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Saturday, August 18, 2007

It’s Time To Go Deer Spotting

by Steve Sorensen
(Originally published in the Warren Times Observer, Warren, PA, August 18, 2007.)
Spotlighting is fun, inexpensive, and holds
the anticipation of seeing something unexpected.
One of rural Pennsylvania’s most popular summer-to-fall transitional activities is spotlighting deer. Across the state Pennsylvanians are shining lights in farm fields, counting deer and looking for the wallhanger. It’s considered by many urbanites to be a redneck activity, but you don’t have to be a fugitive from a Jeff Foxworthy joke to participate. Spotlighters might be anyone from a group of teenagers, to young family, to a middle-aged husband and wife, to a couple of retirees.

Spotlighting is fun, inexpensive, and holds the anticipation of seeing something unexpected. Besides deer, you might see coyotes, bears, raccoons, possums, skunks and more. I even saw a bobcat once.

Certain weather factors can make spotlighting a big night out. If the temperature is cool, if the air is clear, and if the ground is wet, you’re likely to see plenty of deer. Although we don’t have quite as many deer as we did a few years ago, you still might see 50 or 60 on a good night. I’ve heard stories from years past of that many in a single field.

All it takes is a powerful spotlight with a focused beam. Not many years ago, a good spotlight had maybe 300,000 or 400,000 candlepower. Today’s lights are much brighter – up to 3 million candlepower – and they’re relatively inexpensive. They take advantage of new technology both in the kinds of bulbs and in better reflector mirrors that throw a beam hundreds of yards with little apparent dissipation of the light.

If you have a good pair of binoculars with a big exit pupil and a wide field of vision, take them along. The wide field of vision helps to locate what you want to look at, and the large exit pupil maximizes the amount of light that reaches your eyes. A camera might be a good thing to have along too, in case you get a chance to snap a shot of a monster buck close to the road.

Spotlighters need to remember the rules. Foremost is automotive safety. Never block the road. Don’t stop for an extended period. Avoid shining the light at other vehicles. Make it easy for vehicles behind you to pass. Watch where the ditch is. You don’t want nighttime fun to turn into an all-night nightmare.

As for the legalities, you must never throw your spotlight on a house, a barn or on livestock. It basically amounts to harassment, and nothing bothers rural farmers and homeowners more. Don’t drive in fields either – stay off private property completely. One reason people live in rural areas is to avoid lights, traffic and various intrusions, so have respect for property owners. Don’t fixate on your rights. Instead, consider the rights of the landowners. Courtesy and common sense go a long way.

Remember that it’s against the law to spotlight with a firearm or bow in your vehicle. Even if you’re licensed to carry, it’s best to leave it home to avoid any question unless you absolutely must carry it. And you must quit at 11:00 PM – a law that protects rural residents. Think about it – even though Pennsylvania is a rural state, it has some highly populated rural areas that sometimes see plenty of traffic.

Also, it’s worth being reminded that at certain times spotlighting is illegal. For example, beginning with the Sunday evening before the firearms deer season, it’s illegal to spotlight deer until the season is over. Check the regulations.

Besides the enjoyment of seeing deer, spotlighting is a popular means of scouting. You can find where legal bucks are concentrated, and where the big ones are. But keep in mind that scouting by means of spotlighting deer is more effective during the early part of archery season. Once the bucks start chasing does, they have something on their minds besides grazing in open fields. They won’t follow a schedule and may disappear from an area completely.

As cornfields begin to be cut, as bucks’ antlers begin to harden, and as they become less reclusive, it’s a good time to turn off the Discovery Channel and discover wildlife firsthand. But stay out of trouble, stay safe, stay on the road, and stay out of the hair of landowners.

Saturday, August 04, 2007

Are Wild Turkeys Overpopulated?

by Steve Sorensen
(Originally published in the Warren Times Observer, Warren, PA., August 4, 2007.)
A recent news article covering the Audubon Society's press
conference on "common birds in decline" mistakenly reported
that wild turkeys are overpopulated. Are they really?
My short answer is no. If you’re interested in my long answer, read on.

A few weeks ago a news article covering the Audubon Society's press conference on "common birds in decline" accurately reported that we’re losing songbirds. Lots of them. And the reasons are many. But the article mistakenly attributed to naturalist and field researcher Scott Weidensaul the view that wild turkeys are overpopulated. I’ll address that in a moment.

Songbirds come in a variety of feathered forms, and are a good indicator of habitat health. It’s self-evident that high numbers and diverse species of songbirds in an area mean the habitat is healthy and meeting their needs.

A big reason for the decline of songbird populations is the loss of habitat. As we build more shopping centers and business parks, aiming for a positive economic impact, we rob songbirds of needed habitat. On a national scale, the loss is huge.

And, it’s probably no accident that songbird populations are declining at a time when the domestic cat is the most popular pet in America. Household cats are major predators of songbirds. Responsible pet owners take note.

Still another reason for the decline of songbirds is competition from other species. The animal that has been tagged as probably the biggest competition is the whitetail deer. Deer don’t just eat the granola those songbirds need. Deer, unlike most other species, will literally eat the habitat – the stuff that produces the nuts and berries that birds eat and the shrubs that they nest in.

Which brings me to turkeys. Like other birds, wild turkeys need nesting habitat. But turkeys do not compete with songbirds for nesting space.

Nor do they harm that habitat as deer can do. Weidensaul, in telling me he doubts that he could point to clear indicators of turkey overpopulation, said, “Unlike deer, turkeys – even a lot of them – are unlikely to have landscape-level impacts on their habitat.”

The reason is that the niche turkeys occupy is very different from that of deer. And that’s true in a number of ways.

Turkeys do not devour the habitat that provides food for the creatures that share that habitat. They scavenge delicacies under the leaf litter and enjoy some goodies that few other animals eat, such as delicious slugs. They eat a wide variety of foods – mostly what the habitat produces. By contrast, deer eat the plants that produce the habitat.

Also in contrast to deer, turkeys have plenty of natural predators – crows, owls, skunks, raccoons, and more. Some destroy eggs in the nest, others devour poults, and still more prey on the adults. Predators are especially diligent in the springtime in an effort to feed their own young.

Cold wet weather is a particular risk for newly hatched turkey chicks in the spring. So, wild turkeys have plenty to worry about. And if their population rises in an area that is home to their natural predators, predator populations will rise correspondingly. That’s the way the predator-prey relationship is supposed to work. And it usually does work.

Where is the predator-prey relationship not working? Jerry Feaser of the Pennsylvania Game Commission points out, “Some areas of the state have enough woods to support thriving turkey populations, but not enough to allow hunting without violating safety zones or to support enough predators to keep turkey population growth in check.”

Those areas tend to be suburban and city areas. Simply put, people in Pittsburgh neighborhoods want neither coyotes nor hunters patrolling for turkeys.

In unhuntable areas, Feaser says the way to keep turkey population growth in check is a trap and transfer program. Pennsylvania has exchanged wild turkeys from Allegheny County for pheasants from South Dakota.

Most people appreciate wildlife and are glad that populations are thriving. But they must deal with bears that knock over bird feeders, deer that persevere at nibbling shrubbery, geese that persist in depositing their droppings in parks and on golf courses, and turkeys that gather under suburban bird feeders and scratch lawns for bugs and grubs. Finding ways to cope is the price of living with nature.

As for our neck of the woods, turkeys are not overpopulated. But they’re plentiful, and offer good prospects for the fall hunting season.