Duke Forest deer spotlight survey

What do you do on a Monday night? Well, if you’re a Nicholas School student, you might be driving along the Duke Forest trails with a spotlight in search for the red glint of deer eyes shining out from the woods.

Every year, the Duke Forest manages the deer population with hunting season in the fall. Carefully vetted bow hunters follow rigorous procedures to bag the Whitetails in the Durham, Korstian and Blackwood divisions. To prevent overgrazing and maintain the health of the ecosystem, only does are hunted, with older adults targeted over young individuals.

In spring, a deer survey is conducted to monitor the population. This is where I came in. Beverly Burgess, the Administrative Assistant and one of five permanent staff that manages all 7,000 acres of the research forest, sent out a call for volunteers. On the day of, she kindly gave me a ride to the Duke Forest Maintenance Shop, ie. the base of operation.

Armed with snacks and chocolate, the volunteers were paired with four Duke Forest staff and split up into trucks. I partnered up with Sarah, a MEM student, and we headed out to our first route. With a spotlight on each side of the truck, we drove at a leisurely 5 mph through the trail.

It’s hard to spot iridescent eyeshine through the thickets of pine, and the reflection of every tree tag raised false hope. The rustling of tires as we drove on in the dark would have been creepy if not for Sarah’s enthusiasm and our endless conversation ranging from NPR podcasts to conservation strategies.

Sarah got lucky and spotted a couple of deer, and even a raccoon climbing up a tree. All observations were recorded, although it’s hard to determine the sex of a ghostly figure in the dark. Unfortunately, I turned up empty. It seems that I only run into deer brazenly crossing the road on campus when I don’t want to be seeing them.

Depending on the weather, the surveys average about 15 to 20 deer a night, the other trucks spotted more deer and owls too. The two hours flew by as I learned more about management practices, from prescribed burns to regeneration harvests and the multitude of research projects going on there. It was very exciting to apply survey methods learned in class and get to head into the forest. I definitely look forward to going back for a jog on the weekend!