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James Drake

Last week, Maryland’s Department of Natural Resources released preliminary results of the two-week modern firearm deer season.

As expected, the numbers were down.

Maryland’s hunters reported killing 36,088 deer in this gun season that just ended Dec. 8. This was a 13 percent decline from the 2011 total of 41,421.

DNR biologists believe the decline this year is primarily because of bad weather on key hunting days and a very abundant acorn crop this fall that resulted in the deer moving far less to find their meals.

Another probable cause of the lower numbers, and this was not noted on the official DNR press release concerning the firearm season results, is another outbreak of hemorrhagic disease.

This ailment in our deer herds has been around a long time and usually peaks in cycles over the course of a few years.

Brian Eyler, DNR’s deer project leader said, “Roughly every four to five years we have a pretty good outbreak. This past year in Maryland was higher than normal and we have some hotspots identified in Southern Maryland and on the Eastern Shore.”

Eyler also said that hemorrhagic disease can have a short term impact on the deer herd, “but they tend to bounce back within a year or two,” he added.

Eyler also felt that this year’s oversupply of acorns meant that deer didn't have to move very much to find food and that made them far tougher to pattern and hunt.

Hemorrhagic disease is spread within the deer herd not by direct contact but rather from biting midges or gnats. Typical episodes are usually noticed around mid-August and outbreaks run through October but they normally end with the onset of freezing weather.

Many affected deer show no signs of the disease, which is not related to mad cow, and some are only mildly ailing. Other deer, not so lucky, become feverish, have a swollen head, neck, tongue or eyelids and have difficulty breathing. With the more highly virulent strains of the virus, deer may die within one to three days from the onset of the disease. Many of these dead deer are often found near a water supply.

Death losses in some deer herds from hemorrhagic disease are normally below 25 percent of the total deer population, and in some more rare instances, the deer population can suffer a 50 percent loss or even more.

Livestock are also susceptible to getting hemorrhagic disease but humans are not at any risk whatsoever. Handling infected deer and even eating venison from a deer with hemorrhagic disease poses no problems to us. However, infected deer may also have other bacterial infections or abscesses and those animals should be avoided.

A few Southern Maryland hunters have told me they’re seeing less deer than normal this year and that isn’t surprising.

In Virginia’s King George County, just across the Potomac River from us, a special deer hunt for disabled veterans was held recently at Caledron State Park. Thirty-three hunters were supported and assisted by 40 experienced deer hunters from the Virginia Deer Hunters Association. Last year, an almost identical group took 22 deer. This year, only two were killed.

Maryland is divided into two deer hunting zones. Region A is comprised of Garrett, Allegany and western Washington counties, while Region B is everywhere else.

In Region B, which includes Southern Maryland, the deer taken this year by hunters during the firearm season was a ratio of about 2 to 1, does over bucks.

The number of antlered deer that were officially reported killed by hunters was 10,247, while 21,823 more were antlerless.

Junior hunters bagged 2,636 deer during the November junior deer hunt weekend, which was also a decline of 13 percent from last year’s 3,035 tally.

In Southern Maryland, the preliminary totals for the two-week modern firearm season were 604 for Calvert, 1,335 for Charles and 995 for St. Mary’s. Frederick County led the state with 3,483 deer kills, while Calvert and Howard were the dual anchors with 604 and 658, respectively.

Ongoing right now is muzzleloader season for antlerless deer through Dec. 29, bow season for deer will continue to the end of January and there is also a special two-day modern firearms hunt scheduled for Jan. 4 and 5.

Eagle explosion

Last Sunday, over 100 eagles were spotted around Allens Fresh right there on Route 234 in Charles County.

The vast majority were bald eagles, but three were identified as golden eagles.

I spoke to George Jett about this a few days ago. If you don’t already know the man, let me say this that George Jett probably knows more about birds in Southern Maryland than Beethoven ever knew about writing symphonies.

Anyway, Jett believes all those eagles are hanging around Allens Fresh because of the abundant free meals. It seems when Superstorm Sandy blew up the coast, a great deal of water was pushed into Allens Fresh, which is actually the headwaters of the Wicomico River.

That high water has since receded now, and many resident carp were left stranded and have died. The eagles are around here now feasting on the carp’s inopportune luck.

Jett told me some of the local residents down there have described the scene of all those eagles, “like blackbirds roosting in the trees.”

Seeing around two dozen eagles at one time has been fairly common and depending upon the tide and time of day, you might even observe far more. Of course, this will all end when the easy rations are eventually all consumed.

If you go, and especially if you take any little ones along with you, hold tight to those tiny hands for the traffic there on the highway really zips by at dangerous speeds.