I’m Dreaming of a White (Christmas) November

Posted on December 24, 2013

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First Snow

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“Anticipation awakens me like the touch from an icy hand.

I rise to a blanket of virgin snow now canvassing the land.

There is solace in the tranquil dawn; the caress is peaceful, cold and black.

Yet my mind whirls like the tempest wind as I dwell upon the track.”

                                                                                            – Hart L. Daley

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Like paratroopers covertly descending from the sky, dropping silently behind enemy lines under the cover of darkness, the first snow of the season arrives to blanket the woodland floor. Gently at first, each flake floats noiselessly down, carried on the whim of a fickle breeze landing harmlessly on naked tree limbs, leaf litter and the forest occupants. As the storm’s intensity increases, waves of white flakes begin to transform the bland, withered landscape into a sea of virgin tapestry. The first snow of the season provides a clean, fresh appearance on what had otherwise become stark and stale.

It is under this most favorable setting that the hunter finds his greatest chance – a coverlet of white parchment in which to add another chapter to an epic saga, pitting his woodsmanship against the wiles of a formidable foe. It is the one crucial ingredient added to a deer season that almost every hunter eagerly anticipates, and once it hits, there’s not another place they’d rather be than the deer woods.

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It is both exhilarating and romantic to ease along a hardwood ridge amidst a maze of swirling flakes. The hushed silence intoxicates the senses that have for too long been held in siege by the clatter of city sounds.

Even the most negligent hunter now takes each methodical step with a renewed confidence as the accumulated snow serves to muffle his footfall. The contrasting backdrop of white simplifies the task of spotting the pelage of a whitetail’s brown winter coat. Indeed, for the hunter engaged in the pursuit of white-tailed deer under a sky of falling snow, it doesn’t get any better than this; it is truly magical.

As euphoric as this weather is to the hunter, it is only natural to wonder what effect, if any, the snow has on the whitetail’s behavior and to what degree it impacts their lives.

The Built-In Barometric Factor

With the threat of an impending storm on the horizon most folks living within the Snow Belt anxiously tune into their local weather channel to become informed of when the storm is predicted to hit, how many inches it will drop and how frigid the temperatures will become. Usually, for the first snow anyway, panic begins to set in and the general public expeditiously sets out to procure all the necessities (bread, milk, batteries, shovels, etc.) that will offer them the psychological security to endure whatever nature throws at them. Cancellations of classes and scheduled events start well in advance of the storm while the media routinely reminds us how to best prepare for this forthcoming snow.

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The simplistic world of the whitetail is much different and perhaps more efficient at predicting changes in weather patterns than the technological complexities engineered and relied upon by man. (There are some indigenous people that due to their close association with the land have developed the same barometric qualities inherently found in whitetails.) Whitetails intuitively know well in advance of a snowstorm’s arrival and physically prepare for it by taking on extra food. I’m not sure if they have the ability to reason or understand whether the precipitation will be in the form of snow rather than rain, but it seems, based upon their actions, this presumption could hold some merit.

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As the snow now escalates in its intensity, whitetails will bed down wherever they find themselves at the time. With the exception of repositioning or relieving themselves, most deer will remain bedded throughout the storm with the snow accumulating atop them as if they too were a part of the landscape. I have walked up on bedded deer during the height of many first snowstorms only to have them blankly stare back at me devoid of any trace of fear. It is as though they are either temporarily entranced by the falling precipitation and become oblivious that danger looms at the front door, or due to their far-sightedness, the constant movement of snow flakes makes it nearly impossible for them to focus on the slow movements of the hunter as he approaches.

Recess In The School Yard

The longer I observe, study and photograph this fascinating animal the more convinced I become that many of their behavioral traits closely resemble those of man. Think back with me for a moment to a time when we were in grammar school. I realize for some this might be a stretch, but try to remember what it was like when the recess bell rang on the day of the first snowfall of the season. Out the door we would sprint, jacket half on, boots untied vaulting into a new and pristine world filled with intrigue and magic. We would energetically run, slide, throw snowballs, make snow angels and wrestle. There was always something special about that first snow that energized us as kids. Let me assure you, white-tailed deer are no different. They are just as susceptible to these same childlike temperaments when the first snow arrives.

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Once the snow has abated, hunger causes the deer to emerge from nowhere and begin laying down tracks in seemingly every direction. In essence, the forest becomes a blank page on which is written a detailed account of the whitetail’s every move.

The whitetail temporarily relinquishes its inhibitions and becomes almost oblivious to any fear of danger. I have observed various adult deer run and jump in playful expressions with each other kicking the new snow up as they dodge and come to screeching halts. It reminds me of how fawns routinely play once they are introduced to a large pasture on any given summer evening. Even the bucks become induced to play in this exhilarating time as they playfully chase each other and then with pent up energy, lock antlers and begin lightheartedly pushing and shoving each other. At the risk of sounding too anthropomorphic, it almost seems as if these animals are actually smiling and taking pleasure in their frolicking behavior.

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Like humans who have little enough time to enjoy such frivolity due to commitments, responsibilities and trying to make a living, whitetails that are forever on the razor’s edge to ensure they see another sunrise, take advantage of this special time despite the risk involved. This is not to imply that they let down their guard completely; make one false move revealing your presence and the game will conclude with them waving their white-flagged farewell salute.

The Huntsmen’s Euphoria

There is not a hunter alive living in snow country that doesn’t revel in the opportunity to hunt whitetails on the first snow of the season. The reason that new snow elicits such excitement amongst the rank and file is quite simple; they feel it gives them a marked advantage over their quarry. The contrasting white backdrop provides the hunter with a much-improved opportunity of spotting his game. It absorbs his footfall and is forgiving to  the sound of branches cracked underfoot. It enables even the greenest neophyte to observe deer sign and gain some insight as to the direction the animal is heading. For the ambitious chap who purposely sets out to track down a marked animal, this is it. It just doesn’t get any better. Although he may receive additional fresh snow again at some point during the season, it will never have the same opportunistic effect as the snow’s first appearance.

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When following the spoor of a whitetail – and believe me, I’ve made a career out of doing just that – they are quite conscious of their back trail. I believe this to be the case with or without snow covering the ground. But, on the first snow of the year, the hounded animal doesn’t seem to pay near the attention to the trail he is leaving as he does after this initial first day. Due chiefly to the animal’s relaxed vigilance rather than the tracker’s proficiency; he is able to stalk within close range of an unsuspecting deer.

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It also appears that whitetails initially accept the new conditions the snow has provided as a cloak for their protection. They willingly take risks not often associated with their guarded behavior. Whether they realize the inconspicuous locations that protectively hid them from man’s intrusive vision now openly reveal their presence, or if the extra burden a snow-filled landscape brings is enough to divert the animal’s attention are questions I cannot answer. Regardless of why they behave this way, it is really inconsequential when it comes to capitalizing on this trait. Just realizing they indeed react to new snow in this manner provides the hunter a temporary favorable advantage to exploit.

Conclusion

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In many respects, the first snow filling a November sky is a magical time for both predator and prey. For those graced to live and hunt in snow country, this single event stirs up as much excitement and eager anticipation as opening day of the deer season. It is indeed a time filled with intrigue, mystique and charm that has yet to lose its ability to bring the kid out in all of the participants – both man and beast.

All images and text on this site are copyright protected and the property of R.G. Bernier

© 2013 R.G. Bernier Nature Photography – All rights reserved.

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Posted in: Whitetail Deer