk Was Killed In Their Midst

Still Grazing Peacefully at 7:47
About 7:50, a full twenty minutes after the shot was fired, elk began moving toward the No Hunt Zone.  At this time the hunting party stood up and two of them walked down the hill to the kill.  As they did this the herd grouped and ran into the No Hunt Zone.

Elk Move Into No Hunt Zone
An observer told me later that someone was hunting with a bow and while they could see several elk, none came within range until the hunters came down the hill.  At that point elk came within range and the archer killed an antlerless elk.

Soon all of the elk were in the No Hunt Zone and I saw no more elk on the hillside that was open to hunting as of  the time I left elk country on Thursday morning of that week.

The photo below shows the area that was filled with elk at dawn and it seems likely that the pile of entrails are near to where the animal fell.  

Area Of Kill From Hunters Point Of View
I must emphasize that this was a a legal hunt, conducted in an area open to public hunting, and it is not my intention to criticize the actions of the hunters, but rather to bring attention to a flawed policy that permits hunting in this area.  I and several others have repeatedly made the case for a larger no hunt zone and this is a prime example as to why this should be done.  In fact this area was NOT in the Hunt Zone during the first few modern day elk hunts, but was included in the Hunt Zone in 2005.

There were 2 bull tags, and six antlerless tags issued for Hunt Zone 2 and it is possible that more of these hunters could have tried to kill elk in this herd.  There were several people along Winslow Hill and Dewey Road observing the hunt and the potential existed for a public relations nightmare had several tag holders co-operated and fired a volley into the herd of acclimated elk. A well known elk guide later commented on the situation and said that he was hoping that the herd moved out of this area before opening day as "we didn't need a massacre". Now seems like a good time to remove the legal basis for such a potential disaster by removing this area from Hunt Zone 2 and making it part of the No Kill Zone.

I hope to explore this article and the situation concerning Hunt Zone 2 and the No Hunt Zone in a series of posts in the very near future.

Originally posted at Pennsylvania Wildlife Photographer by Willard Hill.  All photos by W.Hill.