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There is no doubt that certain trees attract the attention of sambar and pine trees definitely fall into this category. Whether it’s a recent plantation of young pines or a decades old monarch standing tall on the side of the hill these trees are beacons for sambar of both sexes to walk past, visit, leave scent and rub their antlers on. Whilst we do know they love to visit pines and bed up in plantations, especially on windy days, what we don’t know a lot about is what the deer do when they reach these trees, how important they are to the social behaviour of sambar, their use for communication purposes and just how often they get visited by the resident deer.
We decided to hang a trail camera overlooking an isolated pine tree for a month to grab a brief snapshot into what was happening with the resident deer and when the tree was getting used. A month is a very short time for sambar deer and even shorter to draw too many conclusions, but it does tell us a little about the importance of pine trees in sambar country.
We selected a single pine tree that had no other pines in the general area, hoping that it would pull in plenty of deer. It was a tree in deer habitat where sambar numbers are strong, there are plenty of stags around and farm fringe with fertilized dairy paddocks 400 metres below. A ridgeline with heavy unburnt terrain over the back was 300 metres above and often the stags felt more secure and bedded in this habitat rather then spending too much time in the recent burn during daylight hours. The pine tree was on a north facing ridge in an area with a recent burn and we hoped the burn would attract plenty of sambar to the area, like most burns do. It was in a legal hunting area and an area that a few hunters will visit each month. We set the camera up on the 17th of July and pulled it down on the 18th of August. We would have preferred to have had a camera there all year and done a more comprehensive study but we had other regions to move the camera too and a month was all we could give the tree this time round.
The pine itself had seen heavy use over the years by sambar, its bark was completely rubbed smooth the entire way round the trunk from 18 inches up to above head height for a mature sambar. We had high hopes of plenty of use and set the camera with great anticipation.
We used a Little Acorn trail camera in this location, as we knew hunters would visit and hopefully leave the camera alone. If somebody decided to steal it then the loss would be eased by the low cost price of the unit when compared to say a homebrew trail camera or a more expensive unit. On the plus side we could set the controls to take multiple pictures at each activation with short delays between intervals and this would build a picture as to how long the deer were there and what they were doing. We did also set this unit to video mode to get footage of the deer at the pine tree but the camera malfunctioned and only took stills. Another plus of the Little Acorn was its IR flash and this generally did not spook the deer that visited. The perfect tree was not found close to the pine to hang the camera from and we had to make do with a rather large eucalypt close by. It meant the deer were often cut off in the frame of the pictures, but it was all we could work with. No python lock fitted the tree so a piece of rope was attached to hold the unit in place and some leaves were placed in between the rope and the tree to provide camouflage and also conceal the visual awareness of the set up.
1st deer came past at 6:15pm on the 20th of July. The deer walked in from the east where there is quite a large area of unburnt country. He was a young spiker in hard antler with short stubby antlers. He approached the tree and sniffed it initially trying to identify who had recently been before him and he then rubs his antlers on the area he had been sniffing. He leaves scent from his pre orbital glands on either side of the tree at about shoulder/head height using both glands and then stretches up and leaves scent quite high up reaching as far as he can go remaining on all four legs. He stays four minutes before moving on.
2nd deer arrives from the south coming down the hill at 7:32pm on the 28th of July. She is a mature hind on her own. The deer initially scents the area of the tree where the spiker had left scent then she also rubs her neck and glands on the side of the tree where the spiker had been rubbing. She puts plenty of effort into this and gives the tree a good working over. Five minutes passes with her time at the tree finished and she moves on downhill likely to the paddocks and good feed below.
3rd deer is a young velvet spiker on the 31st of July at 5:25pm. He approaches from below the tree and has likely fed his way up. Either he is spooked by the IR glow or has little interest in the tree and moves on quickly as he only stays for a brief time.
4th deer is another young sambar that arrives on the 3rd of August at 6:33am after feeding up from the paddocks during the night. This deer has incredible length to his spikes and is in hard antler. It is always hard to tell how a 1.5 year old sambar will progress with antler growth through the later years of life but with such long spikes there is every indication that this particular deer could be a fantastic trophy if he lives another seven to eight years. He is exactly the type of deer that hunters need to let live if they see him on the hill. He rubs his glands on an area of the tree that hadn’t been used by any of the previous deer. He rubs his forehead and both sides of his face on the smooth bark and he stabs his antlers into the tree. He looks at the camera a couple of times and as the IR is glowing due to low light he picks up this activation. He doesn’t seem too alarmed but knows something isn’t quite right. Four minutes passes before he walks off heading uphill to his bedding area for the day.
