Hunting the Key Deer

A View From the Watchroom

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Barry K. Wyrick, MS, MBA

Chief Operating Officer

Hunting the Key Deer (July 13, 2015)

This post is the third of my posts from my recent vacation.  I hope that you find it entertaining.

Today was my day to explore Big Pine Key in search of the elusive (ha!) and endangered Key Deer.  The Key Deer is the smallest sub-species of the Whitetail Deer, standing at maturity between 24 and 28 inches at the shoulder.  I left at daybreak (OK, a comfortable 7:30 a.m.).  After a ham and cheese omelet at IHOP (an intrepid hunter needs his strength!), I crossed the famed Seven Mile Bridge, hopped a couple of small keys, and arrived at Big Pine Key, home of the National Key Deer Refuge.  I made a quick stop at the National Key Deer Refuge Visitor Center (in of all places a Winn-Dixie shopping plaza) to pick up a map so that I wouldn’t get lost again.  The gentleman in the visitor center gave me a map and showed me three particular areas of interest that I should explore.

I set off to the Watson Trail, a circular trail near the tip of Big Pine Key, deep within the refuge.  I entered with anticipation, armed with my Sony Cybershot.  The trail was cut through completely natural habitat, composed mainly of Florida slash pine, silver palms, thatch palms—and nothing else!  During my 40 minute hike, the only fauna that I experienced were the bugs that kept trying to fly in my ears (and I had put on bug spray).  I have hiked some desolate areas in my exploration of the nature trails in my home county of Charlotte County in Florida, but short of the pine and palms, I may as well have been on the moon.  I didn’t even hear the whistle of a songbird—I was alone.

So I set off to my next area of exploration—the Blue Hole.  The Blue Hole is an abandoned limestone quarry that was excavated to build many of the original roads on Big Pine Key.  The water is brackish, filling with a mixture of rainwater and saltwater that seeps into the hole through the limestone.  The guide pamphlet said that the wildlife in this area included fish, turtles, birds, and alligators.  As I entered the trail, I was given the choice to go either left or right, and is my practice when exploring a new trail, I started off to the right (some might accuse me that it is impossible for me to go to the left).  I walked about 40 yards down the trail and came to what might have been a viewing area in its day, but it was so overgrown that I could only peek at the water through the trees.  So I turned around and went the other way (maybe not so ironically, turning to the right down the other path).  I came to a small, wooden viewing area that overlooked the water.  I expected to see a thriving shore area ecosystem, filled with a variety of shore and wading birds.  What I saw was a pool of water.  There were a couple of fish beneath the overlook that looked like blue gill but I’m sure were something far more exotic.  I’m convinced that the only reason that they were there was to beg the visitors for a crumb to be tossed into the water.  A solitary turtle sat perched on a rock sunning itself, but there was not a bird to be seen.  I waited and waited.  I turned my ears, straining for any tweet or caw of a bird, and heard nothing.  I talked to the very nice volunteer who was there to answer questions of visitors like me.  After we talked enough that I think I gained her trust, she walked me a little bit off the trail to show me a Green Heron nest with several eggs in it, but no birds yet.  I suppose there must have been a bird somewhere because there was a nest, but I guess in the Florida heat you don’t have to spend so much time sitting on the nest to keep the eggs warm.

So it was on to the final spot that I had been shown—a linear trail at the end of No Name Key.  I drove around the island toward the key, made a big right turn toward the bridge, and there she was.  Standing along the road, grazing in someone’s yard was my first Key Deer.  With my experience with Whitetail Deer in Pennsylvania, I would have said she was a fawn that was a couple of months old who had amazingly lost all of her spots, but she was full grown, standing about two feet tall.  She was standing in the shade so I’m not sure my pictures will turn out that well, but she didn’t seem to be too bothered by my presence.  It is illegal to feed the Key Deer, but I know several of my friends who would spend the rest of their lives in federal prison for the crime.  The deer are just that cute.

After spending some time with her, I got back in my car to go over to the trail.  The bridge from Big Pine Key to No Name Key was under construction and was down to one lane, so I had to sit at the light, waiting my turn.  As I am sitting there, I see movement along the driver’s side of my car, and I turn to see a Key Deer trotting along the middle of the road, crossing the bridge.  I’m glad there were no police officers around because she did not stop for the red light.  The light turned green, but I could not drive very fast because trotting in front of me the entire length of the bridge was this precious little deer.  When she got to the end of the bridge, she hopped over the guardrail and looked back over her shoulder at me as if to say, “What are you in such a hurry for?”  I’m not sure, but I think as I looked away to focus back on the road, she may have flipped me off!

I arrived at my final trail, and this area looked even more desolate than the other areas that I had explored.  I had walked for about five minutes when about 30 yards in front of me, a deer crossed the trail.  I tried to hurry to see her but wanted to be quiet so as not to scare her away.  Hurrying and quiet do not go together very well with me and hiking.  When I arrived at the area where I believed that she had crossed the trail, I stopped and peered into the underbrush.  Nothing.  But wait, there she was, peeking around a tree to look at me.  Once she was sure that I wasn’t coming in after her, she went on her way, and after several steps simply disappeared in the underbrush.  I walked another 30 minutes into the trail, and then 30 minutes back out of the trail and saw nothing.

Somewhat disappointed but celebrating the fact that I had actually seen a Key Deer (and tailgated one of them), I got back in my car to head home.  As I was approaching the bridge, I looked down a side street and saw three deer standing in the road.  A quick U-turn and parking just beyond the intersection, I slid along the side of the road, stalking them intently.  By the time that I got to where they were, there was only one deer left, but it was the first male that I had seen, with spike antlers about five inches long, still covered with velvet.  He was a little camera shy and very wary of me.  Again, he was mostly in the shade so I hope my pictures turn out well.  Not wanting to frighten him anymore, I went back to my car.  By the time that I had the car started, all three of them were back in the road.

Normally when I tell a story, I like to end with some life lesson.  I’m not really sure what the lesson is today, other than a good (and hopefully entertaining) story.  Maybe the lesson is about persistence and patience.  The estimated population of Key Deer stands at about 800.  In one morning, through my continued efforts, I had seen six of them, or close to one percent of the entire population.  To put it in perspective, if I had been hunting people, I would have seen just over 53 million of them (.75% of the total population of the Earth).  Not a bad day’s work.

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