by Gustave Axelson
Most people have to turn on Discovery Channel if they want to see an 800-pound beast in the wild. Minnesotans can see the real thing in our north woods—a moose. The back roads of Superior National Forest offer the perfect boreal-forest habitat for moose and a moose-watching safari: wetlands and greened-up areas of tree saplings regenerating after clear-cuts and fires.
Come fall, bull moose go into rut, and cows are in estrus. And during this mating season, Minnesota's ultimate megafauna exhibit some fascinating behavior. You might encounter a big bull thrashing willows with his massive rack, a cow moaning to lure a mate, and, just maybe, two brawny moose locking antlers in a head-crashing duel.
Moose Calling 101
Watch a video of DNR wildlife manager Tom Rusch demonstrating moose calling techniques.
With a little knowledge of rut behavior, moose watchers can increase their chances of seeing a spectacular show.
Prime Time. Mating season for moose begins around the third week of September and can last into late October. This is when a big bull is at his grandest, with a hard, bony rack—rubbed free of velvet in early September—now finely polished by rubbing on trees and brush.
"The rut is when moose are on their feet almost constantly, the most mobile they'll be all year, and so they're as visible to people as they're going to be," says Tom Rusch, Department of Natural Resources area wildlife manager in Tower.
Rusch says the photoperiod (decreasing amount of daylight as autumn progresses) is the biological trigger for the rut, but the weather can ramp it up or shut it down. "Seasonably cold weather seems to kick the rut into gear come late September. After a clear, chilly night, the bulls can really get going," he says. "But if there's a warm stretch, moose get less active. If it stays warm, the rut becomes a nighttime activity."
Search for Sign. Bull moose leave signs of their rutting rituals in the woods. Trees with patches of bark rubbed off could be spots where a bull left his calling card.
Cow moose also leave bare spots on tree trunks. A cow strips the bark with her mouth, then rubs her head on the wood to leave a scent with special glands on her forehead near her eyes and behind her ears. The scent advertises to bulls that the cow is in estrus.
Bull moose likewise advertise to cows via scent, using wallow pits. A bull scrapes a pit a few inches deep and a couple of feet wide and urinates in it. Then he dips his head, antlers, and dewlap into the pit. Because his dewlap is filled with capillaries and very warm, it intensifies the scent of his moose cologne.
Mating Calls. Quite often, people hear a rutting moose before they see one. Cows let out a long, wavering moan, which can carry as far as a mile. Bulls respond with a series of short grunts. If a cow and a bull moose detect each other, they play a game of Marco Polo—moans, followed by grunt replies—until the bull zeroes in on the cow's location. Moose can triangulate the source of these sounds from a long way off, even in heavy cover.
Brave souls can mimic the calls of rutting moose to bring a bull or a cow in for a closer view. Traditionalists use a scroll of birch bark rolled up like a megaphone (a time-honored Ojibwe technique) to broadcast their moose calls, but others just cup their hands.
Moose callers should be wary if they're lucky enough to get near a moose. Bulls can be ornery during the rut, occasionally charging people, cars, and even trains.
Where to Look. The prime places to see moose in mating season are wide-open spaces in the woods or shallow waters—anyplace a moose's call is most audible to a potential mate and moose can clearly see each other.
Rusch suggests that moose watchers plot a day trip by getting a map of the Superior National Forest and looking for a loop of forest roads. Good moosing routes include the Gunflint and Arrowhead trails near Grand Marais, the Echo Trail, and state Highway 1 near Ely, and County Road 7 and the Stony River Grade road near Finland and Isabella.
"Peak moose breeding time and fall color tend to overlap in northeast Minnesota, generally between Oct. 5 and 15. Combining [moose watching and foliage viewing] can make for a beautiful trip and exciting photo opportunities," says Rusch. "I would recommend spending time in good moose country in mid-October. Visibility improves as the leaves begin falling and the underbrush opens up at this time."
Moose watchers should avoid areas where hunters are active (season Oct. 1 to 16). Moose hunters are on a once-in-a-lifetime hunt, so be sure to give them plenty of room. But there's ample space for both moose watchers and hunters in the woods, Rusch says. To be visible to all hunters, moose watchers should wear a blaze orange cap or vest.
Rusch also warns that moose are unpredictable wild animals, so moose watchers should use common sense: "Remember, you're not at a zoo. Keep a respectable distance from any moose, and have a big tree or vehicle near you for an escape plan."
Grand Marais area wildlife manager Dave Ingebrigtsen echoes that warning: "Moose present a real risk. There have been incidents of vehicles attacked and people chased into trees."
For those willing to brave the risk, "a handsome bull moose with huge beams for antlers can be a once-in-a-lifetime experience, something most people never get to see," Rusch says. "It's one of those things that makes the north woods so special."