Cochise County Blacktail Deer Show Off in Our Front Yard: Deer Theater

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July, 2013

Here in southern Cochise County, Arizona, front yard, 2013 is turning out to be the year of the yearling blacktail deer in what for us is a big way. They’re showing off, posing for the camera.

It’s also the year of the flooded floor, the year of the concrete-busting flash flood on Paloma Trail, the year Robert Stoner (with community support) created Stoner Trail Arizona across the otherwise impassable wash, and a host of other interesting titles.

Still, if we had to pick a title for this particular twelve month cycle, it would be the Year of the Yearling Deer.

We’ve been living on this property, just one mile north of the Mexican border in the Arizona desert, since April of 2009. We’ve seen deer every year–but only fleetingly. A doe would frantically scramble across the highway, barely clearing the grilles of oncoming vehicles, or a buck would swiftly skulk across the dirt trail that passes for a street leading to our driveway. In every case, the ungulate would waste no time, leaving the cover of heavy brush only briefly.

This year is different.

On July 10, beautifully framed in the golden rays of late afternoon sunshine, a blacktail doe and her two yearling offspring made their way into the clearing we think of as our front yard. They knew I was there, taking pictures, but sensing no threat, they took their time.

Today, July 28, three yearlings showed up at the same time of day. They saw me move out from the porch to the front step. Most certainly, their great ears heard the steel security door close behind me.

But they also, I choose to believe, sensed my good will. One of them would look my way from time to time, but only briefly and never in alarm.

This is wise of them. Come hunting season, they will be safer here than elsewhere. We have a lot of hunters in Arizona, many of whom patrol this general area during the autumn months. The early nimrods carry shotguns with which to blast doves out of the air (a practice I’ve never understood, as a dove has far less meat on its bones than, say, a domestic chicken). Later, rifles come into play, seeking venison.

We hear the gunshots nearly every day during hunting season…but few of the shooters are bold enough to let off a round within a quarter mile of the Border Fort.

Deer, however, tend to range far more widely than that in their endless search for sustenance. It’s not likely they know it’s safer tucked in next to us than it might be elsewhere. This year, for the first time ever, the deer–at least the young blacktail versions–appear to have realized we’re on their side. How many of them will also realize that two-leggeds with bendy bows or pointy fire sticks are far deadlier than a stepped-on Mojave green rattlesnake or a pack of starving coyotes…only time will tell.

For now, our best option is to enjoy these deer while they’re here. Those who make it to the ripe old age of two may have come to distrust all stinky human types.

Enjoy them while they’re young. They grow up so fast.

The trio of yearling blacktail deer, two spike bucks and a young doe, huddle up in the clearing we think of as our front yard.

The trio of yearling blacktail deer, two spike bucks and a young doe, huddle up in the clearing we think of as our front yard.

Friendship

It’s something to see, the obvious friendship between these three deer. Of course, it’s possible two of the three–or even all three, rarely–might be siblings born of the same mother. But deer are sociable creatures, generally getting along well with each other even when their populations are high and the food sources scarce.

When the little doe comes into heat for the first time, there will be the usual competition for male dominance and the right to mate with the female…but that’s about it.

All sorts of interesting friendships tend to flower during the monsoon months. It’s not just the deer who seem sociable. Early this morning, around 3:30 a.m., I went out at my usual hour to shut down the gasoline powered Yamaha generator and switch the extension cords powering my office back to the solar generator. (During the hotter nights, the fans running in Pam’s room are about all the solar system can handle, so the Yamaha is often called on for a few hours.)

Right outside our front door, the flashlight beam picked up a–? Oh. Wow. A frog, but one of the smallest, no more than half an inch or so in length.

Fascinated, I persuaded the little guy (or gal?) to hop up on my hand. By the time the Canon Powershot in my other hand and the flashlight in my mouth could coordinate to get a picture that didn’t blur, little Froggie had decided the juncture between wrist and palm was a primo place to sit.

Take a look.

This tiny frog was persuaded to hop up on my hand to let viewers get a sense of scale. Little Froggie is sitting on the juncture between hand and wrist.

