Bucks in the Shadow of Bulls

Posted on September 25, 2016

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 “With two awful snorts that I shall not soon forget, the moose sprang to one side, and for a moment stood and stared, uncertain what to do.”

                                                                                                                                                                                           A Carberry Deer Hunt – Ernest Thompson Seton

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The air was eerily damp; the sky a sullen gray, and new snow clung tenaciously to every twig and branch. For a deer tracker this is it, the ideal type of conditions that you’d give a good portion of next week’s wages towards for the opportunity to chase down the originator to a good set of slots. To my good fortune I cut the track of an aimless buck right at first light. His spoor meticulously wove me around the expanse of a beaver flowage and then, as if the scenery became trite to him, reversed directions and headed for the top of a nearby ridge.

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Seton was astutely accurate when he wrote with regards to taking up the track, “What fascination there is about deer tracks in the snow; what endless stories one will read and learn from the telltale snow; there is something fantastic about the thought that just at the other end of that row of dots is the beast that made them, and it is only a question of time for one to overtake it. The record of every movement is so perfect that it affects one most strangely.”

This snow was nearly perfect in texture, which facilitated me nicely in deciphering how far in front of me the animal now was. The way I figured it, if this buck continued his leisurely pace and remained ambivalent to where he wants to go I’d own his antlers before the morning was out. As the track led up the slope the vegetation began to close in around me. The white-bearded hemlocks were tightly knit reducing visibility down to a scant few yards. Every fiber of my body was now on red alert. As I took one cautious step after another with my rifle filling both hands, each muscle was ready to spring into action at the slightest glimpse of brown. Beads of sweat dotted my brow despite a temperature that read well below freezing. The tension was as thick as the vapors that encircling my head with every breath I exhaled. You could have heard a pin drop in this eerie silence.

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Suddenly, from the top of the rise and dead in front of me antler filled the slight opening. Peering intently through the softwood tangle I could make out a dark brown body connected to those antlers. Instantly and in well-rehearsed fashion, my carbine was up with the site resting squarely on the target. To this day I still don’t know what prevented me from squeezing the trigger, but in that moment of hesitation, “with two awful snorts that I shall not soon forget, the moose sprang to one side, and for a moment stood and stared, uncertain what to do.”

As for me, with nerves of steel now turned to Jell-O, I felt more like a deflated balloon that had run out of helium well awry of my final destination. Once the bull finally departed the scene I proceeded to inspect where he had silently emerged. It didn’t take long to discover the moose’s bed where he had obviously laid during the night’s storm. The buck that I’d been trailing had walked right past his larger cousins resting spot without ever disturbing him.

 

The Proliferation of the Moose

 

The above described event has now become much more routine in the big woods. Moose have both literally and figuratively cast a giant shadow over the whitetail in the wilderness of the Northeast. Nearly four decades ago when I first embarked into the wilds of Northern Maine, moose sightings were as rare as hens’ teeth. Today, thanks in large part to a 54-year hiatus to moose hunting (1936 – 1980), and a forest cutting practice initiated in the early 80’s known as clear-cutting, the moose has made a huge resurgence in Maine and are also multiplying in other Northeastern states.

To the benefit of the moose, the Northern part of Maine is primarily boreal forest. In the late 1970’s it was discovered that the spruce tree, a species of softwood traditionally harvested for the paper mills, had developed a parasite known as the spruce budworm. This occurrence forced large paper company landowners to either cut the timber or lose it to the disease. And cut it they did, with large expansive clear-cuts. What this provided the moose with was succulent new growth consisting of willow, aspen, birch, maple, pin cherry and mountain ash on a year-round basis. This coupled with the numerous lakes, ponds and bogs, which promote aquatic plants such as, pondweed, and water lily provided the moose with everything they would need to thrive in this environment.

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These gentle giants certainly consume large quantities of food. Weighing on the average of 1000 pounds on the hoof, an adult bull will stand six foot at the shoulders and be nine feet in length. Because of their sheer size difference over a whitetail, moose have the ability to reach much higher into trees and shrubs for forage. They, like deer, prefer the leaves growing at the tops of trees because they are less toxic than those at the bottom, which explains why both species gravitate to feed on the tops of fallen trees.

