The Forest Unseen

Forests will always hold your secrets, for that’s what forests are for.

~Victoria Erickson

We’ve been gone for a couple of weeks (more on that adventure in the next post) and the trail cameras were busy keeping up with the goings-on back home while we were away. Lots of the same sort of behaviors we have seen before, but some heavy rains filled our ephemeral stream and that area became more attractive to many of our woodland neighbors. Here are a few highlights from the last couple of weeks that we would have not known about save for the eyes of the trail cameras.

— I put a camera on one of our wildlife pools and this little mouse appeared almost every night, scampering all around the edge. Somehow, it managed to avoid the four outdoor cats that have become a nuisance on our property.

— The Raccoons also enjoy the wildlife pools. You just never know what you might find (the first Spotted Salamander eggs of the season appeared while we were away!).

— Prior to the rains, the dry creek bed was a playground of sorts for the local squirrels. It appears as though we need some squirrel predators…where are the Red-tailed Hawks when you need them?

— The resident bucks are tolerating each other better now that the rut is over. Is this akin to a couple of bros doing a fist bump?

— At the other side of our property, some very nice bucks hang out at the local acorn bar

— After the rains, the creek is a popular stopping point to quench your thirst and check out your reflection

— This log by the creek is a busy highway for Gray Squirrels, various species of birds, Raccoons, and…

— our Bobcat makes a return visit and strolls down the busy log path, stopping to sniff who else has traveled that way

Still Hanging On

Your growing antlers, Bambi continued, are proof of your intimate place in the forest, For of all the things that live and grow only the trees and the deer shed their foliage each year and replace it more strongly, more magnificently, in the Spring. Each year the trees grow larger and put on more leaves. And so you too increase In size and wear a larger, stronger crown.

~Felix Salten

After placing a new trail camera down along the wet weather creek, I was rewarded with a very nice clip of a beautiful White-tailed deer buck. This is from February 18, about the time most deer in our area are dropping their antlers for the season. As I mentioned in a recent post about Moose in Yellowstone, antler drop is an annual event for male members of the deer family, caused by changing day-length and lowered testosterone levels after the mating season.

–A nice buck poses for the new trail camera (best if viewed full screen)

A week ago, I had a very short clip that showed this buck still sports his nice set of antlers. It is getting a bit late for them to still be carrying their antlers, so I would love to have him drop one or both somewhere on our property. I have only found one antler shed here in all the years of roaming these woods. Rodents make short work of shed antlers for their calcium content.

The same day the large buck above was caught on camera, a smaller buck who had dropped its antlers was filmed. Note the roundish scar between the ey and ear – the pedicle. Soon, new antler growth will begin at this site for next mating season’s crowns.

— This buck has already dropped its antlers. You can see the pedicle as a scar-like mark between the ear and eye on each side of its head

It Really Snowed (and we missed it)!

While I relish our warm months, winter forms our character and brings out our best.

~Thomas H. Allen

While we were away in mid-late January we got our biggest snow of the past couple of years (a whopping 3+ inches I believe). We were bummed to miss it (even though we were off on an adventure to our favorite winter wonderland – more on that in the next post). Snow in our woods is special to us and we relish any chance to get out in it and walk the transformed forest. Luckily, our trail cameras captured some of the beauty and activity in our absence. Here are a few highlights…

— A beautiful capture of some of our resident deer in fresh snow

— A large buck that I haven’t seen yet this year made a couple of appearances after the snow

— A coyote shows the typical “I’m in a hurry to get somewhere” travel mode

— Looks like there are more deer out there than I knew about (how many do you see?)

Looking forward to being here in the next “big” snow!

Oh Deer

Everything pales in comparison to deer.

~Bill Vaughan

After the ubiquitous squirrels, deer have been the mainstay of the triggers on our three trail cameras. It was a busy fall with deer frequently visiting the vicinity of some oak trees as they searched for scarce acorns. Here are a few other clips showing some behaviors that occur when we are not out in the woods watching them.

— Nothing like a good stretch after spending two hours lounging in a comfy bed of ferns.

— This was back in November, at the tail end of the rut. This buck came through the morning after the deer had been bedded down and he sniffed that spot to check on what was happening in his woods.

