A Wary Bull Elk In Montana’s Centennial Valley

Note: As of a little while ago my blog has now been moved to the new server and that has caused some issues with this post. I originally posted it early this morning but when the blog was moved that post was lost in the transition so I’ve now posted it again. That’s why subscribers got a second email with the link to the post. All comments made on the old post this morning were lost – sorry about that!

Hopefully there will be no more problems but if you notice something “haywire” on your end please let me know. Apologies for the inconvenience and confusion!


This bull was far from a relatively “tame” National Park elk. He was wild, extremely wary, nervous and high-strung.

There’s a robust elk herd in Montana’s Centennial Mountains but the hunting pressure on them is intense so in my experience it’s unusual to find them out in the open and exposed Centennial Valley to the north. But during the night some of them occasionally come out to feed in the valley and if you’re the first to drive the “South Road” at sunrise you have a small chance of catching them out in the open.

elk 2577 ron dudley
1/1600, f/6.3, ISO 800, Canon 7D Mark II, Canon EF 500mm f/4L IS II USM + EF 1.4 III Extender

That’s exactly what happened with this bull in velvet two weeks ago during my camping trip to the area. The road runs between the mountains and the valley where he was feeding so he and another bull with him felt cut off and threatened by my pickup because I blocked their quick access to the safety of the wooded and largely roadless mountains. They spotted my pickup before we saw them and they took off running to the west in order to get far enough away from us before they headed back to the mountains.

At one point they both stopped and turned toward me to see what I was doing and that’s when I got this photo and a handful of others. Seconds later they turned their pale butts to me and were gone.

Some regular blog followers may have noticed that I spend very little time in National Parks photographing mammals. Yellowstone for example is only a hop, skip and a short jump from the Centennial Valley but I’ve only been there twice in recent decades and each time I beat a quick retreat. Crowds, traffic, congestion and wildlife that is often so acclimated to humans that they hardly bat an eye in our presence holds little appeal for me – especially when my experience in the “wild” is ruined by the cacophony of dozens of other cameras sounding like Gatling guns in my ears every time a critter scratches, blinks or farts.

Photographers in places like Yellowstone, Grand Tetons or Hardware Ranch may routinely get better photos of elk than this one. But I watched the truly wild and naturally evasive behavior of this bull and I didn’t have to share the experience with hordes of others and for me that flavors the image in a way that I’d be less likely to duplicate in a National Park.

If that sounds selfish and/or elitist of me, so be it. I really don’t mean it that way but I yam what I yam…



An Indicator Of Red-naped Sapsucker Chick Maturation Rates

I was surprised by how quickly this sapsucker chick’s behavior changed.


1/640, f/6.3, ISO 400, Canon 7D Mark II, Canon EF 500mm f/4L IS II USM + EF 1.4 III Extender, an annoying branch removed, not baited, set up or called in

Recently I spent many hours over four consecutive days photographing (and attempting to photograph) nesting Red-naped Sapsuckers in Idaho’s Targhee National Forest. Surprisingly there was only one youngster in the nest cavity. I’ve photographed nesting sapsuckers on several previous occasions and one of the difficulties has always been predicting when the chicks would be old enough to poke their heads out of the nest cavity in anticipation of food. Obviously, getting both the adult and the youngster in the photo makes for a more interesting image and I’ve often wondered how long they do it before they fledge – long drives to an already abandoned nest tree just aren’t very productive.

But on this trip I was camping close to the sapsuckers so it was an opportunity to learn how fast those behaviors develop by visiting the nest every day. This is what I learned from these particular birds:

  • Day 1 – The chick inside the cavity was calling for food constantly (to the point of annoyance) but even when the adults appeared at the cavity entrance with a snack I never once got a glimpse of any part of the youngster. It stayed completely inside the cavity and the adult had to reach far inside to give it food (mostly ants and a few other insects).
  • Day 2 – The chick often stuck its beak far enough out that I could see the end of it – but just barely. I could never see any part of its face, only its beak.
  • Day 3 – Nearly every time a parent brought in food the chick poked some of its head out of the cavity to receive the snack. This was the first day I was actually able to get the youngster’s eye in any of my photographs.
  • Day 4 – The chick often kept its head mostly out of the cavity as it eagerly awaited a food delivery, even when neither adult was nearby. And when an adult did arrive the youngster was very aggressive at getting the food – to the point that on several occasions it obviously surprised and annoyed the parent. This photo was taken on day 4.
  • Day 5 – When I arrived at the nest tree all was (blessedly) quiet. The chick had fledged and was gone.

I was disappointed that the chick had fledged so quickly but this knowledge will be helpful in the future. Here in Utah I have to drive many miles to get to reliable sapsucker nesting habitat and knowing what I know now will help me plan those trips accordingly.

It’s a waste of time, money and gas to make a long trip to a nest tree only to find it abandoned. Perhaps some of my readers who are bird photographers will also find this information useful.