Photographing the White-tailed Deer Rut

This post is a modified article that was originally published in the Webster Groves Nature Study Society’s journal, Nature Notes (February, 2020, Vol. 92, No. 2).

The alarm on the phone sounds off at 4:00 am. You have a quick, light breakfast but no coffee. Making moves required during the act of recycling that coffee would be detrimental to your goals this morning. You’ve packed the car the night before, so you simply need to wash your face and throw on the required number of layers it will take to stay warm enough during your several hours sit. This requires some critical thought as morning temperatures during the rut can often be in the teens or twenties.

You arrive at the site by 5:30 am and are under cover at your pre-scouted location by 6:15 am — first light. Sunrise and the golden-hour will come in about 30 minutes. You picked this location due to heavy deer traffic signified by sign such as tracks and scat, scrapes and rubs. You put your back to the rising sun to take advantage of the beautiful golden-hour light that will be splashed across the scene. You also considered the potential background for your photos. You made sure there is plenty of space between your subjects and a natural, potentially autumn-colored background to get that creamy, out of focus quality that helps your magnificent subject stand out. Remember, the key to improving your nature photography is to make the photo, not simply take the photo. Previsualization and planning are often critical!

Arriving prior to first light brings the best potential for being unnoticed in your blind. However, deer are often just as active at night and sometimes you may find your spot is already occupied by your subjects! Don’t worry too much; you may spook those deer out of the area, but there are plenty of others who will likely visit these hangouts before the morning is over. Where you choose to photograph will be important in this respect. Take advantage of photographing in areas that are closed to hunting, like parks and sanctuaries. Here the deer are very accustomed to people and our scents, showing little fear. Often, during the rut, younger bucks may be curious and will move closer to you. You will typically need to work harder to get closer to the wearier does and old, veteran bucks who have been around the block a few times. In non-hunting areas, you can often get close enough to your subjects to make meaningful photographs by simply having an early-morning walk around with a longer telephoto lens (e.g. 300-600 mm focal length).

Like clockwork, at 6:30 am every morning, large flocks of blackbirds move overhead from the west, chasing the rising sun in search of feeding grounds. Photographing the rut is very similar to hunting. Deer hunters in our area typically use tree stands. This higher elevation provides advantages in being able to see greater distances, being out of direct eye-line of the deer and aids in dispersing your scent, which is frequently a give away of the pursuer. When hunting with a camera and lens, you need to stay on level ground and shoot the deer at eye level or lower.

A method Miguel Acosta and I like to use is hiding in a blind (we like the portability of ‘throw-blinds’) along well-established deer trail or nearby communal rub or scrape areas. This will require using camouflage, blinds or similar methods to break up the human form. In the types of areas described above, you need not worry too much about your scent. Deer have very strong sense of smell and in the middle of an unpopulated forest, your odors can very easily give you away. But, in areas like parks where people and deer are often found in close proximity, your own scent is less likely to alarm the deer and thereby allow you to get much closer.

Around mid-morning a Red-shouldered Hawk, perched above our location, vocalizes and a mixed-species flock of songbirds moves into our copse of trees. Since we have our large lenses, we try our hands at photographing Chickadees and Titmouse. Although scent and wind direction may not play an important role in this setting, being quiet is important for getting those close and intimate shots. I recommend doing everything you can to keep your noise to a minimum. Try and chose gear without Velcro or other noisy fasteners. Keep your voices to a minimum and try not to move frequently. If available on your camera, choose the “silent shutter” setting. Many dSLR cameras have this setting that lowers the volume of the mirror flapping. Consequently, this will lower the frame rate of the camera, but this is preferable to spooking your subjects before you get your shots. New mirrorless cameras lack the mirror box of their older brethren and can shoot very quietly at high frame rates.

Later in the morning I awake from a nap to the sound of Wild Turkeys vocalizing. I quickly realize that a small flock have wandered near our location and Miguel is offering them some verbal enticement to come a little closer to our shooting lane. It didn’t work, but the fact they were within ten yards of our location offers further proof that our blinds and technique work to get us closer to wild animals. Until recently, I had never given our North American game species much thought as a subject of natural history study. I’m sure that not growing up as a hunter or outdoorsman has had an influence on this. Over the past couple of years, I have fallen hook, line and sinker into learning everything I can about white-tailed deer and finding ways to best capture them with the camera. Miguel and I have much to learn and we are eager in making more photographs, capturing their different behaviors and at different times of the year.

For recommended reading about the rut and other aspects of the lives of white-tailed deer, I recommend reading any books you can find by authors Leonard Lee Rue III and Mark Raycroft.

For those just getting into photographing the rut, grabbing your camera and walking around the right park can yield some satisfying results. Photo by Bill Duncan.
It was once believed that spike bucks were always the young bucks of the year. Now most believe that genetics and nutrition play major roles in antler development. Photo by Miguel Acosta.
Most of the bucks that came near our blind were likely 1.5-years old. This bruiser, despite his relatively weak rack is likely older than this. Photo by Miguel Acosta.
A cleared patch of ground known as a ‘scrape.’ Urinating and depositing materials from different scent glands, deer use these as informational signposts. Photo by Bill Duncan.
Antler rubs are also important means of communication by bucks. Setting up near active rubs and scrapes can be very productive when hunting deer with camera or weapon. Photo by Bill Duncan.
This inquisitive buck, that I have taken to calling “Bright Eyes”, is often available for posing for our cameras. Here you can see him using his most important sensory organ, trying to figure out the strange scents coming from our direction. Photo by Miguel Acosta.
During the rut, bucks will often increase their typical home range. In mid-November, this buck was found just outside the author’s back door. Photo by Bill Duncan.
Even the little guys get worked up during the rut, trying at every opportunity. This doe, however, wants nothing to do with this pathetic creature. Photo by Bill Duncan.
Photographing in a blind can be a great way at getting much closer to your subject. At times we wondered if the deer might walk over top of us! Photo by Bill Duncan.
Whether you hunt with a weapon or camera, all hunters are looking for their own particular trophy. Photo by Bill Duncan.

