Tag Archives: White-tailed Deer

Photobombing Coyotes and Other Things That Go Bump in the Night in Parks

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Most people around Northern Virginia probably don’t get to see what wildlife is doing on a daily basis, and there is a lot of wildlife here. The Fairfax County Park Authority has several ways of connecting people and wildlife, such as nature centers and hiking trails. One of the fun methods of connection is the candid camera.

Since January, Riverbend Park staff has been conducting a camera-trap survey to learn about wildlife in that park. Cameras with infrared sensors that detect both heat and motion, called trail cameras or game cameras, are placed along wildlife trails. When an animal drifts by and breaks the infrared beam, the heat or motion triggers the camera, which can be set to record one or multiple frames. The boxes can be fitted with an infrared flash that will limit any disturbing of the animals. And the cameras can be programmed with a delay of five or ten minutes between shots so that the same animal isn’t photographed dozens or hundreds of times while hanging around.

Staffers never know exactly what to expect each time they check the camera storage cards. Riverbend features a large meadow, a riverbank, creeks, ponds, and deep forests — diverse habitats. These combine to host a wide range of wildlife. Sometimes thousands of pictures reveal nothing. Other times, there are pleasing surprises.

Among Riverbend’s photobombing animals are coyotes, which confirms their presence in the park.

The most common visitors strolling past these cameras have been white-tailed deer, raccoons, and gray squirrels. Foxes and otters also have stopped by for portraits. Riverbend Head Camp Counselor Brian Balik, who uses his own cameras to record some of the photos, says his favorite picture so far has been that of a red fox with white legs. Those are unusual markings and something he’s not seen before.

This fox has unusual markings.

This fox showed off its unusual white legs for the camera at Riverbend Park.

The value in these photos is in learning what animals are around. That helps staff know what steps to take to protect the wildlife. Years ago, people had to rely on actual sightings of animals. Now, staff can see exactly what is in a specific area 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

The cameras also reveal animal behavior. They record the times the animals are awake, the population, the areas of a park they use, and how frequently they use particular areas. Riverbend staff is hoping the cameras will help them learn where the visiting coyotes live and whether their home is in the park.

Ellanor C. Lawrence Park (ECLP) in Chantilly also has conducted camera-trap surveys, and a coyote has been a common visitor there as well. ECLP Naturalist Tony Bulmer says that in late September that coyote brought along a friend, and he suspects the pair may hunt together. Coyotes do not travel in packs, like wolves, but rather they move about separately or in a family unit. ECLP is hoping their cameras will have more to teach about the coyotes, a species that Bulmer calls “one of the most maligned mammals in the United States.”

Huntley Meadows Park staff used four infrared cameras in 2011 to survey the population of deer at Old Colchester Park on Mason Neck.

Huntley Meadows Resource Manager Dave Lawlor analyzed almost 4,000 photos in the Old Colchester survey, and he pointed out that reviewing them on a computer became a little strange because, since the camera doesn’t move, the background of the photos never changes. “It makes your eyes go fuzzy after a while,” he said. Lawlor used antler points and branches to identify individual bucks, but identifying individual does is much harder.

The Old Colchester survey, possibly the most thorough one ever conducted on Mason Neck, revealed an estimated population of up to 60 deer in the 139-acre park, the equivalent of 278 deer per square mile – a lot. Naturalists estimate that the healthy population of deer in an eastern forest is 15 to 20 per square mile.

Another survey was conducted at Old Colchester this fall, and those photos will be analyzed over the winter.

Huntley Meadows Park Manager Kevin Munroe said that Northern Virginia has an overstock of deer because there’s often much more food available for deer in a suburban setting than in a pristine forest. Lawlor added the amount of nutrients deer can ingest in suburbia could be ten times that of a forest and that people think fertilizer feeds plants. He said fertilizer is nutrients for deer.

The large number of deer also affects forested areas. Some parkland has virtually no vegetation for four or five feet up from the ground except for invasive plants that deer won’t eat.

Information like this, plus the input from the trail cameras, can be used as part of the structuring of a deer management plan.

