Luck. That’s the only way I can explain what happened to me on Wednesday, when I witnessed a herd of white-tailed deer march across Union River in Ellsworth.
Actually, there was a lot of luck involved in the whole situation.
For me, a photographer searching for wildlife, it was an exciting event. As is always the case with wildlife watching, I had to be at the right place at the right time. In this case, the right place was the Ellsworth Harbor Park and Marina but, more specifically, down at the edge of the water, crouching on the cement slope of a boat launch. And the right time was 1:57 p.m. to 2:02 p.m.
If it had been any sooner or later, I would have been staring at a snowy, frozen stretch of the Union River, dotted with a few ring-billed gulls.
But let’s rewind a bit.
Recently, I’ve been frustrated at how little time I’ve had to photograph wildlife, which is one of my favorite hobbies. So on Wednesday, I decided to pack my camera and dog, Juno, into the car and drive to a few locations where I hoped to spot some animals.
Winter wildlife photography can be challenging because so many animals hibernate, den up or head south for the cold months. One of my methods of finding wildlife during this particularly quiet time is to visit open water, whether that’s on a river or the ocean. Animals need water to fish and swim and drink. In the winter, when so much of the state’s water freezes over, open water tends to draw a crowd.
From past experience, I knew that Ellsworth Harbor Park and Marina is a great spot to find ducks and an occasional bald eagle. So that was my first stop of the day.
At first, I left Juno in the car and wandered along the edge of the riverbank, my boots punching through crusty snow. As I trudged along, I cradled my heavy camera (a Canon EOS 70D with a 100-400mm lens) like a baby. Cars idled in the nearby parking lot.
A gull stood on a snowbank, as if it were the official park greeter. Down over the bank, mallard ducks basked in the sun along the rocky shore, their iridescent heads shining green, blue and deep purple.
Across the water, a bald eagle perched high in a tree that had bare, twisting branches. The raptor’s stark white head stood out against the brown bark. Otherwise, I’m not sure I would have noticed it.
A crow sat in a nearby tree, its wings lifting slightly every time it let out a sharp “caw,” which seemed to be aimed in my direction. I noticed more crows hopping along the shore, scavenging.
Careful not to slip on patches of ice, I made my way past picnic tables and gazebos, walking upriver. Using my camera like binoculars, I zoomed in on a male common goldeneye, two female common mergansers and a female bufflehead. (Those are all types of ducks.)
I listened to the song of black-capped chickadees and at least one tufted titmouse. And I spotted two robins. (Those are all types of songbirds.)
With a pep to my step, I returned to my car and took Juno out for a walk. Then we drove to a few other locations, where I also found a bit of luck — but that story is for another day.
Happy with my photography experience, I was about to return home when I decided to stop at Ellsworth Harbor Park and Marina one last time to see if the eagle had moved from its far-off perch.
The eagle was nowhere to be found, but I decided to spend some extra time in the park with Juno so she could expend some puppy energy. I watched in amusement as she rolled on her back to thrash about in the snow.
Other tricks she performed, unprompted, included sliding on her side, biting chunks of snow crust and pouncing on frozen leaves. Eventually Juno’s antics brought us down to the water’s edge, on the boat launch, where she slowed to a crawl in hopes of sneaking up on a group of mallards. (It didn’t work.)
That’s when I spotted the first deer, stepping timidly out onto the ice. My excitement at seeing a white-tailed deer quickly turned into me thinking, “No, no, no. Turn back around, deer.”
Downriver from me, just a few hundred yards from open water, the deer was slowly walking out onto what appeared to be thin ice. I could only imagine the ice had been weakened by recent rainfall. My shoulders tensed as I watched as the deer crept across the frozen river. It truly looked like the animal was testing each step cautiously, but maybe it was just my imagination.
When the deer reached the other side, I would have let out a sigh of relief, but seven more deer then stepped out onto the ice. Spaced apart, they followed the footsteps of the first deer.
The last of the bunch was the smallest. It must have been born just last year. It wasn’t until that tiny deer made it safely to the shade of the forest on the other side of the river that I finally relaxed.
“Did anyone else see that?” I wondered as I climbed back up the riverbank to the parking lot. Several people sat in idling cars, completely unaware. The deer wouldn’t have been visible from that location, I realized. I’d just been lucky, and so had the deer.