This tiny frog was persuaded to hop up on my hand to let viewers get a sense of scale. Little Froggie is sitting on the juncture between hand and wrist.

Longhorn

For whatever reason, I ended up taking a lot of photos of one particular buck we’ve named “Longhorn”.

Deer have antlers (which fall off every winter), not horns (which hang in there for a lifetime), but “Longantler” just doesn’t work that well. This little guy has an antler on the right side of his head that is noticeably longer than the antler on the left.

Hence, Longhorn.

If Longhorn becomes one of the survivors, it will be interesting to see–should he visit us next year–if this noticeable imbalance between antlers will continue to show up. It might. I’m reminded of the buck with the deformed antlers that loomed large in our family’s hunting history during my teen years.

Deformo (which we did not name him but which would have been appropriate) was a big blacktail deer who proved remarkably hard to kill

I first encountered Deformo when I was 16 years of age. One fine November day in the foothills above our Montana ranch home, I jumped up nearly a dozen deer. Knowing me for an enemy in those days, they promptly headed for the tall timber while my .303 British Enfield blasted away.

That .303 British was a fine weapon until I unknowingly ruined it by “sporterizing” the stock, removing so much wood from the forend that the barrel was no longer properly bedded. What had originally been a military weapon with combat quality accuracy was now just kind of…tossing lead out there.

One of those full metal jacket projectiles punched Deformo through and through, but he barely slowed down. The round had missed his vital organs entirely, and with military surplus ammo, there was no expansion of the bullet, either.

Furious–at sixteen, I’d not yet come to consider temper a problem, and none of us like to see an animal wounded rather than killed outright–I started to storm back over the ridge to the house because I was quite simply out of ammunition except for that last “survival round” we knew not to use except in direst emergency.

At that moment, my sister topped the ridge, packing her own .30-06.

She only had three bullets for the rifle, but that was more than I had. We swapped weapons, she headed back home, and I set out to circle the mountain, hoping to loop around and catch the big buck on a game trail up in the timber.

Which I did.

There we were, face to face, maybe thirty yards apart. Easy pickings; any kind of hand should be able to drop a big game animal at that distance with a pistol.

But I missed. Three times, shooting (I figured out later) dead center under the buck’s belly with every round including that last, forbidden survival round.

Never (I also figured out later) trust Dad to sight in a rifle. My sister’s scope helped the .30-06 shoot low. Had I not had my head up there where the sun don’t shine, I’d have bore shot the bugger and probably brought home the bacon.

Full of determination and knowing I was acting the fool, I set the rifle aside. Propped it against a tree. Pulled my hunting knife and began slowly, but without hesitation, advancing on the big wounded buck with the weird antlers.

This would be a fight to the death.

My knife had a six inch blade. The buck’s antlers had points as long as that, and lots of them. He also had two long front legs with pointy-sharp hooves.

I weighed maybe 125 pounds. The buck had to go over 200.

We stared at each other as I advanced, step after step after what-the-hell-do-I-think-I’m-doing step. He never moved a muscle, just watched me come, head lowered, in pain but ready to take care of business.

I’d covered maybe a quarter of the distance between us when he suddenly…turned and dove steeply downslope, into the thickest possible timber, disappearing from view in seconds. I straightened up from my fighting crouch, breathed sigh of relief, and let go of the adrenaline. The buck, fortunately, had recognized insanity when he saw it.

Every now and then, someone will ask the question:

“What’s the craziest thing you’ve ever done?”

No, deciding to tackle a wounded 200 pound buck with a six inch blade is not it. I assure you I’ve done crazier things than that.

But that is probably listed in my top ten.

A year later, that buck was still alive and in seeming good health, sporting a new set of equally deformed antlers, when our hired man finally got him. The old fellow’s neck was massively swollen, in full rut, his flesh so gamy that not even our ranch dogs would partake of the bounty. The smell was worse than a rabid skunk convention.

How old Deformo must have been…I don’t know. As old as Bambi at the end of the story, maybe.

I quit hunting at the age of 26, except with a camera.

It’s a lot more peaceful this way, and the deer like it better, too.