 

Coexistence Between Moose and Deer

 

Although they do indeed cohabitate within the same general spaces, whitetail numbers have suffered where the moose herd has seen a dramatic increase. Through my observations it seems that whitetails will tolerate moose, but they don’t really like them and will steer clear of them under most situations. First of all, whitetails and moose compete for the same food sources (with the exception of aquatic vegetation, plants that moose are highly attracted to due to its high content of mineral nutrition, a supplement essential for their bodies metabolism). When a moose wants to get the leaves from the top of a deciduous tree it reaches up, grabs a branch with its mouth and rotates its head so that the branch breaks. In doing so the animal destroys the tree in the process. This becomes problematic for whitetails because not only can they not reach the heights that moose can for food, but also the moose consumes everything from the ground up, leaving fewer choices for the deer.

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Another example of trees being either stunted or killed by moose is when the bull begins to rub his huge antlers. Even though a buck can render severe scaring to a tree when he rubs, seldom will the damage be enough to kill it. With a bull, especially one that is highly agitated or frustrated, the mutilation delivered to the tree is usually fatal.

Despite the moose being far superior in size, stature and strength to the whitetail, the animal is highly susceptible to three parasites passed on to them by deer, the meningeal or brain worm, winter tick and giant liver fluke. Of the three, the most lethal is the brain worm, which settles on the brain of a whitetail where it produces larvae. This parasite has no effect on the deer, but once a moose is infected, the parasite destroys the brain causing the animal to die a slow and agonizing death.

 

The Whitetails Benefit

 

The white-tailed deer has more than proven its adaptability under every conceivable condition. In the words of wildlife biologist John Ozoga, “whitetails are so equipped, they can survive cold temperatures, deep snow and nutritional hardships, even under the eye of the wolves, coyotes and wildcats.” If they have the ability to sustain themselves under those conditions they can also, without difficulty, exist with the moose.

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In fact as a tracker I’ve witnessed on more than a few occasions where a clever old monarch that I was in pursuit of actually used the moose to his advantage. When pressed from this huntsman, many have been the time when an ‘old artful dodger’ has purposely walked into the imprints of a moose or down a moose trail that completely erodes the bucks imprint. It is hard for me to believe that this act was coincidental, as it has happened much to frequently under similar circumstances.

It has also been my experience to find a buck bedded with the wind to his nose and a moose to his rear. The security of this set-up would be such that, should a predator approach from the downwind side the moose would spook, run into the wind and alert the resting buck.

 

My Benefit from a Bull

 

This was exactly the situation that I faced one November morning as I tracked a buck on four inches of two-day old snow. When I came upon his slots, they led me up and over a hardwood ridge. Descending down the south-facing slope, the buck had zigzagged back and forth stopping often to check his back trail. ‘This was either a very nervous animal or one that had been tracked before,’ I thought to myself. The way his track read caused me doubt about ever closing the gap sufficiently without alerting him first.

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Nevertheless, onward I proceeded, scrutinizing every piece of the terrain for my quarry. Reaching the half way spot down the ridge, I found myself standing on a bench, a flat level area in the hillside where deer prefer to bed. As I paused momentarily, a bull moose rose not even 50 yards to the left of the track. This guy wasn’t hanging around for any photo shoot, he snorted once and immediately began to horse trot down the incline. Once he was a couple of hundred yards below me, he began to swing to the right cutting back across my vision. In the process of following his movement something else caught my attention directly in front of me. The buck I’d been trailing was now rising from his bed, obviously startled by all the commotion made by the bull. Before I could raise my weapon the buck had walked a couple of steps behind a blow-down and became transfixed on watching this moose. With what seemed like hours, I had my gun in the ready position, patiently waiting, praying and hoping for the buck to present a shot. Apparently feeling all was secure, the buck dismissed the moose’s actions as nothing out of the ordinary, flicked his tail a couple of times, turned and began to make his way back towards his bed. A single shot from 40 yards away and the animal never knew what ended his life.

 

Conclusion

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Nearly a century ago the mighty monarch of the taiga was all but gone in the Northeastern wilderness, but now, thanks to a strong resurgence moose can be expected at every bend in the trail. And when you have experienced hunting bucks in the shadow of these magnificent beasts you will have to agree, they personify the very essence of rugged individualism.

 

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

© 2016 R.G. Bernier Nature Photography – All rights reserved.

 

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