Thursday, December 17, 2009

Buck Fever at The Wilds

Thursday, December 17, 2009
The rolling grasslands of The Wilds, a "reclaimed" strip mine that is now an endangered animal facility and a birding hotspot.

Heading back to The Wilds for another post or two...

On the Saturday after Thanksgiving, we took the kids on a drive to The Wilds, near Cumberland, Ohio for a day of birding and animal watching. Deer-hunting season was set to start in two days. Because The Wilds has vast areas of fenced grassland where endangered animals are captive bred and studied, hunting is not allowed inside its boundaries.

The local white-tailed deer know this, and they spend hunting season inside the fenced areas, practically thumbing their noses at the hunters driving the perimeter roads. The hunters, for their part, can barely see out of their truck windows because their hyperventilating has caused the glass to fog. Why are they hyperventilating? Because right across that tiny little fence is a group of monster bucks practically begging to be "harvested." Aside from the bounty of meat these giant deer would provide, their heads and awesome racks would look so righteous on the den wall back home.

The bucks gather in loose groups, loafing, grazing, casting glances at the trucks driving slowly past—trucks with heavy sighs and even sobbing coming from them. Each buck we spotted was bigger than the last. Eight-pointers looked puny. Ten pointers and larger were the norm.

But there are other, even more impressive antlered creatures at The Wilds. The super-rare Pére David's deer from Asia is bred at The Wilds. Its antlers branch upward impressively, dwarfing the largest of the white-taileds. This species, extinct in the wild in its native China since the late 1800s, was saved by a French missionary named Father (or Pére) David Armand. Captive breeding in Europe throughout the last century has permitted the species to be reintroduced to small parts of its former range in China.
Pére David's deer, digiscoped at great distance.

While we were enjoying a northern harrier coursing low over the fields, a herd of sable antelope trotted over the rise. These handsome dark brown animals have long, tapered horns that arch up and backward. Native to Africa, sable antelope are prized by big game hunters for their amazing horns. The herd here at The Wilds seemed to be about a dozen animals, including at least one well-horned male which stood out in the crowd. Unfortunately I did not get a decent photo, so I borrowed this one from The Wilds' website, where you can see images of all the animals being bred and studied there.
Sable antelope. Image ©The Wilds.

With the day's end drawing near, we enjoyed the sunset and began the drive home. Just a mile down the road, we found the last monster buck of the day, crossing a field rather nonchalantly. He was outside the fence but seemed to think he was still off-limits because he scarcely made a move to run as we lowered our windows and snapped photos. The light was poor, so the pictures were less than ideal, but this regal creature seemed the picture of health.

We hope he's still that way now, several weeks later.

A trip to The Wilds may yield some great looks at birds, but there's a lot of other stuff to ogle, too. By the way, for those of you within driving distance of The Wilds, The Ohio Ornithological Society will be holding its annual winter birding day at the Wilds, on Saturday January 16, 2010. You can get more info on this free event at the OOS website.


On December 20, 2009 at 9:54 AM Heather said...

I love ALL the animals at the Wilds, but especially the Pere David's deer. One of the most amazing things I've ever seen in my life was a pair of Pere David's bucks sparring, locking horns, and literally throwing each other around during a sunset safari at the Wilds in September 2008. Totally incredible.