The yearling doe is on the right. This yearling buck has spike antlers (in velvet) of equal length...

The yearling doe is on the right. This yearling buck has spike antlers (in velvet) of equal length…


...but this one does not. Note the antler on the right side of his head, which is quite a bit longer than the antler on the left. We call him Longhorn.

…but this one does not. Note the antler on the right side of his head, which is quite a bit longer than the antler on the left. We call him Longhorn.


If Longhorn survives the seasons, hunters and coyotes and all that, he shows promise and could develop into a well proportioned, beautiful buck over time.

If Longhorn survives the seasons, hunters and coyotes and all that, he shows promise and could develop into a well proportioned, beautiful buck over time.

The star

Almost as if Longhorn knew he’d been singled out for stardom, the uneven-antlered little buck presented different angles to the camera. Front, rear, in the brush, you name it.

Longhorn, the uneven-antlered yearling blacktail buck deer, shows off his neck...

Longhorn, the uneven-antlered yearling blacktail buck deer, shows off his neck…


...plays peekaboo from behind a mesquite tree...

…plays peekaboo from behind a mesquite tree…


...looks here and looks there...

…looks here and looks there…


  ...and straight at the camera, as if to say, "Are you getting this?"


…and straight at the camera, as if to say, “Are you getting this?”

The other buck

Not to be left out, the other young buck showed off just a little, hopping over a bit of brush with a leg-lift move worthy of a dog at a fire hydrant. He might be “ordinary”, with nice, even antlers, but he knows how to bust a move.

  See all 17 photos "How do you like this move?" The even-antlered buck asks.


See all 17 photos
“How do you like this move?” The even-antlered buck asks.


Longhorn decides he's had enough. If Even-Antler is going to start busting moves, it's time to close the curtain and head for cover.

Longhorn decides he’s had enough. If Even-Antler is going to start busting moves, it’s time to close the curtain and head for cover.


Or...hmm.... To go or not to go, that is the question.

Or…hmm…. To go or not to go, that is the question.


Yeah...I guess it's time, but this trail over here looks better. (Note the ears, still paying close attention to the guy with the camera. This is one seriously publicity conscious little blacktail buck deer.)

Yeah…I guess it’s time, but this trail over here looks better. (Note the ears, still paying close attention to the guy with the camera. This is one seriously publicity conscious little blacktail buck deer.)

Even-Antlers takes his time

Even-Antlers may be friends with Longhorn, but he’s no blind follower. He prefers to wander through dappled shade before deciding if the route the other spike buck took is the way to go or not.

Are blacktail deer natural camera hams who've simply gone unrecognized? One has to wonder, watching Even-Antlers move through dappled shade...

Are blacktail deer natural camera hams who’ve simply gone unrecognized? One has to wonder, watching Even-Antlers move through dappled shade…


.pausing to lift his tail a bit and eye the cameraman to be sure he's getting this before...

.pausing to lift his tail a bit and eye the cameraman to be sure he’s getting this before…


...assuming a hide and seek pose of his own.

…assuming a hide and seek pose of his own.

The desert jungle

Amazingly–it still amazes me–this section of the Sonoran Desert is in many places covered with vegetation almost dense enough to be termed a jungle. Though it lacks towering trees laced with lianas, the ground cover is more than enough to provide hiding places for a plethora of wildlife.

What this area lacks in great-billed toucans, it makes up for with coyotes, deer, javelinas, and enough flora and fauna variety to make it well worth my keeping the Canon PowerShot holstered at my hip during all my waking hours.

We’ve not yet seen a year that didn’t provide opportunities to photograph species never before captured for our archives…and it’s quite possible we never will.

I found it amusing that most of the flashier photos were of the little bucks, with the demure doe sort of…disappearing into the background. Whether that resulted from sexism by the photographer or sexism within the three-member yearling blacktail deer herd itself…who knows?

What I do know is that once the yearlings had disappeared into the brush, the final shot for the day showed nothing but jungle.

Which you may refer to as desert if you so choose.

The desert jungle of southern Arizona.

The desert jungle of southern Arizona.

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