Whitetail Winter Survival

At the heart of it all, one always has nature to rely on. It is the one constant in my life that has ‘always been there’ for me when times get tough. Nature, quite simply, is my recharge.  But more specifically than that, my natural habitat is the forest.  I find great comfort being tucked into a deep forest, surrounded by trees, and soaking in the sounds of a babbling brook or singing bird.  And, with January in full-swing, I was really starting to feel the grip of ‘winter depression’ take hold, so I knew the time had come to get out for another hike.

 

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Despite having a tree camera up for the last two weeks, I was unable to yield a single photo of a deer in that entire time.  Not because they weren’t there – but because my camera was placed too high on the tree trunk!  Naturally, I was very upset, so I’m going to give it another go this week with a fresh memory card and place it lower on the trunk.

Temperatures are cold, and while I have no issues hiking in 20 degree Fahrenheit weather, once it drops below that though, I tend to stay ‘indoors’ unless I get a particularly strong spell of ‘cabin fever’.  For the past couple of weeks we’ve been into the negative degrees, and then back all the way up to an unseasonal 60 degree day in some areas.

After a downpour of rain foiled any plans Dad and I had for Saturday, we opted to try again Sunday, after temperatures dropped back down into seasonal winter weather.  There was plenty of sign, just no sign of the rut.  The scrape I had found only two weeks prior was now abandoned;completely covered in snow.  I felt compelled to sketch the scrape, and then compelled to ‘imagine’ what the buck might’ve looked like who made it – bedded down just yards away, awaiting his next love:

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As we meandered  we noted coyote tracks, whitetail deer tracks, cottontail rabbit, squirrel, and mouse tracks as well! It was rather sunny and cold, and no sheds were found, but any day in the woods is a good day in my book.
One of the more interesting things we noticed were patches where deer had gathered and kicked up the snow to find food:

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Deer ranges limit greatly during the winter, and even since our last visit to this location, we have seen the trails ‘switch up’, with deer concentrating closer to food sources. This should making finding our next shed antler a lot easier, hopefully! These are great locations to check because winter time food aggression causes physical disputes that may result in an antler being jarred off in the kerfuffle of survival mode.  The shed we found 12/28 was in one such place, near the edge of where leaves had been all kicked up.

And so, as I sit here typing this it is snowing outside, and we are expecting 1-3 inches.  I have artwork to work on tomorrow, but I’m hoping to get out again next Friday, weather and schedule permitting.

 

 

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Warming Up

The weather here in central Pennsylvania has been exceptionally cold, and it had dipped into negative 16 degrees F up the mountain in Ebensburg last week.  Here in Altoona it was ‘ZERO’ that day.  Thankfully, temps raised yesterday and are supposed to raise even more possibly hitting the 50 degree marker.  That said, I have been biting at the bit to get out and do some hiking and get some new inspiration and there will be LOTS to report on (I hope) this Friday.

As snow melts over these next couple of days it’s going to provide Dad and I the perfect chance to get out and look for more sheds.  With the way winter hit us so hard already, I’m sure the whitetail rut has probably ended completely by now.  As the testosterone levels drop, so do the antlers!  I am absolutely biting at the bit to get out into the woods!!!

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The Grape Patch Doe

Ever cautious, I would bet I saw this same young doe a dozen times as she crept behind my blind to feed on wild fox grapes.  She would revisit multiple times in the day, often in late morning (around 9 AM) and then again around lunch time.  When she was finished feeding she would retreat to cover to bed and digest her tasty meal. (The date on my sketch says 2017, but it was actually changed to 2018! I hate getting used to a new date! Haha!)

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Tell Tale Tracks

It’s a cold one out there today folks! At least it is here in the mountainous regions of central Pennsylvania – where it is a nippy 10 degrees Fahrenheit!

My partner and I drove to a cleaning job up the mountain and it was absolutely frigid up there!  With the teeth of a biting wind nashing at our exposed skin, it’s hard to imagine how humans lived through this kind of weather. The same thing could be said for wildlife!

Since I didn’t get out for a hike today, I thought I’d share the first page out of my new sketchbook. This particular sketch is of the frozen creek bottom where Dad and I hiked around looking for sheds on the 29th of December, 2017.  I wanted to record it in the sketchpad while it was still fresh in my mind. I will be writing field notes in these sketches to help record my journeys.

