Some of the Grand Canyon’s California Condors often congregate for the night on the cliffs below the South Rim’s Bright Angel Lodge, but not on the one day we could be there to witness. That’s the trouble with Nature: She doesn’t reliably bend her schedule to fit the desires of her human species, so we missed the condors once again.
One man, from North Carolina, getting out of his pickup with an Audubon field guide in his hand, testified that he had been about a mile and a half down the South Kaibab Trail that day, eating lunch when one of the Condors soared overhead and the park rangers all report that the condors are doing well, so we’ll see them and get you a photograph one of these days. You can read the latest condor update at this link.
We’re not complaining too much though. We were privileged to watch earth, moon, and sky in their glory. The backpacking tent stayed in the car, never once out of its stuff sack, which is exactly how tents should behave. On the first night, a small juniper fire cooked the bison steaks perfectly and fresh juniper berries were a fine condiment. The Milky Way is high overhead right now and the Andromeda Galaxy is barely visible to the naked eye. Later in the night the waning moon rose and marked the night’s passage as it moved through the branches of the juniper and pinon trees overhead. Coyotes serenaded the night while the humans slept in sleeping bags stuffed with down feathers borrowed from geese. Dawn brought a Pinon Jay which announced its presence long before favoring us with a sighting. Shortly after, the Ravens flew in from their nightly roost, wheeling, soaring, doing barrel-rolls, and other acrobatics, talking to one another; you’ll never convince me that only food and fear motivate Ravens: Those birds were joyous. At least one of them was thinking, “I’m a lucky bird, living here on the edge of the Grand Canyon and I must be a lot smarter than that human down there with the camera who doesn’t.”
But the highlight of that night on the edge of the Grand Canyon was the elk. It is rutting season for elk and the bulls bugle to attract females. Scientists think the cows more strongly attracted to males who bugle the loudest and most frequently. Early in the evening we heard bugling from a long distance away. (If you’ve never heard it before, it is an eerie sound to the ears of a human. Here is a recording.) The bulls, about 25% larger than the cows, stand five feet tall at the shoulder, are eight feet long, and weigh upwards of 700 pounds. (320 kg.) Loaded with testosterone this time of year, they know what they want and they bugle to get it.
Elk — also known as Wapiti from the Shawnee word meaning “white rump” — got to North America the same way humans did: They walked. They were here long before the Ancestral Puebloans drew petroglyphs of them on cliffs and in caves all over what is now the southwestern United States. Revered by the Lakota, young males were given an elk’s tooth — the last part of an elk to rot away after death — as an aid for long life. Elk, for the Lakota, were teachers, embodiments of strength and courage.
I was dreaming of elk that night but soon realized it wasn’t a dream. Two bulls were bugling within a stone’s throw of our camp. One off to the left and another that was so close it sounded like it was lying next to me. We found a footprint the next morning, maybe thirty feet from our sleeping bags.
I saw one of the bulls at sunrise the next morning but, in another example of Nature’s refusal to comply with humans’ desires, he was gone before I could grab the camera. But he will live on in memory’s eye.
For more on elk, try the National Geographic. That site also has a video of Elk with the sounds of several bugling. Sadly, however, the video is marred by way too much talking and some silly background music. For elk and their love of Aspen, see The Ecology of Death. And don’t miss this from Wild Resiliency, which, in addition to explaining what it is that Aspen know, has a great photo of an Aspen which an elk loved.