— A buck chasing a doe during the rut

— A buck trailing a doe

— During the rut, young bucks do some practice sparring. These two bucks were seen together frequently and seemed to want to test each other every time (remind you of any people in your life?)

— The just can’t help it, here they go again

— And again…by the way, I got another video clip of these guys doing this again this week!

— But these are the guys that probably get the girls

— What’s this?

The cameras reveal differences between individuals and also similarities between all creatures. Knowing more about the lives of our woodland neighbors helps me appreciate them even more.


Think of the fierce energy concentrated in an acorn! You plant it in the ground and it explodes into an oak.

~George Bernard Shaw

The trail cameras have been busy these past few months with lots of images of squirrels (too many), raccoons, opossums, two coyotes (finally, I was beginning to wonder what happened), a few raptors, loads of deer, some neighbor kids, and, unfortunately, too many outdoor cats. I tend to leave the cameras in one location for some time to try to get a feel for the wildlife activity in that particular area. I moved one camera slightly back in October to get a better angle on what seemed to be a lot of foraging around a large Northern Red Oak down-slope from the house. This has been an off year for acorns in our woods with almost no White Oak acorns produced. White Oak acorns mature in summer and drop in the fall (one year). The red oak group of acorns take 2 years to drop, but some are produced every spring, so, even in a bad acorn production year, there are some red oak acorns still on the tree. So, in our woods this year, the critters that rely on acorns for a portion of their autumn diet have been concentrating on the red oaks.

The deer have been particularly busy at the large red oaks as there isn’t a lot of understory that they haven’t already over-browsed. The one camera placed near the large Northern Red Oak has had a lot of clips taken of the animals scavenging the acorns that have dropped. Interestingly, very few squirrels have been seen eating the acorns on the ground, probably because they tend to do a lot of their foraging in the tree tops. Here is a selection of the goings on at the old oak tree this season…

A group of deer foraging under the large Northern Red Oak on our property

Sometimes they don’t play nice while searching for acorns.

A doe strikes at another deer to drive her away from what might be a good spot for acorns

Sometimes there are other woodland critters getting in on the bounty under the oak tree…

A Southern Flying Squirrel scurries around the oak trunk
A deer wanders over to check out what the raccoon may have found (raccoons were common at night in the area around the tree)
A rabbit was a frequent visitor under the tree

What I enjoyed the most was watching deer crack the acorns – the way their jaws move, the sounds (sound up for these video clips).

A doe chews loudly on an acorn
Crunchy breakfast

The action under this tree was pretty constant, day and night, for a few weeks, lasting through about the third week of November when most of the acorn drop ceased. Now, an occasional visit by a deer is captured on that camera, but they typically are seen sniffing the leaves a bit before moving on. Winter has set in and times will be tougher for some of our woodland neighbors until the spring green starts to appear.

Things You Might Not See

Nobody can conceive or imagine all the wonders there are unseen and unseeable in the world.

~ Francis Pharcellus Church

It had been over a week since I checked the three trail cameras, so I was anxious to see what had transpired in our patch of woods without us knowing. There has been a definite increase in deer activity and most of the video clips contain images of some of the many (probably too many for the health of our woods) White-tailed Deer going about their business. With acorns and hickory nuts falling, the deer are visiting certain spots under these trees more and slowly searching the ground for the nutritious morsels. It is also getting to be that time of year when the bucks are paying more attention to the does…it is the start of the rut. There are a few big bucks roaming the woods, often in each others’ company. The cameras have caught glimpses of two six-pointers, one eight-pointer, and a number of smaller males (plus many more females and a few young of the year). This clip shows a young buck rubbing his antlers against a Painted Buckeye shrub, no doubt thinking about what might lie ahead (if he is lucky). A doe and fawn are nearby.

