While the title to this post may sound like an Arabian nights bachelor party safari horror film, it´s not. It´s actually about one of my favorite events during our year here in Northern Spain. Fall announced by the European red deer, La Berrea.
I have been lucky enough to see great wildlife experiences in my travels, including witnessing a cheetah stalk and kill a gazelle in the Serengeti in Tanzania, watching a Bengal tiger leap from the brush after wart hogs in Kanha NP in India, seeing a pack of wolves on a Bison kill in Yellowsone NP in the US and going on a night dive with 50 huge manta rays in Kona, Hawaii. Even so, getting to experience the red deer rut up close in Cantabria is on par with all of these wildlife experiences for me.
As fall starts, and usually in late September through early October, the European red deer go into rut here. The rut is when the females (hind) go into heat (oestrus) and the males (stags) go crazy over them. In Spanish it is called “La Berrea”, literally it means the roaring time. For more details check out this link on European Red Deer.
It unfolds into one of the coolest events in nature to witness firsthand. I love it and get into the forest and mountains to see it whenever I can. I am not professional photographer and while these images aren´t great, they are all mine. I was there to witness all of this in person. Beats any picture, any day. Here is one of my favorites.
Again, I am not a professional photographer. The amount of walking, stalking and patience (oh, and sheer luck) it took to get this shot is hard to convey. It also would have been impossible lugging around a bunch of sophisticated equipment, A: becasue you can´t be as mobile and B: it makes a lot of noise and these animals hear everything. Ok, back to the rut and what happens and why.
European Red Deer Rut 101 (Northern Spain):
It starts usually as days get shorter and with a brusk change in weather (fall arrives fully pushing summer out of the way).
The stags start calling all over the forest of Cantabria. It is a very loud, guttural sound as they bellow extremely loudly also grunting often. The forest becomes a chorus of bellowing that is awe inspiring, hard to explain. It entices females to go into heat as they “get excited” by all the males calling for them. That´s how it starts. The young males run around trying to get in the action, but they really haven´t the foggiest idea.
The rut is dominated by the largest males who do the deepest, loudest and most frequent calling. All of these things tend to indicate a male´s size and strength, a product of their good genes, and very desirable by most females. I made a still shot video with my pics and an audio recording using less than perfect equipment. The scene is of a large stag bellowing back and forth with other stags, with a few of his harem listening on as well, not that impressed by the others bellows. Click here to see the video.
Anyway, it´s all this calling that gets the bigger males large harems of females. The most vocal and strongest (I´ll get to how they prove that in a bit), get the most females in their harem.
As things start to pan out over the rut, the more powerful stags get harems while others are left without and form bachelor groups. The ones without harems try to steal away some of the females from harems. Some times this leads to fighting as the harem owner has to fend off the have not. Witnessing a head to head fight is pretty intense. It is a cacophony of antlers crashing and grunting as the stags fight until one gives up, defeated. I wish I had a real video with sound becasue it does raise the hair on the back of you neck. The males first size each other up then get after it. Here is a link to fight I witnessed. (forgive the quality).
Most of the activity happens at dawn and early evening (crepusular or twilight hours). I like to head up to a cabin in the mountains in the evening. It gives you a chance to do a bit of scouting first to locate the bigger deer, go for an nighttime stroll and prepare for the next day. A night in a cabin is always fun, quite rustic, but fun.
Morning gets me up and out early to stalk the deer. I love to see how close I can get. I usually locate some of the larger males and try to get near them, maybe witness a fight or at least hear them up close (borderline frightening). As morning passes and day breaks they tend to get tired and lay down. Perfect time to try to get close. Here is a sequence of pictures of a stalk I did.
I have been lucky enough in my life to witness some very cool wildlife experiences in my travels, but this is hand down one of my favorite because of the proximity, if you know what you are doing.
I´ll leave you with a parting video of a great experience I had. I got these shots by stalking this stag by listening to his calls in the forest, eventually getting close, then with a stroke of luck and being upwind of him, he came right at me. I crouched down and he literally came within 10 meters (30 feet) of me. Powerful. Awesome. He bellowed right in my face. He ran off as soon as he made me out. The audio is some roaring I recorded at night, but you get the idea. Watch the video here.
Going to see the rut is a great experience and one that I like to share with my visitors if their visit to Northern Spain happens to coincide with it. I have yet to meet someone that is not impressed. These are big powerful animals and getting close to them can even be scary if you aren´t used to the size and loudness.