Friday, February 10, 2012

After Hunting Season Rut????

During a "normal" hunting season, everything seems to revolve around "the rut".  Maryland has a pretty late deer hunting season, with late bow season closing out the season for the last few weeks of January.  Normally rut behavior begins toward the beginning of October and is in full swing, peaks in November, and winds down in the beginning of December.  Although, sometimes there is a "second" or late rut that occurs for a brief time in December.  Maryland's gun season is in full force by then, so often rutting behavior is replaced by survival behavior and, as a result, seldom observed in the field.

By late season, most hunters probably believe that the rut is over, and, up until recently, that included me.  We're used to seeing colder weather and the deer yard up in larger groups.  By the end of January, sometimes we witness deer that pass our stands that, at first glance, seem like big does until it's realized that those big red spots on their brows resulted from their antlers dropping.

Hunters know that sometimes the antlers don't drop for maybe a month past the end of bow season, so we tend to focus our shed hunting activities a few weeks later.  However, my learned notions of deer rutting behavior changed for me a week ago when I witnessed something that may change my hunting tactics and outlook forever.

My work locale is a completely fenced in facility with guarded gates, and has been that way since the years following 9/11.  The environment is much like a college campus with some limited wildlife habitat scattered about, with the entire complex embedded within a suburban setting just fifteen minutes from the Washington, D.C. line.  It's not exactly known as a haven for observing a deer population.  A few years ago, we began seeing a few does that found their way on campus.  I asked a couple campus police how the deer were able to access such a tightly guarded facility.  The response was something like, "They walked through the gates.  What should we do?  Ask for their IDs first?"

A year or two after that, the first bucks started showing up.  Since then, the population grew.  We've had the luxury of observing deer behavior in a closed setting, including rut behavior and breeding.  I pretty much see deer every day right outside my office window or near any field or wooded area on the property.  Sometimes they simply walk around or among the many office buildings.  As a hunter, I can't hunt these particular deer simply because it's not legal.  However, the deer behavior that I observe here provides me with valuable clues as to what the deer may be doing on the properties that I hunt, only an hour or so away near my home.  Deer are deer everywhere, right?  Well, this approach seems to work for me. 

But, on February 2nd in Maryland, while on my way into work, after parking my car in the parking garage, I observed something that people only see once in a while in the wild, but even more strange, something that never happens this late in winter...in February (for crying out loud)...and if it does, it has to be a pretty rare occurrance.  Or, is it?

So, what happened?  I looked out of the back of the garage that caused my jaw to drop.  I nearly scraped my chin on the floor as a result!  I witnessed three bucks and a doe.  Two of the bucks, a large racked eight point and a smaller six point, were locking antlers in a shoving match.  And it wasn't just sparring, they were going at it.  On top of that, a medium sized eight point strutted over to join the fun!  The sounds of antlers cracked, leaves were rustling, branches were thrashed as the bucks wrestled for position to gain an advantage over each other.   Did I mention that this was February?
This was the bigger of the three bucks, from a picture taken a several months ago behind the garage.
As this happened, I'm scrambed for my cell phone to catch this action on film.  By the time that I had the movie feature ready, they were done.  Or, were they?

The smaller buck held it's own but was eventually chased off by the bigger buck.  The two eight points locked up and attacked each other soon after, but I missed that action too.  The good news was that the little buck worked his way back for more.  I only had about fifteen more minutes to watch this spectacle because I was due in the office soon, so if I was going to capture some sort of proof on film, it had to happen fast.  I figured that nobody would believe me.  I needed proof.  Meanwhile, the doe was standing there observing the whole thing, almost amused that she was the center of all of this activity.

After a few minutes, while the bigger buck worked his rack over a sapling, mangling it, the smaller buck snuck back toward the bigger buck.  The bigger buck turned, and the smaller buck approached, and they locked up again.  They fought for a good ten minutes before I had to leave.  I'm sure that they went at it for a short time after I left.

The good news is that I captured some of the event on film!

Once in the office, every now and then I'll get up to stretch my legs, to get the blood flowing after a few hours of performing my sedentary duties.  Of course, I have to glance out the window to observe any other deer behavior.  Upon doing that, I observed that the bucks were all bedded down together near that one doe.  By the way, there were four other does in the field directly behind my office, but the bucks had no interest in them.

After my tour of duty ended, I returned to the gargage to access my car and head home.  But, of course, I had to check behind the gargage and see if anything else was going on.  And, there sure was.  The bucks kept following that doe, nudging her behind with their noses and racks, and in some sort of pecking order (but not quite fighting), tried to assert each others dominance over each other.  They were actually in a late rut!  I couldn't believe my eyes!

Prior to observing this, I thought for sure the antlers would be dropping soon.   When the bucks made contact, and especially in the form of battle, I was sure an antler would drop off.  In fact, I was hoping that one would so I could run back there and nab it!!!!!!  But, they held strong.  No shed antlers for Fat Boy on that day.

So, was it the weather causing this?  In a large doe population, I can understand why the rut could extend until all does have been courted, which could take a while, but this deer population is rather small, about twenty to thirty deer at most.  Plus, five of those deer were bucks.  I thought this was such a weird event that I had to share it here and on some of the forums that I frequent.

What does this mean for my future hunting plans?  I can tell you that, during late bow season, I won't leave my rattling antlers, grunt call, or scents at home.  I'll be using them!

For your enjoyment, I've embedded the videos below.  I apologize for the lack of quality, but all I had was my cell phone.  The first video shows a few minutes of the larger and smaller buck locking antlers and fighting.  It's hard to see at first, but about half way through the video you can see them quite easily.

This last video shows the bucks following and nudging the doe.  Looks like rutting behavior to me!  There was a full moon last week.

I hope you enjoyed this as much as I did.  Just when I think that I understand Odocoileus virginianus, they throw me for a loop with something like this.

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