Young buck briefly rubs his antlers on shrub

Another video from the south slope showed something I have never observed – some rather unsightly deer warts on two young bucks. At first, I thought they were a type of warble (lesion) that is caused by a botfly. Warbles are common on squirrels here in the Piedmont and the large skin deformations caused by the botfly larvae can be quite grotesque in appearance. But the bumps on these deer looked different. After searching online, I believe these are so-called deer warts, a type of cutaneous fibroma caused by a virus. There are many types of fibroma-causing viruses in nature but this one is specific to deer and cannot be spread to other wildlife or humans. Apparently, they are quite common in deer and can be transmitted when an area with broken skin comes in direct contact with an infected deer or with a surface that an infected deer rubbed against. Studies show that they occur more frequently in male deer, especially young bucks, and the wart-like growths occur most often on the head, neck and forelegs. Though they can be gross-looking, they typically do not harm the deer and they usually regress and vanish over time.

Two young bucks with cutaneous fibromas (deer warts)

The last video clip I’ll share is another thrilling one for us. Earlier this summer, a camera caught a Bobcat walking down our then dry creek bed. That was the first time we have ever had confirmation of these sleek feline predators on our property. Last week, just before sunrise, another Bobcat sighting was made on a trail in the ravine closer to the house. I’m assuming it is the same animal, but who knows! Whatever the case, we are super excited to know this species is roaming our woods. Now, to see one in person…

A Bobcat strolling through our woods just before sunrise last week

Wildlife Neighbors

There is a way that nature speaks, that land speaks. Most of the time we are simply not patient enough, quiet enough, to pay attention to the story.

~Linda Hogan

I recently bought another trail camera and have been putting them out in our woods the past few weeks trying to document who shares our 14 acres. I look for game trails and natural junctures (like our creek bed), placing the cameras on trees for a couple of days, and then retrieving the images. It is always a thrill to see what triggered the cameras and when. I’m also starting to look for places where there has been obvious recent activity, like the pileated log from my last post. Of course, the photographer in me wishes the images were a higher quality, but the naturalist in me is delighted with what the cameras are recording when the woods are on their own.

By far, the greatest number of captures have been of Eastern Gray Squirrels. Our woods seem extra full of them this year, perhaps due to the extraordinary mast year we have had that produced an abundance of acorns and hickory nuts. There have been many trips that did not record any animal as there is a delay between when teh camera senses movement and when it starts recording. The mouse on the pileated log from the last post is a prime example. During the day, a quick moving squirrel or a bird flying in front of the camera can leave me with nothing but guesses as to what set it off.

Below are some of my favorite captures from the last four weeks of trail cameras (best if viewed full screen) with notes on each…

One of the mystery visitors (what do you think it is?)
I think one of these guys is the culprit from that first clip (I have recorded 4 raccoons at one time on the trail cam, possibly siblings?), Notice the interaction of the two in the background
The second most recorded animal has been White-tailed Deer, with as many as 5 in the field of view at once
I have seen this buck on a couple of cameras, both day and night
This buck is an 8-pointer, but has 5 points on one side and 3 on the other. I have seen this one and the one above bedded down near our fence during daylight recently
This was the first time a coyote was caught on camera. He looks up toward the house before running, so I assume I made some noise like splitting wood or chainsawing a log. The cameras have caught one coyote on several other occasions this past week at night and once have recorded two. We hear them on occasion but I have only seen one on our property with my own eyes..
This is the wildlife neighbor I have enjoyed seeing the most. It has been caught 3 times now on camera. Before this, we had only ever seen tracks in the snow. The black legs (especially front legs) and lack of a black tail tip is characteristic of a Red Fox (Gray Foxes have black tail tips). This one seems to lack the usual white tail tip of Red Foxes (or it is very faint).

I usually take my camera with me when I go check the trail cameras, but earlier this week I was in a hurry and just wanted to make a quick trip. As I headed down slope, I noticed something through the gray tree trunks. I pulled up my binoculars…it was the Red Fox staring at me. It looked at me for a few seconds and then trotted off down toward the creek. Suddenly, three deer, apparently startled by the fox, came running up toward me. It was a doe and two beautiful bucks (the 6 and 8-pointers shown above). They stopped, looked at me, and may have realized I was without camera, so they gave me a nice pose. I decided to wait another day to retrieve the trail cam footage. I hope the other wildlife neighbors will reveal themselves “in person” some day. In the meantime, I’ll let the trail cams tell me who is out there.

