Mission: white tail – the quest for Odocoileus virginianus curassavicus

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Curacao white tailed deer doe chewing on an acacia twig - prickly delight

While I reposition my behind on the lemonade crate I’m sitting on, suddenly the goal of my mission appears in the viewfinder. My index finger, which has been floating above the trigger of my camera for over an hour, finally gets to do it’s job. The camera starts to generate a long series of digital images, with machinegun-like speed. Hopefully one or two of those will become the crown on an afternoon of wildlife photography!

Curacao white tailed deer

The mistreatment of my butt is a small price I’ll have to pay for the opportunity to take a picture of a Curacaoan icon: the Curacao white tailed deer. Within scientific circles this animal is known as Odocoileus virginianus curassavicus, and it is considered to be an endemic subspecies. This means that this species, over the course of centuries, has adapted itself to the local environment and changed genetically to such an extent that it has become unique to the Island. Only on Curacao one can admire these unique descendants of a deer line that most probably was brought to the Island by the Indians, around 4000 years ago.

Photographing deer

The lemonade crate is part of the strategy I use in order to be able to photograph this animal. At around 4 a clock in the afternoon I wriggle myself inside a 1.20 by 1.20 by 1.20 meter shelter tent, after making sure that I smell as natural as possible. Rolling around in the dust works pretty well, and I learned the hard way to avoid deodorants during these missions. The olfactory system of these animals is so well developed that they’ll be able to detect humans from hundreds of meters away. Some wildlife tracking techniques fortunately provided indications, their footprints and droppings, of the route that I am expecting the deer to follow. Therefore I was able to position the shelter at an ideal location, downwind of the tracks they made the day before.

The ear, the first thing I see sticking out above the prickly vegetation is quickly followed by the rest of the majestic sight: a stately doe walking into my viewfinder image. She is completely at ease, which is a testament to the success of my preparations. My 500 mm telephoto lens records her flowing lines, and at a certain point I am even forced to zoom out, in order to keep her in focus. Amazed, I peek around the lens through the small window in the tent, and almost slide of my crate in delight: she is less than 5 meters from me, chewing lazily on a wabi-twig!

Mom with twins - success story of a wet year

Behavior

Unlike goats, which were introduced by the Europeans in historical times and will devour anything remotely edible, therefore posing a serious threat to local flora in many places around the world, the Curacao white-tailed deer has a very selective diet. Only a few plant species are part of its culinary selection, and of these only parts of the plant are consumed. The plant will not die as a result of deer grazing.
Unlike their family in North America, the local variant will not keep to a regular mating season. The relatively dry climate is the determining factor for that. The animals have no choice than to be extremely opportunistic. A wet year triggers feverish reproduction, sometimes several times. During a dry year the deer will conserve their energy and sometimes no reproduction will take place whatsoever. This scenario even influences the amount of ‘bambi’s’ that are being born. During a wet year you’ll encounter twins quite often. During a dry year none. Nature arranges her business well. Why wasting energy on young when the chances of survival are minute?
After the birth of the bambi’s, complete with white dots, the common name of the species becomes clear. In case of danger the mother will stick her tail up in the air, showing the white underside. She then will produce a sniffing sound and will flee to safety. The bambi’s are imprinted with the white tail and will follow it, no matter what. The white tailed deer tail is a means of communication for emergencies.

Mr. Buck - thanks for stopping by!

A buck in the viewfinder

A week later I am back in my little shelter, hoping for the missing link. The lady is already part of my digital portfolio, but the gent is still missing. After having suffered from cramps in my left leg and right buttock, a rustling sound alerts me that I have company. It seems that my quiet mental request to nature has been honored: a young buck! I estimate his age on the basis of his relatively small size. In North America the older males of the species will grow monumentally big antlers. On Curacao that is not the case. After the rut the antlers are shed. Part of the reason for this is the fact that this weapon often gets severely damaged during the fights to establish the order of dominance, hence to decide which buck earns the right to fertilize the females in the territory. Survival on Curacao is already pretty difficult as a result of the dry environment, so growing big antlers would be a total waste of resources. Hence, no huge antlers on Curacao.
I already expected to get the chance of recording a buck with freshly grown antlers, because nature itself revealed details that new antlers were in the works. A small tree gave this away, because its bark was freshly damaged at a height of about 40 centimeters above the forest floor. New antlers grow inside a thick layer of skin. This skin dries out when the antlers are completed, and the buck will then search for an adequate cleaning-post to get rid of the skin.

Curacao white tailed deer - threathened subspecies

Conservation concerns

During these shooting sessions I am constantly in awe because of the beauty and grace of these animals. On the other hand a nagging question penetrates my mind: for how long we will keep the opportunity to take such pictures? There is no information whatsoever on the size of the remaining population of this subspecies. One thing is clear, though, the population must be relatively small, because if we apply scientific observations and conclusions gathered from the North American white tailed deer populations we end up with a theoretical population size of not more than 300 individuals. And the available habitat for this subspecies is getting smaller and smaller….

Fortunately, I received the honor to have been near Odocoileus virginianus curassavicus. I was able to admire the wonderful ways of this stately animal. I sincerely hope that my daughters will still have the same opportunity in 20 years time.

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