Wildlife Notes

3. Rutting Fallow Deer

Article text
While photographing nesting Little Egrets one Spring I had a chance meeting with a gamekeeper who kindly offered the opportunity of photographing the coming Fallow Deer rut. This fortunate meeting turned out to be one of the best photographic opportunities I’ve had to date.

Though these were park deer I would describe them as semi wild, you can’t just stroll up to one and take a photograph. The Fallow Deer is a native of the Mediterranean region and an introduced species in the UK brought here mainly by the 10th century Normans as royal sport deer though a smaller number may originate from stock introduced by the Romans. They are a relatively common park deer being more amenable to this constraining situation than the Red Deer. Descendents of park escapees are common in many areas of the UK where they favour deciduous woods with open spaces though they are also found in mixed conifer/deciduous woodlands. In Devon, wild Fallow Deer are commonly of the dark brown form having no spots when mature. They are very wary of humans, though if you chance upon one they commonly run into cover then stop to stare at you from a perceived safe distance. They are often in groups, so if I see one I keep my eyes open for others.



Canon 20D
Canon 300mm F4 IS plus 1.4 x Extender
ISO 200
Monopod



Canon 40D
Canon 500mm F4 IS plus 1.4 x Extender
ISO 320
Evaluative Metering -2/3
Tripod



Canon 40D
Canon 300 F4 IS plus 1.4 x Extender
ISO 320
Evaluative Metering -1/3
Tripod

We’d arranged I would phone late September to discuss our plan of attack, so this important agreement went straight into the calendar with the biggest marker pen I could find. When the date finally arrived I rang the gamekeeper and found the rut occurred like clock work from October 13th to 27th with its peak between the 18th to 22nd. We therefore agreed to meet at sundown on the 10th to set up my hide thereby giving the deer time to get used to it and so not intrude on their normal habits and behaviour. I asked the gamekeeper where the best place was to see the rut, he informed me there was one main rutting stand and 2 minor stands. The main stand was a roughly circular clear area about 50 yards across in the centre of the park. We then discussed the path of the sun, likely wind direction, backgrounds, subject distances and suitable natural places to site a hide so as to blend with the landscape. Combining and balancing these factors lead to only one suitable location, the decision was made and the hide set.

We agreed I would keep an eye on the weather and ring the night before the first forecasted sunny day, I was going to need good light levels to capture the action. Our plan led me to ring on the evening of the 16th, we meet the next morning an hour before sunrise and I was dropped off at the hide while it was still dark. This meant the deer would see a vehicle arrive then leave, so fooling them into thinking no one had stayed.

I use an Eastman pop up tent hide which is light and easily carried in its own back pack. It’d rate it as good value, being easy to set up though a little trickier to pack away, its black inside with many well placed pop holes to photograph from. However if you were to use a hide very regularly I think you’d end up investing in a sturdier but more expensive alternative.

For the likely distances and available light involved I decided to take my 500mm F4 lens and 70-200mm lens F2.8, both mounted on Canon 50D bodies. The 500mm would be tripod mounted, while 70-200mm on a monopod.

I was full of excitement and anticipation as I fumbled quietly in the dark sorting the cameras. As I arranged the equipment I could hear what I can only described as loud violently breaking tree branches, this was the males fighting before sunrise. The sound was quite intimidating in the gloom, the action seemed very close and it brought home to me how vulnerable I was. I considered the completely ineffectual barrier the hide fabric would provide compared to an angry stags antlers, then fatalistically decided if it’s my time, it’s my time.

As the light levels rose I could see males mostly lying down in their scrapes dotted around the central rutting area in front of me and a number of others behind.

The stags make a scrape with their hooves, urinate in it then rest in the pungent mud. The closest stag was a mere 10 yards away, and he stank.

I then heard the now familiar sound of crashing antlers behind me, I slowly opened the zip a few inches on the back door of the hide and tried to peered out. Two males were fiercely fighting 100 yards away. I'd seen my first fight.

I took some images of stags resting just to get a feel for light and exposure levels and to get them used to the sound of the camera. It was still early and light levels meant ISO800 for an adequate shutter speed. I hoped there would not be too much action if this was the case, I really wanted light levels to rise so I could get down to my preferred ISO setting of 400 or less.



Canon 50D
Canon 500mm F4 IS
1/250th
F8
ISO 400
Evaluative metering -2/3
Tripod



Canon 50D
Canon 500mm F4 IS
1/500th
F8
ISO 400
Evaluative metering -2/3
Tripod

It was not long until a fight broke out in my target area and I had the first chance to observe and take some images. I had a real problem trying to compose and capture the action. I couldn’t make my mind up between close or wide images so I ended up taking a panicked mix. Once the fight was over I reviewed them and found I was still undecided as to the best approach, so decided to keep taking a variety of compositions but would lean toward trying to get in close and capture the look in their eyes as they fought.

Many more fights broke out during the day and I was able to take some more considered images and observe the fights in detail as well as the more general goings on between the deer.