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If you look closely in my sketch, a deer had recently crossed the creek, and there were indications that the transition to the ice was, shall we say, less than smooth! Slipping hoof prints on the soft dusting of snow that lay on the ice was sure proof that ‘someone’ had to get their bearings before moving across the rest of the way safe and sound.  And luckily so, as a broken leg on a deer could mean a meal later for the local coyotes.

My Father and I ‘bumped’ a total of three deer during our hike, but we also noted the tracks of Eastern Coyote, Bobcat, Fisher, Gray Squirrel, Red Squirrel, various mice, and a Porcupine!  As jolly as it all seems in text, the truth is that the coyotes were trailing the deer, the bobcats were trailing the mice, and the fishers were trailing the squirrels (and are known porcupine killers).  It was a true reminder that no matter WHAT the thermometer reads, these animals are all just trying to survive day to day in the only ways they know how.  And it also bares noting that no matter how much we want to think of a forest in the terms of storybook fairytale, we would be kidding ourselves if we didn’t acknowledge the truth of the matter: NATURE IS BRUTAL!

 

 

The Unusual Hobbies of Antler Addicts

Ever since I was a small boy, I have felt a deep connection with whitetail deer.  I feel the connection with all deer species, but whitetails in particular have made an impact most of ALL as they are the deer I grew up seeing every day among my home in the hills and mountains of Pennsylvania.  Even back when I was 14 years old I remember having sketches and “maps” of fields that would indicate individual deer (which I would nickname) as well as the corridors and trails they used most often to enter for feeding.  I have many fond memories of sitting peacefully, surrounded by deer who had practically grown used to my scent, and watching their interactions and habits change throughout the change of the seasonal spectrum.  As of now, January 1st, we are in the “POST RUT” phase, where a few bucks/does are still breeding but most are DONE, and now focusing on winter survival.   Now is the time when I start thinking about shed hunting, a great pastime that gets the tough-skinned outdoor enthusiast out and about in the winter woodlands!

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The “sheds” I’m speaking of, are the antlers of deer that are “shed” after the testosterone levels drop with the temperatures and strain of the breeding season or “rut”. Shed hunting is not easy, and it is a hobby that requires you to cover a lot of terrain – so no “armchair enthusiasts” exist here, in this unique little hobby!  As the years have gone by, my Dad and I have gotten better at finding sheds, and this year I have good feelings we will do well again!  Sheds can be found at all times of the year, but the best time to look is definitely spring after the first thaw.  “March Madness” some call it.  However, some bucks retain their antlers until March.  Most shed in January/February. And some shed as early as December, as we found out just the other day.

Just a few days ago (December 29th, 2017) my dad and I set out on an early season shed hunt.  It had snowed on Christmas Eve/Christmas, but the snow was shallow, draped across the ravines and ridges of our oak woodlands like a white blanket.  We didn’t honestly expect to find anything, but we both knew it was possible.  We had enough faith that we even braved the twenty-some degree weather to go looking!  Given our luck finding 3 sheds in spring, we had faith, even as we meandered empty-handed.  As luck (and some skill) would have it, we pretty much simultaneously came across a small fork that had been shed probably on the 28th of December! The antler was a  SUPER fresh shed, still carrying spatters of fresh blood where it lay in the kerfuffle of leaf litter that had been kicked up in the snow.

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I was first to yell “THERE’S ONE”, so Dad let me keep it officially!  He’s been telling people I threw him down in the snow to get it, which is a total lie! Although if it had been bigger, I might have! Ha ha ha! There has been a lot of snow  early this year, and I think maybe it has condensed the end of the rut a bit.  However, some bucks still show signs that they are actively breeding.

While some whitetail bucks have depleted their testosterone and focus now on surviving the winter, simultaneously there is a fresh scrape with dirt flung across the fresh snow that indicated some bucks are still actively breeding and fighting for does.   For those who don’t know, a “scrape” is a territorial scent post where bucks scrape the ground with their hooves and lick overhead branches.  They use their glands, orbital, pre-orbital, and spit on the overhanging branches, and urinate down their legs into the tarsal glands, giving them a stronger odor. You find them the most from October – December.  When a snow falls, you can return and see if it’s been scraped back up and still being actively used.