5th deer appears at 6:41am, a few minutes after that long spiker has just walked off on the 3rd of August and these pair are likely travelling together. He walks in from the same direction and it is probably the same velvet spiker that appeared 3 days previous. This time the stag stays for 3 minutes, rubs his face all over the tree where the spiker has just been visiting and leaves his scent in the same area. He is continually sniffing the tree as he moves his head up and down the trunk and his sensory stimulators would be in overdrive.
6th deer is a middle aged stag that again walks in from below the tree and visits the pine at 9:20am on the 3rd of August. That’s the third deer for the day now to this pine and all have been males. This stag has medium sized antlers with short inners and has either broken one inner off or failed to grow it on the left hand side. He is quite interested in all the scent left by the two animals before him and spends plenty of time sniffing this area. This stag rubs and sniffs both sides of the trunk at shoulder height and leaves scent all over the area. He is quite worked up and it’s very interesting to see his behavior. After a few minutes saliva starts coming out of his mouth and there are big wet patches on the tree trunk from this release of moisture. He is no doubt leaving as much scent behind as he possibly can and letting all the deer know he is the latest visitor to the tree. His eyeballs are full of concentration as he works the tree for over 13 minutes. He finishes with a quick preach leaving scent in the overhanging leaves above and then departs.
Two days later on the 5th of August at 11:05am it’s raining and a hunters GSP sits next to the tree. The stalker is obviously aware of the trail camera and stays away from it. Thankfully he leaves it alone and we can be grateful there are guys with respect for other hunters gear and equipment. I actually had 4 other trail cameras in this area, simply to check to see if any other stags were visiting the ridge but not hitting the pine tree and most male deer that appeared over the month did head to the pine at some stage. I’m sure I missed a few stags though as you can’t cover all the area and I did get another hunter on two separate cameras who simply gave a thumbs up when he saw them and walked on. For that I am also very grateful.
7th deer was a young stag likely of 2.5 years of age. He approached again from below at 6:43am in the morning on the 8th of August. He had uneven antlers and lacked inner tines. Time will tell if this deer continues his irregular style or if he is one of those deer that will never be of even formation. With strong brows for age, I tend to think he might be a malformed type animal throughout his life. He spends plenty of time where the last three males visited and scents and rubs his glands all over this area. He also rubs the base of his antlers on the smooth bark in a number of areas and 7 minutes later he walks off into the morning.
8th deer encounter was a new stag that turned up on the same day as the previous stag but he came in from above at 6:06pm. Likely entering the burn after dark and heading down to the paddocks below. He has great style for age and good tine length. Just the sort of deer that is half way to being a big mature trophy of a lifetime, if he can survive. He rubs his antlers first on one side of the tree then leaves his scent down the same side. He works his nose over this area to check on his handy work then moves to the other side of the tree and repeats the process. He goes back around to where he started, rubs some more, leaves extra scent there then walks to the front of the tree to rub his forehead, antlers and scent glands all over this area. Lastly he goes back around again and checks his scent on the side and stands up to preach into the pines branches above. He is always looking around in between the rubbing and scent marking and 17 minutes after he walks in he leaves the tree. That’s a long time for any sambar to be in an area marking his territory.
9th deer that visited is a mature hind an hour and a quarter after the stag has left. It is likely she knows that stag is in the area and quite likely she is coming into estrus. She is an animal on her own and stays for a short period of less then a minute. It is possible she was the hind who walked past previously and she scents the side of the tree where most stags have been recently using, including the area where the last stag was scent marking vigorously.
10th deer to visit was a young spiker in hard antler. He is missing a spike on his left hand side and likely it has cast. This deer arrives at 6:00pm and walks up the trail from below the tree. He sniffs and scent marks the tree immediately. He leaves moisture on the smooth trunk like most deer have and likely his wet nose is responsible for some of this. Another spiker that looks like he could be a twin brother joins this deer and they rub the tree at each side working it over and leaving scent everywhere. They have no issues sharing the tree and leave 16 minutes after the first deer has arrived.
