It was a fantastic day to get out and enjoy a sunny day romping in the woods with Team Orange. We all needed the exercise, and I figured maybe we’d get lucky and find an antler along the way. Exercise was the main goal, though, as I’ve become increasingly skeptical that I will ever find another antler. So we headed to a friend’s property and hit the trail.
We weren’t ten minutes into our hike when my “bird dogs” kicked up what I thought at first was a ruffed grouse along the trail. The thing made a huge racket and startled all of us. This happened a few more times, and when they kicked up one in tight cover and the bird had nowhere to go but straight at my face, I realized it was a woodcock. I was sure because I could very clearly see the distinctive beak as it nearly speared me in the forehead. Later we came across a scene where something had enjoyed a meal of a bird. There were a lot of these striped feathers in the debris field. I don’t know if these belong to a woodcock or not, but the only other birds I saw in those woods today were little songbirds and pileated woodpeckers. You can see a couple of the feathers at Winnie’s feet below.
Here’s a better look, but when the sun hit these the white parts were brilliant white…
We got through the woods and started following deer trails and bed areas in tall grass. Both my dogs walked over this little antler before it came into view, and I couldn’t even get them excited about it once I found it. But I was plenty excited! This is actually the first fresh shed I’ve ever found. My few previous finds have been at least a year old. So this little guy is special. I love picking up an antler, knowing I’m the first human to ever touch it.
So let me get you up to speed: My dogs are as worthless at finding antlers as they are at finding birds. It’s a good thing they are extraordinarily fine company. Finn did find this feather, which I think came from a wild turkey.
While it was a very windy day, the sun was warm and we were covering a lot of ground. So the dogs were psyched to take a swim break in the pond.
I happened upon another, larger antler, one that my dogs actually stepped on as they passed it. A really cool find.
You may have noticed from the turkey feather photo that I’ve been working on perfecting the technique of focusing the camera so the background is crystal clear, but the central object in the foreground has a nice, soft, blurred focus applied to it. It’s tricky to get right, but I’ve gotten very good at it.
So two nice antler finds, lots of exercise and fresh air, and we all had a great time.
The fitbit showed why I was draggin’ ass up the last few hills back to the truck. Total distance for the day was eight hilly miles.
And so it was a day filled with life’s simple pleasures. A place to run. An antler here and there. Good company. That burn in the legs, that signal from your body that it appreciates the effort you put in today. And a sunny day warm enough to roll down the windows, turn up the music, and just breathe it all in.
Hiking on a cold, blustery day, I kept my eyes to the ground, half to look for antler sheds, half to shield my eyes from a sustained, 30mph wind. I listened more than looked for my two dogs, who were running off leash ahead and behind me in about a twenty-yard radius. Not that I could hear much over the howling winds whipping the tall grass all around me.
But I did hear this. All day I’ve tried to replay it in my mind, but it’s hard to describe. A snort, maybe. Kind of a huff. An unquestionably animal, nasal sound. I stopped.
When I looked up, about fifteen yards up the slope from where I was standing, I saw Finn. He was absolutely motionless, broadside to me, and he was nose to nose with a large coyote.
They faced each other, statues. No more than a baseball’s diameter apart. In my mind I ran through my options. I’ll call him, and hope he comes and the yote doesn’t. Beyond that, I’m kind of out of ideas.
“Finn,” I called. They both turned their heads and looked straight at me. I somehow took a moment to compare them. The coyote seemed a bit taller than Finn, but he was on the uphill side, so truthfully they were probably the same height. Finn is a tall, lean 75 pounds. The coyote had thick fur around his head and neck, giving him at least the impression of being larger than Finn. I could read Finn’s body language, even though much of both their bodies, including the ever-important tails, were concealed by the tall grass. But Finn’s neck was erect, and his ears were up and slightly back. He seemed fine, maybe even playful, but just a bit apprehensive.
The coyote I couldn’t read at all. Ears fixed atop his head, body concealed, blank slate. Like reading a painting of a coyote. Not to mention my lack of experience with the animal – my previous closest coyote encounter was from about 200 yards away, at Yellowstone. This was new territory.
I just wanted to get some space between the two canines.
“Here,” I called, not overly forcefully. Without hesitation, and a bit to my surprise, Finn turned away from his new friend and trotted the fifteen yards back to me, ears up, tail wagging. The coyote watched him.
Eyes still on Wile E., I called for Winnie. Luckily, she was unaware of this entire transaction, and came when called from another direction. I watched the coyote.
He took a single step toward me and I felt utterly unprepared. I don’t know enough about these animals and their behavior. I don’t know the right thing to do if they show aggression, nor do I really know what their aggression necessarily looks like. My dogs were milling around my immediate area but I wanted them still and close. “Finn! Winnie! Heel! Now!
