Wednesday, January 27, 2016



My wife Bea and I live in a log home on six acres of woods adjoining 2000+ acres of game lands owned by the Pennsylvania Game Commission. We have a resident population of white-tailed deer that we see on a regular basis.  On Friday December 11, 2015,  I drove my tractor up to our barn near the edge of the woods.  When I shut off the engine I heard  rustling in the leaves nearby and I observed a deer stand up and move further into the trees where it stopped and turned its head.  Wow! It had a big rack, but it was getting dark so I could not really count the points.  I was surprised a buck with that set of antlers had survived hunting season.

When I returned to the house I mentioned this to Bea and she remarked that "I hope they don't shoot Bambi tomorrow".  Saturday, the twelfth of December, was the last day of Deer Season and when we heard loud shots during the day we feared the worst.

We did not see any sign of this buck until after the big snow storm.  It started to snow at 3:30 on Friday January the 22end  and ended on Saturday  evening about 9:30. After 30 hours we were looking at 27 inches of the white stuff.

Sunday was "dig out day".  A neighbor plowed out our driveway and I dug paths so we could get around and I would  have access to my bird feeders. I dug out my feeders in the backyard and to help the birds get through this sudden storm, I scattered some birdseed and corn on a piece of plywood.

Monday morning I noticed  the seed and corn had disappeared over night and the area was surrounded by deer tracks. As I was scanning the area for birds I was amazed to see  a four-point antler lying in the snow just beyond the feeders.  Apparently a buck came through the hemlock trees shading the feeders and caught his antler on a low hanging branch causing it to break off.  Although I can not be sure, I do  believe this is the same big buck I saw back in December. Bucks do lose their antlers in winter, but this is the first time I have found one where the location and date could be precisely determined.  Wow! Now I have my 8 point buck (at least half of it).

The antler was still in place when my grandchildren came to visit on Saturday January 30th. When I pointed it out to my granddaughter Bridget, she immediately asked if she could take it to school and show it to her first grade classmates.  I told her she could take it with her when she headed home.  A few minutes later I looked out the window and a gray squirrel was chewing on one of the antler's prongs. Bridget started to worry that the squirrel would eat the whole thing.  We assured her that it could not eat it that fast, but that  the observation of chewing by a rodent would  explain why antlers and bones do not last long in the natural world where just about everything gets recycled.

In rural central Pennsylvania where I grew up, deer hunting is not just recreation, its a passion bordering on religion that is passed from one generation to the next. Everything shuts down on the first day of deer season. Businesses are closed, and schools close at least for the first day.  The reason?  Many adults and any kids 12 years old or older could be out hunting whitetails.

My Dad was a good hunter and he took me along, but my heart was never into hunting like other members of my family. I would go hunting after school and come back with nothing.  Dad once said I enjoyed watching  animals more than I liked to hunt them.  He was right.  I did bag some small game, but I never actually shot a deer. Over the last forty years as a naturalist,  I have enjoyed watching wildlife and trying to understand what make the world we live in tick. It has been the best path for me.

I  support hunting as a recreational activity, but it is not for everybody.  The Eight-Point Buck was the status symbol for a successful deer hunt where I grew up.  The beautiful four-point antler  dropped in the snow in my backyard is as close as I will  ever get to that elusive Big Buck.




(NOTE---Willow point is the black dot along the lake)

Last Thursday, the day before the big snow storm. I decided to visit one of my favorite places---Middle Creek Wildlife Management Area.  This 6000+ acre site is located on the Lancaster/Lebanon County line and is owned by the Pennsylvania Game Commission. Middle Creek encompasses a wide variety of habitats including upland forests, farm fields, meadows and wetlands, so it is home to many different species of plants and animals.  This time of year the main focus is the 400 acre lake  that proves attractive to the many species of waterfowl that are looking for a place to feed and roost.

