Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Feeding Whitetails

Whitetail feeding on Multiflora Rose
Whitetails are opportunistic feeders and will utilize any food source that they find to their liking.  Browse is the single most important component of their diet during the winter months and the deer in my area have found multiflora rose to their liking.  Multiflora rose, now considered an invasive species was first established here by soil and wildlife conservation agencies.  Multiflora roses bloom with a profusion of small flowers and produce huge numbers of 6-8mm diameter rose hips which many species of wildlife utilize.  During the winter months the deer are undaunted by the sharp thorns as they give the bushes a good trimming.

Whitetails feeding on Ferns
Frankly, as much as I observe deer, I was surprised to observe a herd of deer digging for fern fronds.  There was to doubt that they were intentionally targeting the ferns and after returning home and googling the food value of ferns I could easily see why.  Ferns contain significant amounts of minerals and vitamins; apparently a good source of winter nutrition when included along with higher calorie foods in the daily diet.   

Fawn eating a Fern Frond

Sunday, January 27, 2013

A Winter Morning With Whitetails In The Woodlands

 After a week of cold temperatures the weather moderated with an incoming snow storm Friday afternoon.  By Saturday morning the storm had dwindled to flurries and the deer were actively feeding in the woodland.

Deer utilize many types of forage and during winter browse is high on their agenda. 

By late morning the deer had finished feeding

Spending the mid-day bedded up

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Eastern Towhee

Female Eastern Towhee
Eastern Towhee's spend most of their time scratching in brushy areas.  Only occasionally do they fly up to a perch and when they do they seldom linger for more than a moment.

Female scratching for food

Male Eastern Towhee dropping a seed husk

Checking out the lens
And getting back to the work at hand; scratching out a living
With the summer foliage gone and food becoming scarce the wintering birds are much easier to photograph than are birds at any other time of the year.   

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Pennsylvania Deer Management: My View Part 5

The Summation

Mature Pennsylvania Buck, the largest I have photographed to date  November 20120 
So after covering the herd, the hunters, herd reduction/stabilization, and finally antler restrictions, where are we at as a state in deer management?  Put together any group of hunters and you will get a number of differing opinions.  Over half agree that antler restrictions are a good thing while many if not most will decry an excess reduction of the overall deer herd.  Some will tell you that deer hunting just isn’t what it used to be while others will swear that we are on a path to annihilating deer from the commonwealth.  Some like the concurrent season structure while others think that we are killing too many does and should return to the old way with two weeks of buck season and three days of doe.

Hunter perception of the situation will in large part be based upon their own experience, what others have told them, and what they have gleaned from the outdoor media.  Those who hunt on tightly controlled private land where herd reduction was limited typically are more satisfied than those who hunt easily accessible public areas where hunter densities are very high. 
 Let's take a moment to look back at the kill statistics 1915-1985.  These are reported kill numbers.
Note that the deer harvest continued an upward trend throughout the seventy year period
In 1986 the PGC began publishing an estimated deer harvest because of the falling rate of hunters complying with regulations requiring harvest reporting.  Teams are dispatched to survey deer processors around the state to gather tagging and aging data.  This data is matched up against the harvest reports from successful hunters to determine the average reporting rates for each wildlife management unit.  This data is then used to determine the estimated harvest. 
Note the rise in harvest in the late 1980's, leveling off at around 400,000 deer throughout the 1990's, spiking to over 500,000 as herd reduction began, and now as habitat improves and the herd hopefully stabilizes the total harvest number has risen slightly above 1986 levels. 
Deer hunting and the deer herd has changed in recent years as it has since the beginning of time.  Pennsylvania was well known for its whitetail deer and deer hunters during the early years of our country when deer hunting was a business.  In 1861 Colonel Thomas L Kane raised the 1st Pennsylvania Rifles from the counties of Chester, Clearfield, Elk McKean, Perry, Tioga, and Warren to fight in our Civil War.  Each soldier wore a deer tail attached to his hat earning the unit the nickname “The Pennsylvania Bucktails”.  By the late 19th century unregulated market hunting and habitat destruction had nearly wiped whitetails from the scene.  From that low point, thanks to political pressure from hunting conservation groups, the PGC was founded and set out on a path to restore some of what had been lost.  During the 20th century many mistakes were made by wildlife managers as there really wasn’t much science to guide them in managing wildlife for sport hunting.  One of the mistakes made was allowing the herd to grow too large.

My opinion: 

Antler Restrictions; should have been done years earlier if not from the very beginning.  The change in the age make-up of the buck herd was long overdue and it sure is nice seeing some decent bucks.