11th deer that turned up was on the 14th of August, a young stag likely 3.5 years of age. He arrived from below at 5:19am and looks quite worked up. He has a decent body frame for age and irregular antler growth on his right hand side. He rubs the same side of the tree that all deer use when they come up from below and he has either been wallowing or rubbing his neck and body on wet surfaces. He soon has moisture on the base of the tree trunk from his neck and possibly from his nose and mouth. The stag is at the tree for 15 minutes and stays in the one spot the entire time working it over, looking around and leaving scent. He stabs at the tree with his antlers and rubs them over the smooth bark at intervals.
12th deer encounter is a young stag again on the 14th of August and he turns up less then an hour later after the other stag has left at 6:28am. Approaching from below he works the tree over at the same spot as the previous stag. He has nice antler formation, although his inners are high up on the beams and pretty short for his likely 3.5 years of age. This deer stays for three minutes and then leaves continuing up the ridge.
13th deer arrives 20 minutes later, up the same trail below as the previous two stags earlier that morning. It seems like when one deer visits the tree often others visit within a 24-hour period and sometimes the tree will not see any action for a few days without any deer coming past. Either the deer are shifting around and only on this face occasionally or its just coincidence when they visit and a few turn up on the same day. This is one of the young spikers from the other day, the deer with the single spike and he sniffs around the wet areas before leaving after a couple of minutes.
14th deer to trigger the trail camera walks in at 6:05pm from the north side. This is the fourth deer that day to turn up and is a new stag for the set. He immediately sniffs the tree and then works around the back of the tree and over the other side. He stays for 14 minutes and leaves scent and moisture on the tree. His antler formation is poor and close examination reveals it’s the same stag from the 8th of August. Nine minutes later he walks off.
15th activation on the trail camera is a young velvet spiker who walks in from below on the 16th of August at 6:04pm. He is likely the velvet spiker that has appeared previously and stays for 6 minutes. He rubs the tree vigorously with his face and glands and smells the tree regularly to check on his efforts.
16th deer is the one antlered spiker that comes in from below at 5:44pm on the 17th of August. He works over the area that the last spiker was at and leaves scent everywhere he can. He is either having trouble shaking this other spike off as it was over a week since he last visited or he is a one antlered deer. He only stays for a couple of minutes before leaving.
I then walk in and pull a few cameras out of the area. I thought that there might have been a couple of mature stags turn up on any of the cameras but it wasn’t to be. No doubt they are in the area with all the hinds and other deer using the burn and farm country but they also get pressure and it might be a bit harder for a stag to live to 8 years or older in there then what I first thought. Sometimes you only have to be a gully or two away from the action and it’s enough to miss the stags, but I thought the pine might have pulled one in. I’m confident if I had of left the camera there into spring there would have been some nice stags turn up, but that wasn’t possible.
So what do we glean from this series of sambar encounters? We affirm that the resin from a pine tree is extremely attractive to sambar both on their antlers and bodies and it is also a tree that likely holds their scent for a long period of time due to the nature of the bark and the sap that slowly oozes from the tree. Likely any scent left behind by deer will stay detectable for an extended period of time on the tree making it easy to identify who has been in the area and who is currently in the area. It was interesting that there weren’t too many repeat visitors to the pine who frequently attended this location. A couple of the young stags turned up twice, but no animal repeatedly hit the pine tree a few days in a row like some stags do to a wallow. Of course an extended trail camera set would reveal a lot more. Weather patterns can and do shift sambar around and this might have had an impact on the numbers of visitors and we did get some cold low-pressure fronts come through. Maybe a few of the resident stags sought refuge over the hill in the sheltered gullies during these periods of strong winds and heavy rain. Hunting pressure could impact on deer movements but deer have learnt to live with contact from humans and they just adjust their routine ensuring they still visit the important areas after dark rather then during the day when they are a little more vulnerable.
It was great to see female sambar at the tree and the froth coming out of that medium sized stags mouth was certainly an intriguing display that not many people are aware of.
Next time you pass a patch of pines and see a few rubs on them or walk past an isolated tree on a spur that’s been worn smooth give it a little more thought as to what goes on around the base of that tree over the course of a year. They are an important communication point for sambar and if you have a spare trail camera hang it up as your bound to get plenty of action and might even learn a few things about the resident deer.