I have taken thousands of photos of dozens of different wild animals over the years but nothing gives me more of a thrill than photographing a newborn whitetail fawn. Searching for a fawn is like looking for a needle in a haystack – but it can be done if you spend enough time at it and have a good idea where to look. As of this writing, I have photographed two fawns so far this year, including the one pictured above.
Most whitetail fawns are born between mid-May and early June. Twins are common but triplets are rare. They are born without scent, which helps to prevent their detection by predators, and they remain that way for a week or so after birth. The doe hides each of her babies in separate places and then stays away to avoid her own scent from disclosing their locations. She returns several times a day to nurse and then she leaves them alone again. Even though they are able to walk shortly after birth, fawns spend their first few days lying perfectly still – right where mother left them – until she returns to move them to an different place.
I photographed my first whitetail fawn in 1973 when I lived in the Adirondacks and I’ve found and photographed dozens more in the years since then. Each time I find one it becomes another special and tender moment for me. Living in the woods gives me an edge because I’ve learned to recognize the kinds of places that mother deer favor as nurseries for their fawns, so that’s where I start looking first.
I usually stalk through the woods at a very slow pace – what I would call Indian-style – scanning the landscape with a keen eye, and focusing especially on the bases of large trees and logs lying flat on the ground, in a location of mixed sun and shade. I’ve also learned to stop and look back from time to time since I’ve had occasion to spot a fawn that I had initially passed by, which always makes me wonder how many other fawns I’ve walked past over the years.
A fawn’s spotted russet coat provides excellent camouflage because it blends in perfectly with the sun-dappled leaf litter on the forest floor. Most fawns freeze in place whenever they are approached and never so much as blink an eye. I always use a telephoto lens, which enables me to stay a distance of 25 feet or more away when taking photographs. I also wear knee-high rubber boots because they don’t leave human scent on the ground or surrounding vegetation and because they’re a good safeguard against hitchhiking deer ticks.
Several times I’ve encountered a doe that snorted at me and then ran off in an oblique direction. Her objective was to get me to follow her, which told me that she had a fawn hidden somewhere in the opposite direction. By walking her back trail I’d sometime been able to find it.
If you find a fawn or other baby wildlife, enjoy your encounter. Even take pictures. I’ve been fortunate to photograph newborn fawns on a number of occasions and it is always a thrilling experience for me. But for the sake of the animal’s well-being, keep it brief and keep your distance. Don’t let your own scent attract a predator to the fawn’s location. And don’t pick it up. It doesn’t need to be saved. The advice from the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation is this: “If you care, leave it there.” That’s the best advice ever.