Canon 50D
Canon 500mm F4 IS
1/800th
F6.3
ISO 400
Evaluative metering -2/3
Tripod




Canon 50D
Canon 500mm F4 IS
1/800th
F7.1
ISO 400
Evaluative metering -2/3
Tripod



Canon 50D
Canon 70-200mm F2.8, at 200mm
1/500th
F5.6
ISO 400
Evaluative metering -2/3
Tripod



Canon 50D
Canon 500mm F4
1/500th
F7.1
ISO 400
Evaluative metering -2/3
Tripod

I had one scary moment when I tracked a recently victorious stag walking confidently towards my hide. I was tracking him with my 70 -200mm and as he got closer I could see he was in a foul mood, I was now at 70mm, I took my eye from the back of the camera and realized he was almost on top of me, he then passed by literally a few feet away looking very insultingly at the hide.

As the day progressed I started to get a feel for what was going on. The oldest stags spent much of the time lying down, with sporadic bouts of calling and posturing. The prime males spent a lot of time calling and did most of the fighting. The young bucks spent their day watching the older stags then sparring some distance from the rutting stands.



Canon 50D
Canon 500mm F4
1/250th
F8
ISO 400
Evaluative metering -2/3
Tripod


The youngest prickets would stand around excitedly watching the spectacle of their older males.

Occasionally the more dominant males would leave their scrapes, I guess they went off to drink and feed, they would normally return half an hour or so later with much bravado, posturing and calling before settling back down into their scrapes.


The younger stags spent much of their time thrashing vegetation, producing tangled vegetation headdresses. Once they thought they had produced a good ‘top knot’ they would parade proudly, peering out from their vegetation fringes.



Canon 40D
Canon 300mm F4 IS plus 1.4 x Extender
1/250th
F10
ISO 320
Evaluative metering -1/3
Tripod




Canon 30D
Canon 300mm F4 IS plus 1.4 x Extender
1/500th
F7.1
ISO 400
Evaluative metering -2/3
Monopod


Though fighting was the obvious action, it dawned on me that as per a Red Deer TV programme I had seen, the most successful mating stags were probably those that could call the longest and did some fighting, they were not necessarily the ones fighting all the time.

During confrontations, which sometimes occurred on the boundaries of the scrape territories but more often out in the open away from the stand area, the stags walked parallel backwards and forwards eyeing each other up before turning swiftly, locking antlers violently and pushing for all their worth. It appeared the aim of the contest was to push your opponent backwards, twist his head and to try and gouge his eyes and face with your forward facing tines. After a while they would disengage, walk parallel and then engage again. I guess the more evenly matched males fought the longest bouts. Once a winner had been decided the loser would retreat hastily showing all the obvious body language signs of defeat and humiliation, while the victor would strut around proudly often rubbing his facial scent glad on a nearby prominent low or fallen branch.

On odd occasions when two stags were fighting a third would attack at full speed from the side. This was absolutely terrifying. The two fighting stags would see the third charging and have just enough time too disengage and turn their antlers toward the attacker, there would in effect then be two fighting the third aggressor.



Canon 50D
Canon 500mm F4 IS
1/500th
F7.1
ISO 400
Evaluative metering -2/3
Tripod

During my time with the deer I was surprised that none in the main stand area appeared to be hurt. However I did see one at a distance who had a very nasty injury to its eye and face.

At this time of year the hormone pumped males are in a very driven state of mind and pretty fearless. To me they have a mad look in their eyes. Previous experiences have taught me they are very approachable when at their scrapes, it being their micro territory which they only leave if they really have too.

The does were very amusing. In the main they were being very casual and matter of fact about the violent, posturing and bellowing males. I had assumed they would be herded by successful males into harems as I had seen Red Deer doing on TV. However these females went round in little gangs, I guess certain ages of deer were in the different gangs. Some gangs were like giggly teenage girls, others like proud women. As far as I could tell these gangs moved around the edge of the stands and then a female would break from the gang, this caused great excitement among the males and occasionally one lucky chap would get what he’d been looking for. He would then return to his scrape while she bounded off to rejoin her girlie gang. The girls in the gang then got very excited and would go round sniffing her.

The stags would also frequent scenting posts and rub their facial scent glands on a prominent branch, each trying to get their scent higher than the last. This rubbing occurred every 20 minutes or so on a tree just behind me, the amount of scenting at this popular branch had stained it an oily brown.



Canon 50D
Canon 200mm F2.8, 70-200mm, at 150mm
1/500th
F8
ISO 400
Evaluative metering 0
Monopod



Canon 50D
Canon 200mm F2.8, 70-200mm, at 150mm
1/500th
F8
ISO 400
Evaluative metering 0
Monopod

As the day past and the light began to fade I could see an opportunity for some backlight images.



Canon 50D
Canon 500mm F4 IS
F6.3
ISO 400
Metering taken from the sunlight area, then manually set
Tripod




Canon 50D
Canon 500mm F4 IS
F6.3
ISO 400
Metering taken from the sunlight area, then manually set
Tripod



Canon 50D
Canon 500mm F4 IS
F6.3
ISO 400
Metering taken from the sunlight area, then manually set
Tripod


Once the sun had set I packed up feeling very happy at the success of the day. I now just had to carry all this gear three quarters of a mile or so back to the car, it was a very small price to pay.

The next day I rang the gamekeeper to thank him for a superb day. He told me of the local story that many years ago the park also had Red Deer but they’d been removed after an old lady who regularly fed them was killed by a rutting Red Deer stag. This was quite a sobering thought and I made a mental note to be more mindful of my own safety next time.




Please note the camera exif data for these images has been lost. I therefore had to remember the settings, I apologize if some are in error.