Here is a complete list of species recorded this month:

Eastern Gray Squirrel, Eastern Chipmunk, mouse (species unknown), Dark-eyed Junco; American Robin, Hermit Thrush, Pileated Woodpecker, Red-bellied Woodpecker, White-tailed Deer, Raccoon, Virginia Opossum, Red Fox, Coyote, unidentified moths

Cades Cove

Cades Cove meadows

Cades Cove in late afternoon light (click on photos to enlarge)

Cades Cove is a 6800 acre valley on the Tennessee side of Great Smoky Mountains National Park. It is probably the most visited area of the park and the Smokies are the most visited national park in the United States with more than 9 million visitors each year (Grand Canyon is second with about 4 million). And I can believe that Cades Cove is that popular as each of the four times I have been, it has been crowded. This past week was my first autumn visit and I was expecting fewer people, but I was wrong.

Upper end of Cades Cove

Upper end of Cades Cove

The valley is a beautiful place, especially at sunrise and sunset. There are many short trails, a visitor center, streams, and scenic views. There are also a large number of historic structures from the thriving community that lived in the valley until it became part of the national park in 1934. One reason for its popularity (and the reason for my visit) is its wildlife. Cades Cove is well known for its abundance of species such as White-tailed Deer (especially large bucks), Wild Turkey, and Black Bear. There is easy access provided to the valley via a one way 11-mile loop road. The area offers excellent habitat and relatively easy wildlife viewing with its mix of meadows, managed fields, hardwood forests, and mountain streams.

10 point buck at sunset

10-point buck at sunset

I arrived late in the afternoon last Thursday and, after hurriedly setting up my tent in the campground, headed out to see what I could find as it was approaching prime wildlife viewing time. A few hundred yards past the entrance to the loop road, I came to a field with several large bucks feeding. There were a few folks out watching so I grabbed the camera and walked out. There were five bucks – two 10-points, one 8-point, and two 6-points, an impressive start.

Two bucks talking it over

Two bucks talking it over

One thing that is great about Cades Cove is that most of the wildlife is very accustomed to people and so it is a great place to observe behaviors. While the rut is still in progress, I think some of the passions have subsided. But one large buck started thrashing a downed trees’ branches with his antlers and another soon joined him. The larger buck then started licking the antlers of the slightly smaller one, they briefly locked horns for a very passive shove, and then moved off together to feed side-by-side. Two other bucks touched antlers and then brushed noses as if whispering something about one of the other guys in the field.

Tree at sunset

Tree silhouette at sunset

I finally drove the remainder of the loop road as the sun was setting and looked for places to check the next morning. As I photographed a particularly beautiful tree out in one of the meadows, I heard coyotes yipping a few hundred yards away under the clear, darkening sky. A great ending to my first afternoon in Cades Cove. I awoke about 4 a.m. and headed out into the cold air toward the bathroom when I heard some rustling in the leaves about 20 feet from the tent. In the moonlight, I could see a dark form and my first thought was bear (there are warnings about bear-proofing your campsite). But when I turned on my flashlight it was a Wild Boar, an introduced species that the park is actively trying to control. They grub through the soil looking for whatever they can find to eat and, in doing so, root up large amounts of plants which can damage sensitive habitats. It looks like a small bulldozer has gone through an area after they are finished feeding. The Boar trotted off and I gladly moved off in the other direction.

Wild Turkey at sunrise

Wild Turkey at sunrise

The next morning there were twenty cars at the entrance to the loop road when the ranger opened the gate at 7 a.m. I drove past the field with all the bucks (and most of the cars) and was soon by myself in the upper end of the valley. A few turkeys flew down from their roost and landed in a nearby field so I stopped to watch. They were picking through the grass for who knows what and then walked over and grabbed a few berries from an American Holly. I had just sat down to photograph them when they started to head my way. I was soon surrounded by turkeys, scratching in the leaves under a nearby Sycamore and pecking at unseen morsels.

Wild Turkey, Cades Cove

Wild Turkey in early morning light

As the light started to hit them, their feathers made them shimmer with bronze, green, and rich rust colors.

Wild Turkey head close upg

Wild Turkey head close up

As beautiful as their feathers are, their heads are a bit on the not-so-beautiful side, especially with the close looks I was getting. They continued to peck and feed, glancing my way occasionally to make sure I had not moved from my cold, sitting position in the icy grass. I sat with them for about twenty minutes until a diesel pickup truck stopped nearby and spooked them.