White-tailed Deer

Something is in the air

Until this autumn, I never considered targeting our abundant white-tailed deer as a photo subject. When my friend, Miguel, brought up the idea along with a place with a lot of potential, I asked him to lead the way. We set up in a copse of trees located near the center of a scrub field in an area that does not allow hunting and Miguel’s predictions of worry-free males still on the hunt came to fruition.

Buck and Foxtail

Although I cam ill-prepared, leaving my tripod and any other means of support at home, the light was just sweet enough to allow for proper hand-holding the big 500mm. Once I took off the unnecessary teleconverter, it worked even better.

Spike

We counted at least two larger bucks that patrolled the area, but found this young spike buck as well. He was not quite as confident as the other two.

Doe

Females walked the area as well, but were more skittish. The bucks were more curious when they first heard the sounds of our shutters slapping and picked up our sent in the light morning breeze. The does, however, tended to trot away at first sign that something different lurked in our copse.

White-tailed Deer

This spot turned out to be quite nice. With the rising sun to our backs, the trees at the far edge of the field provides for a nice backdrop for that warm light to hit against. These guys have probably, or will soon be dropping these nice racks. With any luck we can try more of this next year.

Thanks for paying a visit!

-OZB

 

A Couple Autumn Days in Forest and Stream

Back in October, Steve and I had the pleasure of spending a couple days doing our favorite things in the Missouri Ozarks.  We made our base at our usual, the cabins at Big Spring SP, our last stay here for at least three years as the cabins will be closed for construction.  For our first day, we decided to take care of something that had been on my list for a number of years, to hike the largest official Wilderness Area in the state – the Irish.  Named after the Irish immigrants who settled in this area in the mid nineteenth century, the Irish was visited and pushed for protection by Aldo Leopold himself.  The Irish was finally designated by law as an official wilderness area in 1984 after close to two decades of work by a number of caring people.  This area was virtually cleared of its timber by the early years of the 1900s, but was replanted with its current deciduous hardwood mix by the CCC in the 1930s.

Ozark Bill in the Irish
Ozark Bill in the Irish

Officially listed as 18.4 miles, the Irish Wilderness loop trail is typically tackled with a night or two of backpacking.  Being the athletic super-freaks that we are, Steve and I put down an estimated 22 miles, with some back tracking and assisting a lost backpacker (a GPS unit with topographic map display is quite the asset here), in about 16 hours.  It would have been more enjoyable with a night or two sleeping in the woods and spending more time, but we had other plans in store as well.  The image below is from an overlook of the Eleven Point River at close to the halfway point of the hike.  I will never forget standing here in the late afternoon light with hundreds of ladybird beetles covered the rocks and filled the air.

The Eleven Point
The Eleven Point

Covering 20 miles in a single day does not leave much time for taking photos.  After getting some much appreciated sleep back at the cabin, we arose early to arrive at Richard’s Canoes to be in the water by ~07:30.  We put in at Greer Spring Access (mile 16.6) and had the day to move the ~12 miles to our take out at Whiten Access (mile 27.6).  The Eleven Point offers a perfect mix of slower moving stretches and deep pools mixed with just enough class 2 rapids to keep things interesting.  Make sure to bring along some wet bags if carrying delicate camera or other electronic equipment.  We were offered autumn views like this around nearly every bend.

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Autumn on the Eleven Point

As if the landscape and feelings of being on the river were not enough, the wildlife opportunity are surely the highlights for a float trip like this, assuming you are quite and keep your eyes open.  This White-tailed buck was moving upstream when Steve spotted him.

Swimming Buck
Swimming Buck

Of course the birds will be abundant along any Missouri Ozark stream at any time of year.  We were thrilled to see this Osprey come in to perch nearby as we floated.

Osprey
Osprey

Within a couple of miles from our take-out point, we were presented with our pièce de résistance for the float, two groups of River Otters!  The images below are the first group, a mom and four pups.  These animals were venturing out of their den to play in the day’s last light.

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Three Pups

The pups seemed not too concerned, but mom kept a close eye on the floating log with ugly heads.

Otter Family
Otter Family
Otter Family II
Otter Family II

These guys will turn anything into a toy… 😉

Playing with a Twig...
Playing with a Twig…

I leave you with a sunset from the nearby Big Spring State Park and eternal thanks to those who worked so hard against heavy opposite forces so that, at a minimum, we have what we have today.

The day is almost upon us when canoe travel will consist in paddling up the noisy wake of a motor launch and portaging through the back yard of a summer cottage.  When that day comes canoe travel will be dead, and dead too will be a part of our Americanism…

-Aldo Leopold-

Wild Horizons
Wild Horizons