Oh, and those coyotes are widespread across the county, too. The Old Colchester survey also turned up a photo of a coyote on Mason Neck.

Riverbend Park Head Camp Counselor Brian Balik, Huntley Meadows Resource Manager Dave Lawlor, and Stewardship Communications Manager Dave Ochs contributed to this story.

Deer and Forest; Balance and Management

Fairfax County Deer Management Sign

If you visit a park in fall or winter, you may notice orange archery signs popping up along trails and in parking lots. September signals the start of the white-tailed deer management season, and with that program come many questions from park users about the need for deer management and about the safety aspects of a deer management program.

First, a bit of background.

The Fairfax County deer management program originated in the late 1990s after a local librarian was killed in a deer-vehicle collision in Great Falls. The program is overseen by the Fairfax County wildlife biologist, who serves within the Fairfax County Police Department. Deer management takes place primarily on parkland with the coordination and consent of the Park Authority.

What started as a public safety response to deer overpopulation has expanded for several reasons. There is greater evidence and awareness today that deer browse is one of the top threats facing the county’s forested natural areas. Biologists from the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries estimate that there could be more than 50,000 deer currently living in Fairfax County. This is more than 100 deer per square mile, and that is six to ten times higher than a healthy ecosystem can support.

Deer have become over-abundant because we feed and shelter them. Our suburban ecosystems, including our fertilized lawns and gardens, create sumptuous buffets for deer. Many does give birth to twins each year. Large predators, such as resident bears or packs of wolves, are gone from this area. Humans are the only remaining predators of deer, and hunting pressure has steeply declined over the past few decades.

In many of our parks, there is no native vegetation growing between six inches and six feet above the ground because of browsing deer. This summer, our natural resources team measured browse levels at 140 plots countywide and confirmed ongoing, severe browsing in most of the surveyed parks. Many local biologists and naturalists are concerned about the future of our forests, and citizens also have cause for concern. As mature trees die or fall during storms, what replaces them? Under current conditions, very few native seedlings will survive, and invasive species, which the deer aren’t able to eat, often take hold in their place.

Over the long term, forests will degrade and will fail to provide the air quality, water quality and stormwater management benefits we rely on. On a personal level, the property values of homes next to parks may decrease, and the quality of life will diminish as there are fewer places to escape into the cool and quiet of a summer woods. The loss of native shrubs and trees also contributes to a broad decline in native insects, migratory songbirds, and so on up the food chain. It’s like a house of cards. Pull out the right card at the bottom, and the whole pyramid is coming down.

The deer management program relies on several different methods of population reduction including archery, managed hunts, and sharpshooting. There are currently no feasible alternatives to controlling deer populations other than lethal means, in both effectiveness and expense. Archery is the least imposing and most cost-efficient method currently in use because parks can remain open and volunteers can be recruited to hunt on behalf of the county. We recognize that some residents oppose lethal deer control, so we continue to provide public education and to address specific concerns regarding safety. For example, new signs include the international symbol for archery for those who may not be able to read the text.

2013 is the fifth year that we are allowing archery in the parks. In 2012, archery was implemented in more than 30 parks, and there were no safety incidents with people or with pets. This includes heavily-visited parks such as Burke Lake Park, Lake Accotink Park, Huntley Meadows Park, Riverbend Park, Ellanor C. Lawrence Park, and Wakefield Park. The 2013 archery program has expanded to over 40 parks, including several inside the beltway. Each park has been marked with orange signs.

Hunting is confined to tree stands in specific areas of the parks, with hunters at least 50 feet from a trail and at least 100 feet from a property line. Each site is reviewed for safety. All of the volunteer archers must abide by strict rules to participate in the program. They must have superior ability with the bow and must qualify at a range to participate. Modern archery equipment is extremely precise and effective, and the program’s wounding rate has been less than four percent each year.

The next time you see a sign during one of your visits, take a minute to search for an oak, maple or hickory seedling. Do you see any? The future of our forests depends on fewer deer.

Author Kristen Sinclair is the senior natural resource specialist in the Park Authority’s Natural Resource Management and Protection Branch.