Middle Creek  was created in the early 1970's to provide hunting opportunities for goose and duck hunting. Since its inception this place has had a resident population of Canada Geese and has attracted migrating Canada Geese, Tundra Swans  a good variety of ducks and other waterfowl during the Spring migration.  However the stars of the Middle Creek show, the Snow Geese, did not show up until the 1990's.  Unlike the other birds who arrive in small flocks, the Snows show up in early Spring in huge flocks of a couple thousand. When they are coming they look like a white wave and their loud raucous calls tell all that something important is about to happen.  I have watched them come in on a clear Spring morning with their white bodies and black tipped wings glistening in the bright sunlight against a bright azure sky.  It is truly an awesome sight.  Once they reach the lake they begin to descend in swirling masses  that resemble large snowflakes.

Bald Eagles visited Middle Creek regularly once the lake was established  but did not stay until 1998 when a pair created a nest without producing any young.  The following year this resident pair finished their nest and raised young.  After that success, eagles have been a fixture at Middle Creek ever since.

When I arrived at Middle Creek I drove around for a bit, but did not see much, so I decided to head to the Willow Point viewing platform next to the lake.  I loaded my spotting scope onto my roll-later (I'm handicapped) and motored to the Point.  More than half of the lake was frozen over with patches of open water here and there. As I scanned the lake I could see large numbers of Tundra Swans with their snow-white bodies, long necks and black bills, but to my great disappointment I did not see a single Snow Goose. I guess those that had  been  there had headed out when they heard about the gigantic snow storm that was coming. Beside the several thousand swans there were large numbers of Canada Geese and a good variety of ducks roosting on the lake.  They seem to prefer swimming around in the water to standing on the ice.

I had been at the Point only a short time when a guy showed up and after looking at the scene for a couple of minute he said " there are eagles out there".  Sure enough when  I looked at that  spot there were eagles, lots of them.  I scanned the whole area and  counted eight of them. This was unbelievable---I have never seen this many Bald Eagles at Middle Creek.  They were scattered along a spit of ice just beyond the resting flocks of waterfowl.  They all appeared to be immatures---none of them had the brown body and white head of a mature Bald Eagle that appears  after five years.   At least two were all brown while the others were mottled with some white feathers.  All of them faced the waterfowl resting a 100+ feet away and nervously paced around and took short, low flights along the ice as if anticipating something.

Four of them stood together and even when they moved around they always came back together, so I decided to put my scope on them and see what happened.  They seemed to know each other and did not show any aggressive behavior toward each other. They stayed in one spot for quit a while and then they did something I have never seen before.  They took a bath. Apparently there was open water directly behind the ice they were standing on and three  of the eagles jumped into the water.  They immediately began waving their wings and jumping up and down much like we often see a robin  bathe in a birdbath.  I could see the water splashing  and this went on  for couple of minutes while eagle # 4 stood watch. It reminded me of three little kids jumping into a old swimming hole.  After the trio had finished they hopped back on to the ice and eagle #4 took his/her turn.  They probably have lice or some other parasites that are annoying them, so the sudden cold bath must help alleviate the irritation. It was quit a sight  and  a once in a lifetime experience. Note: Most birds have an oil gland that provides them with waterproofing for their feathers, so they dry quickly.

It was quite cold and as I was getting ready to leave, I noticed one of the eagles walk right up  to a group of Tundra Swans.  The swans looked at the young eagle with disdain as if asking what the heck are you doing here?---he quickly retreated back to the  ice spit.  The swan  is bigger than the eagle and a healthy adult would be more than a match for any attacking eagle.  Like most predators Bald Eagles  look for prey that is old, sick or injured.  As I was leaving that is what the eagles were doing.  They would fly or walk up to the waterfowl buffet in front of them to see if they could locate any likely candidates for a quick meal.  At MiddIe Creek it is common to see eagles eating their prey on the ice in the winter time.

Several years ago while I was working at the desk in the Middle Creek Visitor Center, a lady came in  literally jumping up and down with excitement.  She had witnessed  a mature Bald Eagle fly at a flock of Snow Geese, pursue a single goose and  catch it with both birds crashing to the ice.  (Reminds me of the fighter battles in Star Wars.) She described the next scene with "white feathers flying " as the eagle plucked the feathers from this very unlucky bird.

I was sorry to leave the Point, but this time of year it feels like the tundra and I needed to warm up.

The next time you take a bath or shower just imagine what it would be like to bathe in a tub of ice cubes with the water at 32 degrees.

Aren't' you glad you are not a bird?