Morning visitors

It’s that time of the year again, when the bugs and the deer discover all the tasty plants in my garden.  While the Japanese beetles ravage the leaves of the apple trees and raspberries, the deer fawns chow down on the wildflowers.  I don’t mind them, though, they are pretty cute, and very shy.

White-tailed deer fawns

Breakfast at the wildflower garden buffet

White-tailed deer fawns

The twin is completely hidden underneath the giant cup plants.

White-tailed deer fawn

Hyssop must not taste good to deer; they left it for the bumblebees.

Spike and the boys

“Spike and the boys” — it’s not a new band, but a herd of White-tailed deer bucks that roam the backyard and beyond.  There are three mature (big) bucks and three first-year bucks with tiny antler spikes protruding from their foreheads — hence “spikes”.  They are browsing for anything edible in the backyard on this cold, snowy day.

first year white-tailed buck (spikes)

Two of the three spikes were doing a little playful head butting in the wildflower garden.

first year white-tailed buck (spike)

Number 3 of the trio ambled over to see what all the fun was about, chewing something as he ambled.

white-tailed buck-

Meanwhile the big boys were serious about finding something nutritious to eat. They have been through this long winter drought of good forage before.

Males lose 20-30 % of their body weight during the fall rut, as they follow the does around waiting for their opportunities to mate with them.  That allows little time to eat, and consequently, they may enter the winter period of low food availability with less fat than they will eventually need to survive.  Their winter browse on evergreens, leaves, and shrubs may not sustain them completely either, and they may continue to lose weight throughout the winter, despite trying to reduce their metabolism by being less active and lowering their body temperature and heart rate: lessons that the “spikes” will need to learn quickly.

white-tailed buck-

One of the big boys has already lost a portion of his rack on the right side.  It must get tricky maneuvering those irregular curves on his head through the dense branches of the forest undergrowth.

white-tailed bucks

Spike and the boys suddenly come to full attention, looking intently at the wetland valley below the brim of the hill. There are dogs and people walking down there.

white-tailed buck running away

And off they go, bounding out of sight, raising that white tail flag to indicate to the others that it’s time to flee.

winter blah — happy solstice everyone

The lyrics from California dreamin’ are running through my head this morning as I look out at our ever-present gray world:  “all the leaves are brown (the ones still on the tree), and the sky is gray (for days on end)…”

deer-herd-in-the-snow-

It’s a gray world…

And the weak sun screened behind the dense clouds doesn’t help much.  This is the time of the winter solstice, the least daylight we’ll have this year.  According to the experts that track these statistics, those of us at 45 degrees north latitude will have 8 hours and 46 minutes of dim light today, and the sun will rise only 21.5 degrees above the horizon at noon.

For comparison, that’s 6 hours, 51 minutes less light today than during the June solstice, when the sun rose to 68.5 degrees above the horizon at noon.  Here’s what that difference in sun angle looks like in geometric space.

eorbit3 from zebu.uoregon.edu

Path of the sun and its position at noon for viewers at 45 degrees north latitude, at winter solstice (21.5 degrees) and at summer solstice (actually 68.5 degrees, not 66).  For those interested in how to calculate the angle of the sun at solstice, click here for a description from an earlier post.  Diagram from zebu.uoregon.edu

It’s no wonder that animals and humans alike just want to curl up and rest until the sun comes back out again.

sparring in the snow

The deer herd wandered through the backyard for the first time in quite a while.  A few does, three bucks, and assorted youngsters of the year.  Two of the bucks got into a couple of short shoving matches, primarily instigated by “big buck” (he of enormous girth photographed in mid-November).   The rut might be mostly concluded, but there seems to be enough residual hormone circulating to ensure the male dominance hierarchy is still on-going in the herd.

White-tailed deer bucks

“Big buck” on the approach to his younger, smaller herd member…

White-tailed deer bucks

One minute they are ambling through the woods picking up the stray leaves and twigs to eat…and the next minute they are butting heads.  Buck on the left is getting shoved backward by “big buck”.

White-tailed deer bucks

Ouch, “big buck’s” antler tine looks like it’s poking into the smaller buck’s right eye.

