When deer move in the woods this time of year they're quiet as fog. In a month or so, when leaves fall and the ground dries, you'll hear them kicking the leaf duff and snapping twigs with their hooves. Now, in the damp, deep green of early September, they make not a sound.
"Watch for their ears to twitch," said Larry Coburn. "That's the only warning you'll have. Any sign of motion, that'll be them."
We were hunkered down in a brier thicket next to a grass field in Howard County, just outside Columbia. It was coming on to dusk with the worst of rush hour traffic gone by. We could still hear cars whooshing along the two-lane blacktop just beyond the trees that ring the field, and once in a while a long honk of a horn from some frustrated driver.
"Those are deer," said Coburn. "When you hear cars honk around here, people are shooing them out of the road. Those deer are probably on the way here. It shouldn't be long now."
In a few more days Coburn will be hunting again. Archery season opens Wednesday in Maryland and he's an expert with bow and arrow. That puts him in an enviable position. He lives in Laurel, just inside Howard County, where fields and woods are so overrun with deer many landowners would like nothing better than to find a responsible, reputable hunter to help keep the population in check. Good bowhunters are in demand.
Coburn, who sat on the Howard County Deer Task Force Committee for three years seeking answers to the region's growing deer overpopulation problems, gets many invitations to hunt. His favorite spot is this small farm where development is encroaching on all sides, driving more and more deer into a last refuge.
Logic might suggest that as woods are cleared, deer lose habitat and the whitetail population decreases. But they are adaptable, said Coburn, and adjust well to suburbanization, dining at night on grass and ornamental bushes instead of traditional forest forage and seeking refuge during the day in the remaining thickets, which grow ever more crowded.
"There's so much food and cover, it supports a huge population," said Coburn. "And the only predators left are hunters in the places where you still can hunt. So many places, you really can't."
"Shhhhh!" he said. "Here they are."
On the far side of the field lay a cut in the surrounding thicket. That's where the first deer appeared--just a brown hump seen dimly over the crest of the grass. "It's a fawn," said Coburn, handing me the field glasses. I scanned and found the sleek tan shape dotted with white spots, camouflage for the helpless youngster in its first summer in the sun-dappled woods.
Then came another, and another.
"It's been a boom year for fawns," Coburn whispered. "I've seen does with twins and triplets, and I saw one with four fawns." The mild winter brought mature females into the spring calving season in excellent health and the result was lots of healthy young deer--good news for hunters but not for county officials concerned with cars that bang into deer, lime disease borne by deer ticks, crop and shrub depredation and other negatives.
For us, there were no negatives. We were tucked away in a thicket with the wind in our faces and the sun at our backs, dressed head-to-toe in camouflage. The deer couldn't see us, couldn't smell us, couldn't hear us. They kept pouring out of the woods until six fawns were arrayed 40 yards out, gamboling, playing and munching the fresh green shoots.
"This is what I love," Coburn whispered. "Seeing them just the way they act in the wild. They don't have any idea we're here. Look, here comes the doe."
She advanced warily, tall, stately and perfectly groomed. The sunset glinted off her tawny coat, her nose twitched, her ears perked for sounds of trouble. "Seven deer," said Coburn. "I wonder if the buck is coming."
Maybe, I thought, but I wasn't prepared to wait. I'd brought the Nikon with the 300mm lens and with the light fading, photo opportunities wouldn't get any better. I raised the camera slowly, swept the field and filled the frame with the doe and her young.
"Click! Whirr!" The shutter snapped and the motor-drive advanced the film. Heads shot up, ears went rigid. "Don't move," said Coburn. In a moment the heads went back down and the young ones resumed feeding and playing. Only the doe remained alert. I banged off 36 exposures before she'd had enough. She still couldn't make us out but she knew something wasn't right.
She stomped a front leg imperiously and the little ones jerked to attention. I couldn't resist. "Click! Whirr!" And they were gone, soundlessly melting into the green woods beyond.
Deer season is fast approaching, which means it's time to scout the woods and fields for good places to hunt. Early in the fall deer favor grass fields to feed in and are most active around dawn and late in the evening, as always.
Archery: Sept. 15-Oct. 20; Oct. 25-26; Dec. 13-17; Jan. 3-31.
Muzzleloader: Oct. 21-23; Oct. 29-30 (certain areas); Dec. 18-Jan. 1.
Modern firearms: Nov. 13 (youth); Nov. 27-Dec. 11.
Archery: Oct. 2-Nov. 13; Nov. 29-Jan. 1 (west of Blue Ridge).
Muzzleloader: Nov. 1-13 (east of Blue Ridge); Nov. 8-13 and Dec. 20-Jan. 1 (west of Blue Ridge).
Modern firearms: Nov. 15-Jan. 1 (east of Blue Ridge); Nov. 15-Nov. 27 (west of Blue Ridge).