The firm commands, I presume, stopped the coyote in his tracks. He thought better of advancing, and turned around. A step into the grass and he was gone. Far too late I fumbled for my phone, held it up high and snapped a few photos, knowing there would be no sign of him in them. I praised my dogs, thankful this encounter was diffused without incident, and that it was Finn who encountered him, rather than Winnie. I’m not sure things would have gone as well if the roles were reversed.
Hiking back to the car (reducing that 20 yard dog radius to something closer to 10), I thought about the encounter. The noise of the wind likely resulted in Finn and the coyote surprising each other in the grass. I don’t think he knew we were there until he was snoot to snoot with what to him was probably the ugliest coyote he had ever seen. Finn likely viewed him as just a funny smelling dog who doesn’t wear a collar, but I really don’t know. He was absolutely disinterested in the coyote once he recalled to me. He never even glanced back over his shoulder as we left.
I, however, did.
I am drawn to the aesthetics of deer antlers. To me they are beautiful, organic shapes that please the eye. But the bizarre biological mechanics behind them are fascinating, growing anew each year covered in blood-rich velvet that feeds them nutrients. Then the bone dies, the velvet is shed and the antlers remain. Status, attraction, competition are all a part of the purpose and function of those extensions of the skull of a whitetail buck. And then, in late winter, testosterone levels drop and the antlers are cast off.
And when they fall, there they sit. In corn fields, hedgerows, creek beds and lawns, in dense woods, briar patches and snow drifts. There they sit until critters, attracted to the minerals within, gnaw them away. Or until they rot. Or until a person, wandering through the woods with their eyes to the ground, finds it and picks it up.
Searching for shed antlers is a fun way to get exercise. I have tried to train my dogs to seek them out, and they love running off leash for miles and miles, even if they aren’t quite sure what they’re looking for. But shed hunting can also be frustrating. The three of us have spent a lot of hours and miles and, until yesterday, had yet to find a single shed. But I’ll get back to that.
Wandering around the woods looking for food sources, buck rubs, trails, beds and other signs is a good way to learn about deer behavior. But logging a lot of miles with your eyes trained to the ground, you’d be surprised how many other little things you notice. First of all, anything bone colored gets your attention, no matter how small. During yesterday’s outing on a friend’s farm I spotted this jawbone from about ten yards away. My guess is raccoon, but I’m not positive.
Some friends identified these feathers as coming from a Yellow-shafted Flicker. This beautiful bird became dinner for a fox or other predator.
Winnie decided if she couldn’t find any antlers, she was going to commit to being the very best collector of burrs she could be. Here Finn admires her handiwork. He tried to help by pulling a few off her, but then he abandoned his efforts, mumbling something about rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.
After a few hours with no luck, this little four point skull caught my eye, half buried under some thorny briars. So I asked one of the more nimble members of Team Orange to fetch it for me. Winnie volunteered. Nothing special, the skull looks to be at least a year old and one side is discolored from being in the ground. But since it was starting to look like I might be walking out of the woods empty handed yet again, I brushed it off and took it with me.
A while later, we were following a deer trail parallel to a tree line. I looked down and saw two antler points sticking up through some grass. I studied it from where I was, about five feet away, careful not to let myself get too excited about what might end up being another of the million curved corn stalks or antler-shaped sticks that had already faked me out. But there it was, finally. I brought the dogs over in hopes that they would see or smell it and catch on that this is what we were looking for. They did not.
I picked it up, the first human hands to ever touch it. I examined it. Not fresh, probably from last year. Three points, one of the three chipped at the end, and a fourth brow tine that had broken off as well. It was neither large nor perfect, but it was beautiful. This year alone I had hiked probably twenty miles to get to this one antler shed. It was a huge relief. I wish I could say it was enough to just be outside even if I don’t find any, but it was starting to get to me that I couldn’t find at least one shed.
I tried to get the dogs excited about it, hoping that knowing what they’re looking for would help them find more. Winnie posed with this long enough for a quick photo, but then went on her way, adding to her burr collection.
So the final tally on the day: 1 skull, 1 shed, 5 miles, 5 hours, 90 burrs and 2 tired dogs.
Those burrs, by the way? Winnie’s coat is an absolute magnet for them. If I didn’t have some of this Showsheen, I would have had to resort to clippers to get them out. It’s an equine product and I always keep a little bit in a spray bottle with my grooming supplies. Spray it on and the burrs comb right out. Stubborn clumps need a bit more attention, but it really works great.
As for shed hunting, maybe I broke the ice with this one. Maybe I will get better with practice, learn where to look and how to see. Maybe Team Orange will catch on. But even if none of those things happen, the pursuit of antlers has gotten me out hiking, observing nature and exercising the dogs, in the midst of a brutal winter that is slow to relinquish its icy grip. And that is a very good thing.
Addendum: After I wrote this post, my friend Monica, whose great blog Shedding Suburbia should be added to your browser bookmarks, published this great post about a very special antler find and the lengths she had to go to just to get it home. I wanted to link it here for my readers. Enjoy!