Finding The Osceola Turkey

Sarasota, FL–-The swamps along the edge of Florida’s Myakka River are teeming with life.

From alligators to Seminole whitetail to mottled ducks, the wildlands just outside of Sarasota are rich in biodiversity.

The short, thin pines reminded me a bit of the habitat on the Upper Coast of Texas where I live, but it looked uniquely Florida. With scattered palms and thick palmetto, this place looked subtropical.

It would have been easy to get lost in the majesty of it all, but I was on a mission.

That mission was to get a photo of an Osceola turkey.

Turkey Revolution is a project I founded to raise awareness of turkey conservation. As turkeys go so do America’s forests.

This year I set out to get quality photos of the “Grand Slam” of turkeys which are the Rio Grande, eastern, Osceola and Merriam’s.

This was number three to scratch off the list as I had already gotten the Rio Grande and eastern but in my mind those made sense in terms of location.

I found the Rio Grande along a very remote roadway among many hundreds of thousands of undeveloped acres in the Texas Hill Country.

The eastern came from rolling hills and farmland new Auburn, NY in an area that any turkey hunter would mark as a prime location.

While Florida has plenty of forested lands, it also has many highways, subdivisions, businesses, and tourist destinations.

That made it feel a little off during the research process and the epic travel from Orange, TX.

Things changed once I found myself along the banks of the Myakka River. It felt wild although I was only three miles away from a subdivision.

It was an interesting dichotomy-tourist Florida vs. turkey Florida.

I had done many studies to end up in this location to find Osceola turkeys.

And since I am doing this all on my coin, I was low on time. I had from sunrise to noon to make something happen.

One particular area looked seriously promising, and within 30 minutes there I spied my prize.

A hen Osceola turkey gave the author a quirky look before getting back to feeding near the Myakka River.

A hen Osceola turkey gave me a curious look on the edge of a palmetto thicket and shortly after that followed another hen and a brood.

Two Osceola turkey hens escort a brood along the edge of Florida’s Myakka River.

They made their way into a clearing and fed down toward the edge of the river. It was great to see a brood because much of this habitat was thicker than I suspected it would be. Prime turkey habitat has relatively open forest. The suppression of natural fires has created enormous undergrowth, and that allows predators a better shot at turkeys and destroys some of the turkey’s best forage opportunities.

Something else that caught my attention was a great blue heron struggling to eats a plecostomus (think suckerfish in your aquarium) just past the feeding turkeys.

The author photographed this great blue heron doing its best to swallow a large plecostomus from a distance of 200 yards.

It was a picture of a  very determined bird trying to eat an exotic that has had an impact on this ecosystem at the aquatic level. Florida is full of land-dwelling exotics too from Burmese pythons to feral hogs and even monkeys. Add that to the pressures of human development in the Sunshine State, and I was concerned about this turkey’s status.

That is why I consulted David Nicholson, a biologist with the National Wild Turkey Federation (NWTF) in Florida.

I inquired specifically about population trends.

“Unfortunately, there is not a reliable/accurate way to estimate wild
turkey populations at a large-scale and therefore the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) does not currently estimate wild turkey population size in Florida,” he said.

“Instead, the FWC utilizes spring turkey season harvest estimates from an annual mail survey as an index to population size.  These harvest estimates are either on a statewide scale or a regional scale, so, therefore, do not necessarily track harvest rates of the Eastern and Osceola subspecies separately in Florida.

Nicholson said that given this data is derived from mail surveys, and the harvest estimates are currently only available through the spring of 2018 and information is not yet available for 2019.

“In examining the spring turkey harvest estimates provided by FWC, it appears populations in Florida have been stable to slightly declining over the last decade depending on the region.”

Harvest data suggests the slight declines were observed more in Northern Florida coinciding more with the Eastern subspecies and harvest rates since that time have been more stable in Central & South Florida where the Osceola subspecies occurs.

Nicholson said research is being conducted to determine the cause.

“While no exact cause has been determined yet, it is likely due to many factors, which may be different for certain areas.  Factors likely include: decreasing habitat quality, changing land use, and land conversion (e.g., development), but may also include other factors we don’t fully understand yet, but active/planned research is looking into them.”

All of those factors seem entirely plausible, and the word “decline” has been omnipresent during this Turkey Revolution quest. Louisiana and New York have both seen significant declines, and now Florida seems to be on the down swing.

What is going on with turkeys and how widespread is the problem? That’s something we will be investigating heavily.

As both a wildlife journalist and a turkey hunter it is concerning.

This is not a situation of birds becoming threatened, but we could be seeing a trend that ends badly if exact reasons for decline are not determined.

I genuinely believe that as wild turkeys go America’s forests go with them. Poorly managed forests equal minimal turkey numbers. Highly managed forests see optimal turkey numbers.

And many other factors-some which we may not even understand yet are at play. I am glad they have dedicated people at the NWTF and in state fish and game agencies investigating this phenomenon.

And speak of a phenomenon I was able to get my fourth species of turkey this month-the Merriam’s but there is something very unique about it. I am getting the photograph examined to learn more.

You will see something on it here within the coming month and it is worth the wait.

Big things are happening with Turkey Revolution, and I believe we have just begun what may an epic journey.

Chester Moore, Jr.

Duck Stamp Exhibition Coming To Stark Museum Of Art

The Stark Museum of Art is bringing the great outdoors inside with Conservation Art: Federal Duck Stamps & Prints.

The exhibition opens July 13  and continues through January 4, 2020. This exhibition celebrates the Federal Migratory Bird Hunting and Conservation Stamp, popularly known as the Duck Stamp.

