A Year in the Life of a Whitetail Buck

This feature chronicles the life of a white-tailed buck I photographed during the course of a year. The buck lived on a picturesque property in the Finger Lakes Region that was off-limits to hunting. Aside from protection from hunters, he had a normal life, complete with many challenges from Mother Nature. His home range featured a substantial predator population and received significant snowfall during the harsh winter months.

Throughout my career I’ve been able to imprint many whitetails on the sound of corn rattling in a plastic can. This buck was one such animal. Unlike many of the deer on this property, the buck had a gentle disposition and never exhibited any aggressiveness toward me, even during the full-blown rut.
Consequently, I was able to follow him and document his behavior throughout the year.

Spring
This buck was in the prime of his life during the year I was able to photograph him. He was the dominant buck in the area, and with the exception of occasional interaction with the other bucks in his bachelor group, he kept to himself. As with most mature bucks I’ve observed over the years, this buck began growing his antlers around March 20. His antler growth was minimal during the first month. However, when spring arrived and the days became longer, his antler growth accelerated. So did his appetite.

Once winter’s snows had melted and the air warmed, the buck became more and more active during daylight hours. Unlike the winter months, when he spent up to 90 percent of the time bedded, the buck could be seen feeding throughout the day.

When winter passed its torch to spring, the big buck’s changing fur coat made him look unhealthy. Like the other deer in the area, he began losing clumps of fur around the first of May. But by the beginning of June, his summer coat was fully grown and he took on a very sleek look.

Come late May, black flies and other insects can be very stressful for whitetails in the Finger Lakes Region. By the time June rolled around the buck attempted to flee the insects’ assault by bedding in high grass and staying close to water sources. But as hard as he tried it was clear the insects made his life miserable. They also made it hard to photograph the buck because he often bedded in the thickest cover he could find during daylight hours.

Summer
By the time July arrived, the buck was beginning to show his antler potential. Though they would eventually be much longer, all of his antler points were visible by mid-July. He also became more predictable as the summer progressed, and I often photographed him in a couple different clover fields at either end of the day. He would feed alone occasionally, but it was more common for him to stay in a bachelor group of four bucks, of which he was the largest.

By August 1, his antlers were full-grown, and were as big as they would be at any point during the year. Around mid-August the buck’s winter fur began to grow in and replace his thin summer coat. It was about this time that the buck’s velvet-clad antlers began to change from dark brown to gray, which is common when the blood flow to the antlers ceases and the antler hardening process begins.

When September 1 rolled around I made it a point to photograph the buck every day, in hopes of capturing the velvet peeling process on film. On September 4, I was able to take a few photos of him just before nightfall and it didn’t appear that his antlers were ready to peel. However, when I located him shortly after daybreak the following morning, he had stripped nearly all of the velvet from his antlers.

Autumn
As autumn progressed, the big nine-pointer revealed his dominance to the bucks in the area at every opportunity. He would do this by exhibiting a number of dominant behaviors – sparring, staring down other bucks, dropping his ears, bristling his hair and, in a few cases, engaging in a vicious fight.

During September and October, the buck didn’t move a great deal during daylight, preferring to feed at either end of the day. By the latter part of September, he no longer spent time with his summer bachelor group, opting instead to keep to himself.

Frequently, I photographed him making rubs and scrapes.

By the end of October he was in peak condition and laden with fat. He also was becoming increasingly active. When the air temperature dropped below 40 degrees, I knew he would be up and moving around his territory. During one two-hour period I photographed him making 10 scrapes and two rubs. He had turned into a rutting machine.

By the time of the full moon on November 4, he acted like he was ready to explode. During the week that followed, he challenged every buck and chased every doe he encountered. He also vocalized a great deal. It was obvious from his aggressive behavior that his testosterone had peaked.

On November 18, the weather turned cold and the season’s first snowfall arrived. Bucks were in full-blown breeding mode, including the big nine-pointer. He had found a doe near estrus and stuck close to her side. Throughout the day, three smaller bucks stayed close enough to cause quite a commotion. Their presence was a major irritation to the big buck. In an attempt to show them his superiority he trashed small trees, snort-wheezed and tried to run them off. Because they knew the doe was nearing estrus they hung around in spite of the big nine-pointer’s challenges. This scenario continued for two days.

On November 19, I photographed the big buck breeding the doe four times during the course of the day. By midday the next day the doe cycled out of estrus, and the buck left her to look for another breeding opportunity.

Winter
By early December, with the rut over, the buck’s life began to drastically change. Having lost a considerable amount of weight during the rut his interest turned from breeding to feeding and bedding, with most of his daytime activity being confined to midday and the two hours before sunset. His winter routine had returned.

Food and cover dictated where the buck bedded when the snow and cold of late December and January arrived. Throughout January and February the buck stayed bedded most of the day. It was obvious that he was in survival mode because other than an occasional feeding session he seldom moved more than a quarter-mile in a 24-hour period. On February 23, he shed one of his antlers and two days later the other was cast.

Other than experiencing a couple small snowfalls and being harassed from time to time by coyotes, March was rather uneventful for the big buck. He survived to see another spring and his yearly life cycle was complete.

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Unlike any whitetail book ever done, Whitetails: A Photographic Journey Through the Seasons chronicles the life of six white-tailed deer – a mature buck, a yearling buck, an adult doe, the doe’s two fawns and a yearling doe – in New York’s Finger Lakes Region. Through the eyes of the deer, the story vividly illustrates both behavior and the deer’s perspective. The author’s lifetime of researching and photographing whitetail behavior allows him to provide unique insights into the whitetail’s world that most people have never seen.

More than 200 of the author’s stunning, full-color photos portray the life of the whitetail in intimate detail. Over 180 of the photos were taken in the heart of the Finger Lakes Region.

Chapters read like “a day in the life of,” providing a rare glimpse at the behaviors of deer. It explains reproduction, courtship and mating, including the rut, and behaviors leading up to it.

Bucks, does and fawns are chronicled for an entire year.
A special chapter covers antler growth. Time-lapse images taken between April and October depict a buck as it grows a full rack of antlers.

The book’s final chapter details the photographic techniques the author used to capture his award-winning photographs.

Autographed copies can be purchased for $36 (price includes New York State sales tax and shipping) by sending check or money order to Charles Alsheimer, 4730 County Route 70A, Bath, NY 14810. Autographed copies can also be ordered through the author’s website, www.CharlesAlsheimer.com.


by Charles J. Alsheimer

Charles Alsheimer’s photography has won numerous state and national awards, and his articles and photographs have appeared in many outdoor publications during the last 30 years.