Herd reduction:  Not quite so good.  HR was a bitter pill to swallow however it was necessary if we were to have any chance to balance our deer herd with the habitat.  Forest regeneration was being impacted, agriculture was taking a heavy hit, and deer/auto collisions were at an unacceptable high.  HR wasn’t applied evenly, public land and state forest land where DCNR implemented the DMAP program was particularly hard hit.
Contrary to the perception that the deer herd has been destroyed let us reference data recently published using numbers from State Farm Insurance.  State Farm estimates that over 115,000 deer/auto collisions will occur in the commonwealth during 2013.  We are ranked as the fifth worst state for deer collisions with 1 in every 78 Pennsylvania driver expected to collide with a deer. While some may dispute the PGC's estimated harvest numbers it's difficult to dispute the independent numbers from State Farm.

 Today the herd has rebounded some as the habitat has improved.  From my observations I believe that we have more bucks percentage wise and overall more adult bucks (2+ years of age) than at any time in my past if not in the entire history of the PGC’s management of the deer herd.  If the PGC doesn’t bow to political pressure and continues using the ever improving science of wildlife management to stay on the path of keeping the herd in line with its environment the future of deer and deer hunting in the commonwealth is bright.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Pennsylvania Deer Management: My View Part 4

Antler Restrictions

Typical Yearling Pa Buck
When Dr. Alt took his show on the road his intent was to reduce Pennsylvania deer herd.  In exchange for less deer he offered hunters larger bucks through his antler restriction (AR) proposal.  During his road show he displayed antlers from different year class bucks illustrating the difference in antler mass between yearlings and more mature bucks.  I remember well the meeting I attended how attentive the audience was as he held up the different age class racks and the ripple of low chatter as the folks noted their amazement to their neighbors of the significance a buck's age plays in relation to the size of his antlers.

An Exceptional Yearling Buck For My Area
Bucks of this size were consider very nice before AR

Typical 2 Year Old
Bucks of this caliber, though not quite as numerous as the yearlings, are very common today
 Three year old lip-curling
First of all did antler restrictions produce the results desired by the PGC?
Their answer is a resounding yes, based upon six of seven criteria rated in the article Antler Restrictions in Pennsylvania, are they Working.
My opinion is that AR is the best thing to come out of the PGC in relation to the deer herd since deer populations were reestablished across the state.  Before AR it was not uncommon for me to go through an entire year without seeing so much as one buck as large as the one pictured above.  While I had read of how bucks would form bachelor groups outside of the rut but this was a part of deer behaviour that I only was able to view a few times outside of a National Park.  Fighting, sparring, lip-curling, the things that make a buck photo were nearly impossible to come by.  Yes we had bucks but they were young inexperienced deer.  Before they could develop into adults and take up the habits of adult whitetail males they were gone and this persisted year after year, decade after decade for nearly a century.  Now by spending time in search of bucks, bachelor groups, particularly in summer, can be found by observing good food sources during early morning and late evening hours.
I have heard and read some criticism of AR from disappointed hunters and will list a few here.
AR reduces hunter success rates:  Actually if you look back to 1986, the first year of estimated harvest numbers the hunter success rate was hanging at about 13%.  As the herd grew out of control buck hunter success rates climbed to around 16%.  Now with the herd reduced and AR in play buck hunter success rates have return to 13%.
AR may genetically damage the herd:  To this my answer is simply; what genetic damage could a century of selecting for males not capable of growing a three inch spike as a yearling do?  Can this in any way be worse?  The PGC states that ongoing studies indicate that today's AR is not damaging the herd genetics and I see no reason to differ with them.
AR is unnecessary, simply reducing the doe herd is all that is needed to produce big bucks:  I would expect that hunters voicing this opinion did not experience hunting in the 1960's, at least not in my area.  By today's standard (yes, even after herd reduction) deer were scarce, forest regeneration was absolutely no problem, and mature bucks were scarcer still.  Growing up on the family farm I learned from the outset that you could not grow a mature steer in one year by selling all of your cows.  The same thing goes for the deer. 
A number of factors influence a bucks antler size among them are food availability, soil mineral content, overall health, genetics, and age.  Pennsylvania's approach was to improve food availability by reducing the overall size of the herd to promoting better overall deer health.  In a wild herd there is not much that can be done about soil mineral content or genetics.
Pennsylvania has the highest concentration of deer hunters of any state in the nation.  A recent chart published by the Quality Deer Management Association list hunter density at 20 per square mile, or one hunter for every 32 acres in the state without subtracting area for cities, bodies of water etc.  With so many hunters in the woods looking for a buck (every hunter receives an antlered deer tag with his regular hunting license) AR is the only way to ensure that any buck a chance to grow up.
Fully Mature Whitetail Buck; Shenandoah National Park Va.
Producing bucks of this level was not the PGC's objective, however AR increases the odds of a few surviving to become truly massive majestic animals.

