The sun has just cleared the towering oaks and gnarled mesquite in the ranch country of deep South Texas illuminating a colorful swath of late spring wildflowers and verdant brush. Moving thru a meadow between thickly forested mottes a trio of deer is barely visible in tall sunflowers straining towards the days first light.
"It is a land of plenty right now," said Randy Fugate, longtime biologist with the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. Fugate, who has been with Parks and Wildlife for 34 years, said this is one of the most bountiful springs he has seen. "Late winter and early spring rains were ideal for our upland game birds, deer, and wildlife in general. There is a lot of cover which is beneficial."
Experience has taught the veteran biologist, who is stationed in Falfurrias, to be cautious when predicting quail and turkey numbers and antler development in whitetail deer, but ranch lands throughout much of southernmost Texas are looking about as good as it gets this time of year. One lease manager just south of Falfurrias, who has been looking after the same 20,000 acres for the past thirty years, said he has never seen wildflowers in his area linger in such abundance so late in the season.
"The wildflowers came out pretty early this year and they have been hanging around," Fugate said. "We have been getting intermittent showers since February which has really enhanced the habitat. The forbs and brush and browse species are all doing well. Deer will benefit a lot. The browse and forb production has been outstanding during the critical antler growing time."
This could be an exceptional year for antler development in South Texas. Abundant rainfall has triggered exuberant plant growth, and whitetail deer are reaping the benefits of ample nutrition.
The bucks are approximately a third of the way along on their annual antler growth. Each spring in late February and early March, white-tailed deer begin shedding their antlers, and as increasing daylight triggers hormonal changes new antlers begin to grow. They are covered by specialized skin called velvet both for its appearance and soft texture.
Because the velvet is rich in blood vessels, the antlers are warm to the touch. The developing antlers draw substantial amounts from reserves in the blood and skeletal system and growth can exceed half an inch per day. Antler growth in the deer family is perhaps the fastest growing tissue in any mammal.
The rapidly growing antlers are soft and easily damaged. During these formative months bucks are careful to minimize danger to their developing racks and restrict their activities. If a dispute arises, they will stand up on their hind legs and pummel an adversary with their hooves rather than risk injury to sensitive antlers.
The swollen racks of whitetail bucks are tender and to prevent damage the antlers have hairs on the engorged velvet that stand straight out, and this makes the antlers appear larger than they actually are. The hairs act as an early warning system, much like a cat's whiskers, and alert the buck if he is too close to a fence, tree or other deer.
There are three primary factors that affect antler growth. They are age, genetics and nutrition. This promises to be a banner year on properties that have been managed for age and genetics as Mother Nature has covered the third variable with timely rains throughout the early part of the growing season.
This should also be an excellent year for fawn production. Does are already well into their pregnancies and will begin giving birth in a couple of weeks with peak fawning in southernmost Texas coming around July 4th give or take a week. The spotted rascals will have ample cover to hide from predators, and does will have plentiful supplies of milk to nourish their offspring.
While conditions bode well for enhancement of the deer herd, quail and turkey should also rebound with above average hatches. "One of the things that I look for is the hens leaving their group and going out on their own," Fugate said. "That is a good indicator that something is happening, they are sitting on nests. The early reports are that production has picked up quite a bit for Rio Grande turkeys." On a recent trip into the ranch country we observed numerous solo hens, but cover is so high it is difficult to see if any little poults are tagging along behind.
"Rio Grande turkeys have taken a hit the last couple of years and very little production if any has taken place," Fugate said. "Normally, the rains that have the most beneficial effect for Rio Grande turkeys especially are in February, March and April. Turkey if they don't get those timely rains will not nest."
"Those timely rains also initiate a nesting process for bobwhite quail," Fugate added. "However quail can use later rains and have later hatching dates, but the earlier the better. Survivability is a lot better if they hatch earlier. The moisture also generates a lot of insects which is a primary food for quail and turkeys."
Another factor that can limit quail production is carryover, the amount of birds that survived weather and hunting pressure from the previous year. "Everyone thought we were going to have a marginal year last year, especially in this area, and it turned out to be a pretty good year, not a boon year, but everybody was getting 10-15 coveys a day which isn't bad. We actually had pretty good carryover for this year on well managed ranches."
While conditions for wildlife couldn't be much better at present, rosy projections can quickly deteriorate. "There could be some devastating weather phenomenon," (possibly a hurricane or severe drought) "between now and hunting season," Fugate warned.
"There are times like farmers have when you don't want too much rain, because it is going to hurt your crops, and that is true of wildlife, especially quail," Fugate explained. "When quail are small and get soaked you can have a major die off. Usually, in June and July we don't get that much rain and that is when all those little birds are at that vulnerable point."
Nesting success for whitewing and mourning dove also appears promising and nongame birds are flourishing as well. The prey base has expanded with propitious showers, and all manner of predators from hawks to wildcats are likely to have hunting success.
The vast tract of ranchland between Raymondville and Kingsville was once known as the "wild horse desert" for lack of permanent water and generally arid conditions, but this year it is more of an oasis on many spreads. "This land recovers so quickly with just a little bit of moisture. If it were to quit raining right now, I think we would be looking at an average year, but hopefully we will continue to get a little moisture now and then."
I'm betting on a banner year, and while sweltering in mid June 100 degree weather my thoughts wander to fall and multiple coveys of quail, abundant flocks of turkeys and exceptional antler development in the wild horse desert. Meanwhile, enjoy those late spring wildflowers as they are wilting fast.
Copyright 2007 Richard Moore