If you want to go out looking for sheds, here are some tips:

  1. Food Sources are a great place to start.  If you know of a field where deer are often seen feeding, and have permission to be on the property, check it out!  Food aggression in the hard times of winter often cause bucks to dislodge their antlers during physical encounters.
  2. Hard jumps, as in fencerows,  small creeks, and logs that cross deer trails, as well as road side banks are a great place to look.  The impact of leaping and bounding can often be enough to jar an antler loose as they begin to loosen in winter.
  3. If you find one, (especially a larger one) walk circles.  The three sheds my Dad and I found last spring were not far apart.  Larger bucks don’t tend to like the imbalance of carrying one antler, so it’s generally kicked or bumped off pretty quickly when the first falls.  Smaller bucks though, may not notice the imbalance as much and the antlers are sometimes shed further apart.
  4. Get ’em EARLY!  Calcium-rich antlers are often chewed up by rodents, and I am sure coyotes/foxes use them as chew toys too.  The sun bleaches them.  The sooner you get them, the better condition they will be in. 🙂

On that note, time to get going! Happy New Year to all, and may the trail rise to meet your every step in 2018! I will talk to you again very soon, so STAY TUNED!

Holiday Errands and Hungry Hawks

It’s the holiday season, which means the hustle and bustle around the city of Altoona is unbearable.  It would seem that drivers just decide to make up their own rules for the road when this time of year comes around.  So naturally, when I had some errands to run yesterday, I was out to get them done as quickly and painlessly as possible.  I had art-related work to get done which doubled as a Christmas gift buying trip.

My trip out involved getting a half dozen prints of my work matted and ready for pick up, and making some prints of an Eastern Screech Owl pen and ink that I’ve had stashed away for a few months:

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There has been an Eastern Screech Owl making random appearances in our yard locally.  We’ve never seen him or her, but we’ve certainly heard the whinnying calls from the arborvitae and eastern hemlock trees outside.  I’m sure the fact that we have so many birdfeeders has contributed to the rodent population – with which the owls and birds of prey are willing to help remedy.

I haven’t seen the sick House Finches that have been showing up around the yard.  We took our feeders down and soaked them in bleach water. (1 part bleach, 9 parts water) to kill any hint of the finch disease that may linger on the feeders to spread to other House Finches.   Once thoroughly dry, we put new seed in the feeders and hung them up again. Hopefully this helps slow the disease down, but it’s clear that this is an ongoing problem in the Eastern U.S.  Perhaps if mankind didn’t capture these birds out west and interbreed them as “Hollywood Finches” they wouldn’t be so susceptible to a disease that normally only affects poultry.  I am reporting my findings to Cornell Lab of Ornithology and hope to become part of their citizen science program. Any way I can contribute to bird conservation and protection, I will.

It’s been a good week for my trout art.  I’ve sold three matted prints including two full color rainbow trout prints and a pen and ink of one hell of a ‘lunker’ brown trout on a streamer. (A streamer is a long fly lure used to mimic a baitfish or aquatic insect.)

The two paintings with green mats are my entries to last years Delaware Trout Stamp – which I did not so much as place in!! My skills have grown since then, however, and I greatly look forward to entering two pieces in the next contest – which starts pretty soon actually.  In addition to that I have compiled a hefty list of other stamp contests to participate in for 2015.  You can click on my trout art below for a better look at the art itself.

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The Cooper’s Hawk that has been visiting the yard for prey has made a successful kill.  I’m guessing the bird that was nabbed was either a sick house finch, a house sparrow (both of which are invasive and bullies) or a female cowbird (a parasite, but native bird, that lays its eggs in other birds nests – dooming their own chicks to plummet to the earth).  Either way, I’m okay with it.  All that remained in the yard was a beak and a pile of feathers- a troublesome bird has been removed – and now we won’t have a juvenile starving Cooper’s Hawk on our hands.  The circle of life!  Sometimes ugly, but always necessary.

Just say the hell away from my native birds, Mr. Cooper’s Hawk.  Please?

 

Art

Next year is looking pretty good already in terms of art exhibits and opportunities.  My career as a wildlife artist continues to grow, and the bigger it seems to get, the more food it requires!  Not literal food of course, I’m referring more to the spiritual nutrients we artists get when showing our work thru events and exhibitions! Ha!  I look forward to these in order to get my name out there, but also to brush elbows with some of our areas fine artists and possibly learn from them.

So far for 2015, I have seven group art exhibits marked, which is 7 opportunities to make new connections.  These group exhibitions are often big attractors – more so than a solo exhibit might be – which means my art will be exposed to a lot of people who may not know my name yet. And so, I have full intentions on making that list grow even more but I’m trying to find a healthy balance between exhibitions and art competitions.

Here’s to new successes!