Cataloochee, Great Smoky Mountains National Park
At the south eastern end of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, North Carolina, lies Cataloochee valley. This picturesque valley, surrounded by mountain peaks, is home to a herd of Elk, reintroduced to the park in 2001 (following their extinction from North Carolina back in the late 1700s).
The herd now numbers in excess of 150 individuals, and many are regularly seen in the grassy valley of Cataloochee. With mature bulls weighing 700-800 lbs, and some probably in excess of 900 lbs, the warning signs about keeping your distance, as with all wildlife viewing, should be heeded.Cataloochee, North Carolina
During the heat of the day the valley is largely quiet, save for the odd group of wild Turkey and the occasional Elk, often grazing in the shade of the trees that line the open fields. But as the shadows lengthen Elk will start to gather in larger numbers, and when they do you can be assured that the dominant bull is not too far away. Many individuals have radio collars as part of the on-going monitoring programme, so finding a collarless mature bull is the real prize.
Whilst this mature bull has a fine set of antlers, there's no correlation with age, but rather his magnificence is more an indication that he is well nourished and in good health. His mere arrival in the valley immediately grabs the attention of the young bucks. You can almost feel their anxiety, as they glance nervously in his direction, before scampering off to a safe distance.
The rut doesn't start in earnest until mid-September, running through to mid-October, but on this day in late August this dominant male was already strutting about the valley in a manner in keeping with his stature. He flexes his vocal chords and announces his presence with a "bugle".
There are tonal variations to his "bugles": some signal his readiness to fight - a warning to other bulls. Others pronounce his fitness to the cows or serve as a gentle reminder to his harem not to stray too far!Whilst large mammals are always a draw for the visitors, the real hidden gem of the Smokies is Salamanders - with over 30 species, the area has the distinction of having the most diverse salamander population anywhere in the world. Check out Joe Milmoe's video "The hidden jewels of Appalachia".
For help with identification, check out the Salamanders of Tennessee, compiled by the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency.
Directions: you can reach Cataloochee from Interstate highway I-40. Exit I-40 at North Carolina exit #20. After 0.2 mile, turn right onto Cove Creek Road and follow signs 11 miles into Cataloochee valley. This is a winding gravel road, and you'll want to allow at least 45 minutes to reach the valley once you exit I-40.
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