Fawning Season

As seasons change, so, as we age, do our seasonal patterns and observations.

With hayfields chest high, pink weigela in full bloom, white mock-orange buds popping, strawberry scent sweetening humid air and the shad run trickling down, that reality smacked me upside the head on Memorial Day Weekend, when an unexpected daybreak encounter with a nesting doe unfolded in a finger of woods following Hinsdale Brook through my upper Greenfield Meadows neighborhood.

Headed south in gray light across the Plain Road bridge north of the old Polish Picnic grounds, I heard rustling movement to my left. I glanced up and immediately spotted a telltale white flash, followed by a ghost-like four-legged profile fleeing. A good-sized doe, she stopped and, angling away from me broadside, froze on a knoll less than 50 yards away, her head turned to face me.

“Whfooo!”

Her loud danger signal broke the morning silence. Soon she uttered another, then many more as I walked away. By the time I turned right onto Meadow Lane and walked out of earshot, she had sounded several emphatic warnings, uncharacteristic compared to many other recent deer encounters. Obviously, in my mind, she had fresh fawns nearby, perhaps birthed overnight, and was communicating with them.

Feeding or maybe returning from drinking brook water, she was communicating with her nest, not me. What I likely didn’t hear were low, guttural, burp-like sounds aimed at her nest. She was cautioning her nestlings to sit still. Potential danger at hand.

Had I searched for that nest, I think I could have found it. But why disturb a nest? Frankly, did I not know that the fawn or fawns welcomed to the world there would be up and running by the time this column hit the street, I wouldn’t have described their location. Birthing sites are to be protected, not publicized.

Simple deductive reasoning told me that doe was talking to her nest, not me. For months now, I have been bumping into daybreak deer who had not once previously been vocal. I had regularly encountered groups of three and five, and twice just one larger solitary deer I suspect was a buck. In all cases, they’d notice me approaching, freeze on high alert, and allow me to advance within 30 yards or so before retreating without a peep. Sometimes they’d just dip back into the woods, let me pass and, confident I was no threat, circle across the open hayfield some 50 to 100 yards behind me.

This most recent nesting doe had without doubt broken off from one of those groups I had been seeing. Her behavior was clearly that of a doe protecting her nest. Honestly, deer sightings had been conspicuously absent for a week or two and I knew they were establishing fawning nests. That time of year.

By August, does will reunite and I’ll start seeing pairs of them accompanied by their fawns. Most often there seems for some reason to be two adults and three fawns, sometimes just two fawns, rarely four in my experience. Fawn mortality may be a factor. Nature’s way. Some never make it out of their nest, others are eaten by predators or hit in the road or chopped to bits by first-cut hay mowers. It happens. An ugly scene that didn’t play out when fields were cut old-fashioned way, with scythes.

A few days after our first encounter, at the same early hour, that nesting doe and I met again from afar. Not 50 yards from where I had last seen her, there she was, head down, snuggled close to the wood line munching clover and rye. She raised her head, perked up her ears, and stared. Classic nesting doe behavior. Always alert. Never far from the nest unless, intentionally trying to distract danger away from it. Does perform that protective ritual, similar to broken-wing displays feigned by ground-nesting birds, to lure predators or human intruders away from their nests in playful, catch-me-if-you-can acts of deception.

Since moving from my hometown of South Deerfield to Greenfield 25 years ago, I have many times witnessed such acts performed to lead danger away from a nest. I can’t, however, claim to have always recognized the routine for what it was. Roaming the fields in the company of springer spaniel gun dogs, I just figured the deer were fleeing the dogs, and never gave it much additional thought.

The same held true for previous encounters dating back to childhood, with and without dogs. The deer would run and I’d watch them gracefully bound away without trying to analyze what was unfolding before my eyes. Now, walking alone without the distraction of rambunctious pets running wide quarters through fields and bordering woods, I typically get closer to wildlife, and can better understand dynamics.

Learning never ends for careful wildlife observers, whose perspective evolves over time. Whether you’re a wildlife biologist, a hunter, a photographer, or just a plain pedestrian naturalist, what begins as simple childhood curiosity and fascination can become insightful analysis aimed at predicting movement patterns. It is a strategy that dates back to the earliest hunter/gatherers. The goal is to be at the right place at the right time. It’s how earliest man fed and clothed himself, and today how bowhunters and wildlife photographers today fill their freezers and portfolios.

I’m sure I have not seen the last of this nesting doe who crossed my path. I had seen her before and will see her again, likely many times. I will not be able to distinguish her from others, though. I wonder if she dropped one fawn or two? Male or female? Mixed-gender twins, perhaps? Because I didn’t catch them out as a unit before they vacated their birthplace along the southern bank of Hinsdale Brook and northern perimeter of the old Polish Picnic grounds, I will never know the answer.

Nonetheless, I will see those deer many times before shotgun blasts echo from the ridges and snow covers the forest floor. I’ll bump into them on my walks, and pass them feeding along the road. I may even happen upon one of their nesting places next year. Such possibilities keep daybreak walks interesting and entice insightful observers to continue placing one foot in front of the other on their daily-exercise rounds.

Never boring. Beneficial, too.

 

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