When Dr. Alt began talking about his plan I was surprised that Pennsylvania would even entertain such a move with the three-inch rule so firmly entrenched.  While I hoped that it would be enacted into the hunting regulations I thought since it seemed such a good thing that it probably would never happen.  Now with eleven years of AR behind us over 60% of Pennsylvania's hunters support AR and frankly it has done more for the quality of bucks than I could allow myself to hope for. 

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Pennsylvania Deer Management: My View Part 3

Herd Reduction and Stabilization

By the late 1990's Pennsylvania's deer herd was booming.  Hunters were experiencing better deer hunting success than ever since the inception of the PGC over 100 years before.  Whereas for decades hunters had been limited to one deer per year, limits had been liberalized allowing hunters with the required doe tags to take as many as three deer and the herd continued to grow.

However all was not well. Forest regeneration was being hampered in many areas of the state as the burgeoning deer population browsed the new growth as quickly as it grew.  Pennsylvania’s Department of Conservation and Natural Resources was said to be in danger of losing their sustainable forest certification because of the extensive deer damage.  Farmers became irate as they watched their crops being heavily damaged or even destoryed before harvest.  As the deer spread to urban areas, homeowners complained of the deer eating their expensive landscape plantings.  Last but not least the deer were taking an expensive and sometimes dangerous toll on motorist as deer/auto collision numbers rose with the deer numbers.

As I was representing the PGC at that time as a Deputy Wildlife Conservation Officer I heard plenty of the complaints first hand.  “What is the Game Commission going to do about all of these deer?” was the question sure to be heard when meeting with a farmer.  The same could be had at a deer collision scene.  At that time the PGC expected officers to remove road killed deer from the state highways; road kill removal, a year around chore, consumed much of an officer’s duty time and particularly in the warmer months was a bit unsavory to say the least.  At one meeting in 1998 our District Conservation Officer noted that in his first year in the district, 1978, he and his deputies had removed a little over one hundred deer from the highways.  By 1998 we were removing over one hundred a month!

After increasing kill limits with little success Dr. Gary Alt was appointed as the head of the new Deer Management Section and began a three year program of holding public meetings around the state to sell the concept of herd reduction coupled with antler restrictions (AR).

Whereas in the past antlerless (doe) hunting had been limited to three days following the regular firearms season; a week long antlerless muzzleloader season in October, a three day October antlerless season for Jr. and Senior hunters, and antlerless season running concurrent with the two week buck season was implemented.  Antlerless allocations were liberalized and the DMAP (Deer Management Assistance Program) was created as a vehicle to provide additional antlerless tags to areas where the landowner (or DCNR in the case of state forest) deemed it necessary to further reduce deer numbers.  This effort to reduce the herd began in earnest starting with the 2001 deer season and antler restriction began the following year.

While doing the research for this post I compiled the PGC's estimated deer kill stats in the graph below.  By 2000 the antlerless kill which had more or been approximately equal to the antlered kill had begun to grow and an even greater disparity can be seen as AR kicks in for the 2002 season.   


As the deer herd’s numbers fell hunters began to complain that Pennsylvania’s deer hunting was being ruined.  Rumors abounded as to the reasons and everyone complaining had their own pet collection of motivation but to say that many hunters were unhappy would be like saying Robert E. Lee was unhappy about the outcome of our Civil War.  Hunter frustration became so strong that the strife has been reported in outdoor publications as “The Deer Wars”.  One large sportsmen’s group has even gone so far as to sue the PGC.

Now for my personal view; I love deer!  I love to see deer and I have loved to hunt deer and as the years roll by I much prefer to do my hunting with a camera but I still like deer and am always thrilled to get them, particularly nice bucks, in front of the lens.  However having deer around is not without consequence; like nearly everyone else I drive automobiles.  From the time I began driving in 1972 until 1988 I had just one collision with a deer.  Although my annual mileage did not change significantly beginning with 1989 I began hitting deer, at first it was averaging one per year and by the mid 1990’s I was hitting two and by the late 90’s sometimes three per year.  As herd reduction brought the deer under control my accident rate fell with only one collision since 2005.  With that said I am not a fast driver and am normally very aware of the roadsides in areas of my commute where deer are commonly seen but most of my millage is racked up driving rural two lane roads and much of it at night.  Do I like this aspect of herd reduction, you bet.