A set of stamps and prints, from the beginning in 1934-1935 through 2000-2001, is on view. In addition to viewing the stamps and prints, visitors can go on a virtual Duck Hunt and enjoy other activities.

Started in 1934, the Federal Duck Stamp program links hunting with conservation. Sales of stamps support wildlife habitat. Choosing artists to design the stamps added visual drama. Artists’ prints increased the impact of the program.

With this exhibition, the Stark Museum of Art traces the history of the Federal Duck Stamp. The United States government created the stamp to address a problem. In the 1930s, the numbers of ducks and geese had fallen to dangerously low levels.

Loss of habitat and over-hunting contributed to the decline. Hunters and conservationists sought remedies. To raise funds for waterfowl habitat, the government required hunters to buy a Migratory Bird stamp. The U.S. uses the revenue to purchase and maintain wildlife refuges.

Every year the government selects an artist to create the image and issues a new stamp. They depict ducks, geese, and swans. The beauty of the stamps has inspired collecting. It has also prompted the artists to make prints from their stamp art.

The exhibition begins with the 1934-35 Stamp and its accompanying print by Jay N. “Ding” Darling. Darling was a Pulitzer Prize-winning political cartoonist, a hunter, and a conservationist.

Franklin Roosevelt appointed him as Chief of the Biological Survey. Darling drew two mallards flying onto the water for the first stamp, and then made an etching based on his design.

The exhibition includes etchings, lithographs, and photolithographs by fifty-two artists, including Frank W. Benson, Maynard Reece, and the Hautman brothers.

Visitors will also have the opportunity to view a digital exhibit of the 2018-19 Federal Junior Duck Stamp in Texas winners. The Federal Junior Duck Stamp Conservation and Design program began in 1993. Each state holds a contest.

A best of show for the state is selected. These works advance to the national contest. The digital exhibit features the top twelve Texas artists in Kindergarten through twelfth grades in the 2018-19 contest. It is presented in cooperation with the Federal Junior Duck Stamp in Texas program.

The exhibition includes a number of hands-on learning opportunities. The interactives include viewing recent years’ duck stamps up closely using magnifying tools, drawing and displaying a duck stamp, and playing the Nintendo Entertainment System pop culture classic Duck Hunt.

Adjacent to the main exhibition will be Waterfowl Art with the flourishing images of ducks and geese as seen in Steuben glass, Limoges plates, Boehm porcelain, and other forms.

An Opening Reception and Insights Lecture will be held 2-4 p.m. Sat. July 13. at the Stark Museum of Art.

Celeste Rickert, a 2018 Federal Duck Stamp Finalist from Katy, TX, will speak on her experience as an artist participating in the Federal Duck Stamp competition.

Light refreshments will be served following the talk. The Opening Reception and Insights Lecture are open to the public.

Admission is free.

(Source: Stark Cultural Venues)

In Search Of Whitetail-Mule Deer Hybrids

So, what happens when whitetail and mule deer meet up?

It’s a question I have long been intrigued with since I heard stories of mysterious whitetail/mule deer hybrids at a hunting camp in my home state of Texas.

While on a mission to photograph Merriam’s turkey in Colorado for my Turkey Revolution quest two weeks ago my wife Lisa and I stopped at a beautiful location to look for mule deer.

We found a big bachelor group with some large males feeding in a meadow.

And then from the distance came more deer.

I assumed they were muleys too but after glassing, I realized they were whitetail.

Two whitetail bucks join up with mule deer in June 2019 in Colorado. (Photo by Chester Moore, Jr.)

Eventually, they made their way to the mule deer. Most passed by but a couple merged with them and began to feed. This is what you see in the included photo.

It was interesting to see this interaction.

I plan on returning to this location in the fall when the rut is on and see what type of activity occurs. Bucks could get along now but how about when their antlers are hard and testosterone is jacked up?

The whitetail will be fighting one another and the muleys battling it out as well. But will they fight one another?

Who will win?

Even more intriguing is the possibility of whitetail and mule deer mating.

Longstanding studies by Texas Parks & Wildlife Department officials show some interesting dynamics including hybridization.

“Where mule deer and white-tailed deer coexist, interbreeding does occur. The long-term effects are unknown, and for most areas, the extent of hybridization is not known. The highest incidence of hybridization in the Trans-Pecos occurs in the eastern part of the region where high populations of mule deer and white-tailed deer coexist. It has been estimated that up to 15 percent of deer may be hybrids where both species occupy the same range,” TPWD reported.

“DNA sequencing techniques were used to determine the extent of hybridization in the Panhandle (Donley County) where the ranges of both species overlap. Results indicated a hybridization frequency of eight percent. ”

TPWD reported antler characteristics, tail coloration, and ear length are not reliable in recognizing hybrids.

They said hybrids can be identified by the length of the metatarsal gland that is located on the outside of the rear leg between the hock and the hoof. It typically will measure about 3 /4 inch long in whitetail and about 4 inches long in mule deer.”

“The metatarsal gland of hybrids is intermediate in length, measuring about two inches long. It has been theorized that occurrences of hybridization are initiated by white-tailed bucks, but interbreeding also can occur between mule deer bucks and white-tailed does. Hybrids appear to have at least a limited degree of fertility. Hybridization is a concern to managers who see it as a threat to their mule deer herd.:

Whitetail numbers have reached historic highs in most of their range and are healthy virtually everywhere whereas mule deer are on the decline in many areas.

I will have more on the mule deer decline soon as well as hybridization.

For now, I am seeking photos of whitetail/mule deer hybrids.

If you have seen or shot any or deer you suspect might be hybrids send photos to chester@chestermoore.com.

I believe this is a topic that needs more coverage and look forward to seeing what other outdoors lovers are seeing out there.

Chester Moore, Jr.