Flickr album link: Elk! ~ Alamosa National Wildlife Refuge
A previous article about the Alamosa National Wildlife Refuge describes the Bluff Overlook and nature trail loop, which are both good destinations for doing some quality birding in this park. This wildlife preserve is situated in the high elevation San Louis Valley of Colorado in the eastern end of the Rockies. Towering mountains surround this area and there is a gap nearby where large herd animals can pass through to deeper wilderness areas. The Rio Grande River headwaters are also in this neighborhood and this waterway runs through the wildlife refuge. Where there is water, there is wildlife and the grassy plains certainly do provide plenty of feed. Alamosa definitely is a good place to be during the autumn rutting season, especially if spotting large herd of elk is what you have in mind.
The main dirt road touring route through this park is fairly smooth, so an average passenger car can do the tour. The best approach for spotting deer, elk or bighorn is to drive at a snail's pace while keeping the eyes peeled. Minimizing noise helps too. Late in the morning or late in the afternoon, these herd animals tend to laze and graze near a water resource, which is something to keep in mind. The grassy meadows offer the best opportunities and using a powerful lens will keep the viewing distance great enough to not spook a herd when encountered.
Oddly enough, this wildlife spotting strategy did not work well for me during my early evening tour. I stopped the vehicle and walked to the barbed wire fence to take a snapshot of a pretty looking meadow and while doing so, one solitary elk raised its head above the grass to look in my direction. I figured that was a nice little bonus, so I snapped a second photo. Then two or three more elk mares arose from the deep grass and of course they noticed me too. The mares started bleating warning noises to the rest of the herd that was still unseen, because these animals were all lazing in the deep turf after grazing all day. Soon the panicky elk mares with calves in tow really started making noise and the rest of the herd stood up in order to get on the move.
Before I knew it, I was looking at a herd of over 100 elk with many bulls in the mix. The big heavy bull elk were the last to rise up, since they were well fed and in a lazy slumber. In fact the only elk in a hurry to get up and go were the mares, because protecting the foals was first and foremost necessary for survival. While watching, it looked like the herd was heading in one direction to a road crossing point, so I got back in the Jeep and parked about 100 yards away from where I expected them to go. Sure enough, the massive herd of elk started hopping the fence at that spot, which was quite a memorable sight to see!
After hopping the fence to cross the road, the big herd formed a circle while waiting for the calves and stragglers. The distance was over 500 yards away at that point, but with the help of a telephoto lens I was still getting good views. This all made for about one hour of solid entertainment and I captured a few keeper photos. It just goes to show that if you spot one elk, there likely will be many more, especially at the Alamosa National Wildlife Refuge during the autumn rutting season!
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