Deer eating Smilax berries

Deer eating Smilax berries

With the increasing traffic, I decided to hike up into the woods near where I had seen a large buck the afternoon before. On top of the hill, I saw movement just inside the woods. A small 6-point buck was stretching his head up and grabbing something. Only when I later looked at the image could I see he was feeding on Greenbrier berries (Smilax sp.). I have seen them eat the shoots of Smilax, but never the berries before now.

Buck challenges me

7-point buck giving me the once over

Walking down into the woods I came a cross a small herd of deer, all female. Suddenly they all jerked their heads to the left and stared into the woods at something I could not see. A very large 7-point buck then came into view, chased away the does, and started to feed. I moved one step to the side to get a better view and he spotted me and turned my way with nostrils flared and mouth agape. I interpreted that as a  “I could take you but I’m going to let you live” look and I didn’t move again until he nibbled his way off into the forest. Driving back to camp later that day I was happy with the wildlife observations except for one thing – no bears. But I still had one more morning.

Deer before sunrise

Doe before sunrise

The next morning was in the 20’s with another heavy frost. I drove out to the far end of the loop road and was, again, relatively alone as most had stopped at the first field with all the bucks. A lone doe was at the edge of the frozen meadow when I spotted something trailing her – it first appeared as just antlers in very tall grasses and saplings, but then became a large, frosty buck.

8 point buck in frosty meadow 2

8-point buck emerging from frosty meadow

His antler spread was impressive as he stared at the disappearing doe. I stayed put and he trotted across the field, pausing once to glance at an oncoming car, before retiring into the edge of the woods.

Buck rubbing tree branches

Buck depositing scent on branch above a scrape

I hung around watching some turkey and small groups of birds (Eastern Bluebirds, American Goldfinches, American Robins, Golden-crowned Kinglets) as they swept through feeding on whatever they could find in the crisp morning air. But soon, the rising sun melted the frost and warmed the valley so I headed back over to where the buck had vanished. I saw a large buck, which I assume was the same one, although I can’t be sure as it was turned away from me. It started making a scrape, in which the buck paws at the ground, exposing moist soil. After pawing at the ground a few times he urinated in the scrape and then reached up to am overhanging branch and rubbed his head back and forth. This deposits scent on the branch from his head and from glands in the corners of their eyes. The scrape serves as a signal to all other deer of his presence and his status. I don’t know about the other deer, but I was impressed.

8 point buck in frosty meadow 4

8-point buck after being in sparring match with two other bucks

I drove on as traffic started to increase hoping to find a bear before I had to break camp and leave. Far out in a meadow I instead spotted three bucks moving in an unusual manner. I pulled over to look and it appeared as if they were in a three-way sparring match, heads down, antlers touching, and slowly spinning in a circle testing each other. I grabbed the camera and headed out, when, of course, they broke apart and started feeding (guess all that testosterone-induced activity makes a guy hungry). They slowly drifted apart as they browsed and I managed a few photos of the largest of the bucks, a compact 8-pointer, as he kept an eye on his departing opponents.

Cades Cove early morning looking down the valley

Cades Cove from the upper end

It had been a rewarding couple of days in Cades Cove. My only frustration was the traffic congestion. It was made worse by two things: drivers ignoring the signs saying “no stopping” and “please use pullouts to observe wildlife”; and drivers going half or less of the posted 20 mph speed limit without pulling over to let others pass. I also saw a few visitors get way too close to deer (within feet). This explains the signs that read “Do Not Feed, Touch, or Disturb the Wildlife”. Touch…really, you need a sign for that?

My other disappointment was that for the first time in my four visits to this picturesque valley, I had no bear sightings. I was beginning to think I had lost my bear mojo as I drove out…but, such was not the case. But you’ll have to wait until the next post to see why.

I’ll leave you with a few more images from Cades Cove…

Wild Turkey head close up preening

Turkey preening

Young buck drinking water

Young buck drinking from a roadside puddle

Tree shadow in Cades Cove

Tree shadow in Cades Cove

7 point buck

Huge antler spread on a large 7-point buck

HDR view of Cades Cove

iPhone image of Cades Cove at sunrise