Secondly, at least in my area, Alt cannot take all of the credit.  I am unsure of the exact years but it was either 2003/2004 or 2004/2005, we had two very bad winters with snow and heavy crust covering the ground for a month or more.  By the ends of each these winters there was a significant number of dead deer.  I well remember roaming the mountain behind my home and coming upon bone pile after bone pile.  One large landowner who frequently called to deal with poachers restricted hunting on his property to just himself and his immediate family.  Driving through his property in the evening it was common to see 100+ deer grazing in his fields.  With the restricted hunting allowed on his holdings the PGC’s program could not make a significant change in the deer numbers however following those two winters he estimated that the herd had decreased bout 80% and from my own observations I would concur with his estimate.  During these same winters I remember picking up road kills in late February through March and noting how light even the adult deer had become; all were very easy to lift onto the deer rack perhaps no more than 1/2 to 2/3 of their weight during the autumn.  Also following these winters fawns were scarce and throughout the summers their numbers appeared to be very few compared to the number of adult does seen. 

It is the PGC's duty to manage wildlife populations for the good of all citizens of the commonwealth; not just the hunter, not just the farmer, not just the forest owner, not just the motorist, but rather for everyone and the focus should be on what is best for the species.  With this in mind it is IMPOSSIBLE for the PGC to make everyone happy and perhaps when it comes to deer it is impossible to make anyone happy.
Note: my personal opinion is based on conditions as I have observed them in South Central Pennsylvania and I do not have personal experience with other areas of the state.


To be continued, next up AR    

Monday, January 07, 2013

Pennsylvania Deer Management: My View Part 2

The Hunters

My Grandfather, 1972.  A rare "big buck" for the time

Growing up in a rural farming area of Pennsylvania I had an insatiable interest in wildlife, hunting, and fishing.  The two most anticipated magazines were Outdoor Life and Pennsylvania Game News and I knew nearly to the day when each would arrive each month.  When a new edition arrived I could hardly wait until time would permit opening up their glossy covers adorned with wildlife photos or paintings and consume the contents from cover to cover.  Perhaps my obsession with wildlife was stronger than many of my school classmate, but as we came of hunting age in the mid 1960’s virtually all of us at least participated in deer hunting.  Upon returning to class after the deer season opener everyone was asking the same question, “did you get your buck”.   Not only was this prevalent at our school, but it was the question being asked wherever and whenever the local men met.  

At this time most private property was open to public hunting.  Few properties were posted “No Hunting” and most hunters felt free to pursue deer wherever they pleased.  There were two basic hunting tactics being used; stump sitting and driving.  Many hunters hunted in gangs of anywhere from a handful of hunters to as many as 25 with 25 being the most permitted by law.  The gangs would select a section of territory; place standers in spots where the deer were expected to flee, and then push out the section with the drivers.  As the drivers moved towards the standers the drivers would occasionally yell to keep everyone aware of their position.  With most land open to hunting if you were a stump sitter, a person hunting alone waiting on stand, it wasn’t uncommon to find yourself in the middle of one or more drives during any given day of deer hunting.  Regardless of which tactic one was using the presence of gangs beating the bushes kept deer moving throughout the day and increased the chance of getting a shot for everyone.

While scope sights had been on the market for a number of years, they were not universally accepted.  Many hunters still relying on open iron sights; preferring them for the snap shots at fleeing deer.  The rifles they were carrying varied greatly.  30-06's, 8mm Mauser's, .303 British military rifles from the world wars, and even some 30-40 Craig's from an even earlier time were quite popular as was rifles built for the hunting market.  For the gang hunters whose most frequent opportunities were at running deer, iron sighted fast repeating rifles were the hands down favorite.  For these hunters the lever action Winchester 94’s carbines, Marlin 336’s, and Remington 760 Game Master pumps were most popular.  While the stump sitters often had shots at less disturbed deer these fast shooting rifles were still popular among them along with scope sighted bolt action sporters for more accurate shot placement. 

That was the way it was, but slowly hunting began to change as land use and land ownership began to transform the hunting scene.  Slowly one by one the family farms gave way to low farm produce prices and increased land pricing brought on by folks from the Baltimore/ Washington area buying up farms for vacation/retirement homes “No Hunting” signs became more common with each passing year.  As the years passed many of the hunting gangs members aged out and younger folks, with less and less open land to conduct drives on either quit hunting or changed their tactics. Hunting magazines, always in business to promote the sale of products, touted increased success using tree stands, ground blinds, scope sights better suited for shooting at still or slowly moving targets and accurate bolt action rifles capable of downing a deer at a considerable distance.  Deer hunters in large part became stationary, tucked away in a comfortable spot on the ground, in a ground blind or hanging on the side of a tree.  With the accurate rifles and good optics the modern hunter was able to identify legal bucks and harvest them at a higher rate than in the days of iron sights.