White-tailed deer bucks

Staring contest — who’s the boss? You can tell “big buck” is asserting his dominance just by the difference in the posture of the two.

One minute they are ambling through the woods picking up the stray leaves and twigs to eat...and the next minute they are butting heads. 

Back to amicable feeding, side by side…

One minute they are ambling through the woods picking up the stray leaves and twigs to eat...and the next minute they are butting heads. 

and then suddenly, “big buck” turns to face off with his buddy again…(the difference in the size of the two bucks is more noticeable in this shot, and their antlers seem to be different colors)

White-tailed deer bucks

once again locking horns (antlers)…

White-tailed deer bucks

and once again, the smaller of the two bucks gets a tine in the eye

Now we see the advantage of that larger, more complex rack on older bucks, with tines that can reach into the sensitive facial areas of their competitors.  Of course, the added stature and muscle mass helps those big bucks push their smaller competition around as well.  Thanks for the show, boys.

big bruiser in the backyard

This guy is big! The biggest one I think I have seen near my backyard, anyway. He calmly strolled onto the neighbor’s lawn about 20 feet from their house, and plopped himself down on the lawn for a morning rest.

buck with big antlers-

The photo doesn’t do justice to his size and girth, but it’s obvious he has a pretty massive neck.

Not only are there multiple tines in his rack, but some are quite broad, meaning this guy took in a good measure of protein and minerals (e.g., calcium) in his summer diet while those antlers were developing.  Maybe he discovered a nice vegetable plot with peas and beans, or a stash of acorns.

buck with big antlers-

You would need to develop those neck muscles just to hold up the weight of those antlers.

Males need a high protein (as much as 16% protein in younger animals), mineral-rich diet not just to grow antlers but to develop the protein and fat stores that will carry them through the energy-intensive rut season and the remainder of the winter.   How much leafy green stuff would they have to chow down each day to take in that much protein?

That’s a trick question, because the protein they absorb doesn’t come directly from their food, but from the microbial fermentation products, and from digesting the microbes themselves, that deer and other ruminant herbivores raise in their complex, four-compartment stomachs.  So, the better they feed their microbial friends, the more nutrients the microbes pass onto their deer hosts.

buck with big antlers-

He looks like a champion contender, doesn’t he, ready to take on the competition?

Males might lose as much as 30% of their body mass during the rut, depending on the level of competition and number of competitors they face, so gaining as much mass as possible during the summer is integral to their success and their survival.

I know I’m doing my part to sustain these guys, judging from the number of perennials in my garden that get munched down to their roots every summer.

losing their spots

Signs of fall are beginning to appear as a few maple trees show some red and gold color in their leaves, the squirrels are busy collecting nuts off the trees, Canada Geese fly in V-formation overhead, and a few of the wildlife start growing their winter coats.  I first noticed the latter when the fawns suddenly appeared in the backyard without their spots.

White=tailed fawns-fall molt-

Just a trace of spots linger on the flanks of one of the twin fawns that have ravaged my wildflower garden all summer long.

White-tailed fawn - winter molt

The tawny brown coat with white spots is slowly being overgrown by the longer gray brown winter fur, which provides the deer with much needed insulation to survive the cold.

White-tailed fawns - winter molt

Not all of the fawns have started growing their winter coat, though.  It’s interesting that in these twins, one is clearly well ahead of the other in development of the winter fur — which lends further proof to the observation that twin fawns are usually fraternal, not identical.

What this tells me is that there have been at least two sets of twin fawns that have been eating up the backyard garden — and I thought it was just one hungry pair that had been doing all the damage.

Double trouble

The deer really like my backyard:  they eat my plants, they bed down in the wildflower garden leaving big depressions in the vegetation, they rest right under the bird feeder, and believe it or not, the half-grown fawns chase the foxes right out of the yard.  But I enjoy watching them parade through, so I just keep replanting the garden.

white-tailed fawns-

Make yourself comfortable…

white-tailed fawn-

By all means, help yourself to the garden perennials. This shrub rose may not recover, but oh well…

white-tailed fawns-

Yes, please do eat the buckthorn. I didn’t want that to spread in the backyard.

