The Covid Camping Elk Rut slideshow video was filmed late summer in 2022 during my Covid isolation camping venture throughout the west. The location is the Alamosa National Wildlife refuge in the vast San Luis Valley of Colorado. This high elevation valley is surrounded by towering mountains and deep forests, but it is not all as lush and green as it seems. Most of this valley is arid sagebrush terrain with only a few wetlands areas, which act as a natural attraction for local wildlife and migrating birds. The San Luis Valley is a good place to be during late summer and early fall when the wildlife activity reaches a peak.
Being at the right place at the right time rarely happens with careful planning and most great wildlife photography opportunities occur when least expected. Such was the case the day I photographed the big elk herd. I spent a few afternoon hours birding at the neighboring Monte Vista National Wildlife Refuge and planned to do the Alamosa National Wildlife Refuge birding trail before sunset. The elk event was a total surprise!
Since I feature places like Alamosa in the Destination West website, I travel with a camera and short focal length lens to take snapshots of the terrain for travel article content. Such was the case while driving on the dirt road that runs through the Alamosa NWR. I simply stopped on the side of the road and walked up to the fence to take a picture of wildflowers in a green pasture and there were no elk. I looked at the image on the camera for a brief moment then glanced back at the pasture to see a solitary elk cow staring at me. I thought it was odd that I did not first notice the elk cow and took a second snapshot, then three more elk heads popped up from the tall grass. More and more elk cows stood up in the grass, then the young ones started bleating alarms, which roused the lazy bulls that were totally hidden. I realized that I could potentially cause the herd to panic, so I walked back to the Jeep in order to settle them down.
I noticed that the herd started to move in the same direction I was going down the road, so I parked a few hundred yards ahead. The short lens was switched to a 200-500mm super telephoto, which provides a maximum 750mm field of view on a 1.5 crop sensor camera. This allowed me to maintain a 60 to 100 yard buffer zone between me and the elk herd, so they would remain calm. Since no other vehicles were present, angling the Jeep so I could film through the open passenger window was easy to do, which also helped to prevent panicking the herd. Most of the closeup images were captured between 600mm and 750mm, so there was plenty of distance between me and the elk.
I played the move ahead on the road and wait for the elk to catch up game for a while. Across the road was the wide open range and mountain wilderness. It was obvious that the elk eventually would head in that direction. This meant they would have to cross the road and I started lagging behind the herd so I would not interfere.
An elk herd tends to stop and regroup occasionally, so the little fawns can catch up. When I saw the herd regroup on the high ground next to the road, it became obvious this was going to be the crossing point. This place was also the easiest for jumping the fence, so I picked a likely place along the dirt road for a good view. This was not easy to do, because the sagebrush was tall, the dirt road was low and the fence was high on a mound. There was only one vantage point where the fence crossing point could be clearly seen, but aiming uphill over the sagebrush created foreground bokeh problems. This was fixed later while processing the RAW image files with a 16:9 crop for video format, which is the perfect aspect ratio for a large elk herd!
I was about 60 yards away when the herd started jumping the fence. By this time the elk were used to my presence and were no longer alarmed. The elk were only focused upon getting to the open range. The fence jumping event was nearly problem free, because the elk were not in a state of panic. The elk herd formed a waiting line to negotiate the obstacle and only a few jumped at a time. There were well over 100 elk in the herd, so it took almost one hour to photograph the entire event.
The reason why I photographed the elk jumping the fence instead of using video is because I did not have a gimbal tripod. Hand held video at extreme focal lengths nearly always looks sloppy because of lens shake. Holding seven pounds of camera and lens steady for an hour is an impossible dream, so snapshots were the better choice. Even so, there is a solid 14 minutes of non-stop elk fence jumping action that begins at 10:19 in the video stream!
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