Not only did the bucks have the firearms hunters to contend with but archery hunting, a novelty in the 1950's and 60's had became very popular.  With two months or more of archery season and a flintlock hunting season added in the weeks following Christmas the chances of a  legal buck making it through to his second year had become exceedingly slim. 

Pennsylvania, a state with a long deer hunting tradition, had become a state of young bucks and small antlers.  Few states could match us for quantity of deer and harvest rates, but adult bucks carrying nice antlers were sadly lacking.     

To be continued………..

Saturday, January 05, 2013

Pennsylvania Deer Management: My View, Part 1

The Deer Herd

Ten years ago Pennsylvania drastically changed direction in their deer management program.  The two components were total herd reduction coupled with antler restrictions.  Dr. Gary Alt toured the state holding public meetings to sell the new management program.  First and foremost herd reduction was the cornerstone of the new program.  We were told that Pennsylvania's deer herd was too large and was adversely damaging the habitat; that a considerable herd reduction was required.  As an incentive for the hunters to buy into reducing the herd  Dr. Alt offered the second feature of his program, antler restrictions, thus improving the breeding ecology of the herd resulting in large bucks available for harvest. 
Deer were practically non-existent in my area of Pennsylvania in the early 1900's.  I well remember my grandfather telling the tale of his very first deer sighing.  I don't know what year it occurred but it was probably in the late 1920's.  As he told the story, a new snow had fallen overnight and sometime during the morning a neighbor stopped by telling him that he had spotted deer tracks crossing a field.  With deer season being in (buck only) they gathered a number of neighbors, picked up their motley collection of guns, mostly single barreled shotguns with slugs, and set off tracking the deer, eventually killing a buck out of the group of three deer.
During those long ago years to be a legal buck a deer must have at least one spike 3" long or a "Y" on one side.  This antler requirement was to remain for many decades up until the current AR became law eleven hunting seasons ago.  During this time deer went from becoming very rare to where antlerless season was established; first a single day, then two days with the occasional extension due to bad weather, and then three days every year.  During the 1960's and 70's the deer herd seemed relativity stable in my area but after the gypsy moth infestation killed the mature timber in the mid eighties, the timber salvage cuts, and the resulting forest regeneration provided nearly unlimited cover and browse; deer numbers skyrocketed.  Where in earlier years a first day of deer season may produce anywhere from none to perhaps a dozen deer sightings, by the early 90's seeing 30, 40, 50, or even 60 or more was not that uncommon.  By the late 1990's much of undergrowth was gone severely limiting the amount of browse available and the deer turned their attention to agricultural crops wrecking havoc. 
While we had plenty of deer and plenty of bucks seldom did one see an adult buck.  Most bucks were harvested at 1.5 years of age with many being spikes or three points with some even being small 8's.  Seldom could you spot a buck with 8 points or more with a spread reaching 15".  Buck of this size were so rare that most local hunters considered them "wall hangers" and would frequently have them mounted and display them proudly.  Even the avid hunter would at best harvest a couple of this size in a lifetime; if he were lucky.
This was the conditions in my area at the time that Dr. Alt was selling his new concept of Pennsylvania deer management.
To be continued........... 

Tuesday, January 01, 2013

Birds at the Deck Feeder

Deck Feeder
Photographing the winter birds at the feeders is a pleasurable way to pass time during the cold winter months.  This view of my deck shows my "left-over bird feeder", a feeder that I constructed from odds and ends left over from various other projects from years past including left-over shingles from a shed I built over twenty years ago.

To utilize the deck feeder as a outdoor bird studio required a place to hide and my old pop-up Outhouse blind fit perfectly on the opposite end of the deck.  At this distance I could obtain good frame filling shots while still being just a little over the minimum focus distance of the Canon 600 F4 lens.
 A weathered branch screwed to the deck railing wrapped with a vine still retaining a few leaves provided a good natural looking perch while adding a spot of color to the photographs. 

Within just a couple of days the birds were utilizing the new perch as if it had always been there.

Male Cardinal sits on the "natural" perch

The evergreen just beyond the feeder provides numerous scenic perches as well as cover from the occasional hawk attack.
Backyard bird feeding is a very popular past-time and with just a little thought and effort nearly any backyard feeder can be converted into an outstanding outdoor bird studio.