And where do these two learn where the best places to forage are?

white-tailed doe

From mom and dad, of course.

white-tailed buck-

This one has developed a taste for hostas.

Old friends in new places

Cave Creek ranch in the Chiricahua mountains near the New Mexico border is an idyllic haven for birders and hikers.  The scenery is pretty incredible too.

Cave creek near Portal, AZ

The view from my porch looks out over the creek and up into the rocks.

Cave creek near Portal, AZ

We’re set for an early morning hike up Cave Creek, to see if we can find some new birds we haven’t seen before.

Cave creek near Portal, AZ

Like the creek in Madera Canyon, sycamores line the banks of Cave Creek, stretching their limbs far and wide to create wonderful shade.

Sycamores can grow to be giants, but occasionally a limb snaps off, and we find animals taking advantage of the nook created by the amputated limb.

Great Horned Owl

This Great Horned Owl created a nest cavity in one of the huge clefts left after a limb dropped.  We also found a western Screech Owl seeking refuge during the daytime in a similar cavity in another sycamore.

Desert animals are often pale in comparison to others of their kind in other climates, as this Great Horned Owl is.  But there is more to the story than just differences in color.

Animals in this part of the U.S. seem to be entirely different geographic races of their parent species, and the extent of differences in their DNA, their color, their song, and their behavior have led scientists to begin splitting the southwestern desert species off from their representatives in other parts of the U.S. and Mexico.  That’s great for birders that like adding species to their life lists!

Coue's white-tailed deer

The white-tailed deer are much smaller than their relatives in my backyard in MN. In fact, they are technically known as Coue’s white-tailed deer, a dwarfed race, or is it a different species?

Hairy woodpecker, Cave Creek, AZ

Here’s a familiar bird, a male Hairy Woodpecker, but it looks quite different from the MN variety, as it lacks the spots on the wings, and has a broad white stripe down its back.  Would a MN female Hairy Woodpecker refuse to mate with this bird?  If so, then they would be considered separate species.

Brown Creeper, Cave Creek, AZ

Brown Creepers have been divided into four groups now, one in Mexico, and three others in the U.S. divided into eastern, Rocky Mt, and Pacific races.  Differences in song and plumage have been known for some time, but recent DNA analysis has confirmed the separations.

We met some new friends along the Cave Creek trail, but apparently our “old friends” may be new as well.

Feeling frisky

A light snow yesterday morning brought the local deer herd by the backyard to clean up all the spills under the bird feeders.  First, a small group of does wandered through the yard, and then a couple of young bucks, who were too cool to feed on fallen bird seed but felt frisky enough to put on a shoving match instead.

deer-butting-heads

“Big brother” shoved “little brother” (no doubt they are completely unrelated) several feet, repeatedly bumping heads.

deer-butting-heads-

Kind of unfair that one young buck has antlers and the other doesn’t in this shoving match. But ouch, this looks like a good way to get your eye poked by an antler tip.

deer-butting-heads-

Junior has had enough of this.

deer-butting-heads-

Completely disinterested in each other now, they went their separate ways. It must be lonely being a young buck in the winter… nobody to hang out with.

resting in the backyard

Back in Minnesota once again, I looked out my porch windows and found three deer resting on the neighbor’s lawn.  I assume this is the same doe and twin fawns that I saw perusing the flower beds in the backyard before I left town in August.

doe-and-fawns

My presence alerted the doe, but all three were resting comfortably in the shade when I first spied them, chewing their cud and digesting their morning repast.

early fall white-tailed deer fawn

This is notch-ear — observed earlier this summer. The fawns have now molted out of their spotted coat and acquired the mature tawny hair color.  This youngster seems a bit muddy on the nose and forehead.

early fall fawn

Its sibling couldn’t care less that I’m 100 yards away clicking the camera shutter.  I think I can see little antler buds on its forehead, making this a male-female pair of fawns.

whitetail fawns-

A month ago ( see post on lazy summer days) they looked like this.  Note, the notch-eared fawn on the right.  

white-tailed deer doe

The doe looks over at her twins as if to say, “Rest time is over; time to get out of here.”