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    A buck white-tailed deer struts his stuff in Fort Clinch State Park.

Robust mammals

Just about every time I drive through Fort Clinch State Park I see deer, so I stopped photographing them. I’d seen one deer so I’d seen them all – or so I thought.

Well, not long ago, I changed my tune. I was driving down the back road of the park and there ahead of me were three deer feeding on the fresh greenery along the road’s edge.

And then I looked closer. One of those deer was the most magnificent buck I’ve ever seen. I stopped my car to watch awhile. Before long, they crossed the road ahead of me and stopped in the woods on the other side of the road.

The buck was full of himself, I could tell, all brawn and glossy coat, standing proudly erect, facing me, head up and alert, eyes watchful. The other deer with him were does, and they melted into the woods next to him, not far from his attention. He tolerated my presence in the car, but for just so long – then he stamped his front foot as a signal to the does and they all moved on into the woods, out of sight again.

A few days later, another large mammal in the park garnered my respect.

I was with a friend and she saw it too: A large coyote – German shepherd-sized – ran across the road ahead of us. It was in fine form, healthy looking, with a long, fluffy tail. Beautiful. I’ve seen coyotes around the island before, but never one as magnificent! Sadly, it happened too fast for me to snap a photo, but the sight of it will forever be lodged in my mind.

Now, seeing a healthy buck deer is one thing, but seeing a robust coyote is something else as far as we island residents are concerned. Deer can be a nuisance for people living near our wild areas. They are fond of eating many of the plants we buy and install in our yards, and occasionally they get hit by a car, an unpleasant and costly experience for the driver and an even more costly experience for the deer that are usually killed by the encounter. But coyotes, they can be fatal to our pets.

If you have a cat that goes outside or a small dog that you leave in your fenced yard, you are risking their lives these days. In the 10 or more years that we have had coyotes on the island, their numbers, or at least their sightings, are on the rise. I’ve heard reports of them everywhere on the island – from the quiet streets at the edge of downtown, through the middle of the island, and all the way to the south end. They are often seen crossing Simmons Road near Egans Creek, and along the edges of our various golf courses.

Along with these increased sightings are more reports of people’s cats going missing, or finding the remains of cats that have been killed by predators. Most of these incidents seem to be occurring in neighborhoods near the Greenway and our few other remaining wild spots, and not always at night but sometimes in daylight too, where people have seen it happen.

Rabbits, raccoons and even fawns are the usual wild prey of these apex predators, but as their population numbers increase, they look to cats and other small prey to fill their stomachs.

The coyote I saw seemed big and strong enough to take down an adult deer. It was a predator I had no interest in interacting with. It was intimidating, for sure.

So, word to the wise, please keep your pets indoors and under close supervision when they are even in your fenced-in yard. I know it’s hard to turn a cat that is used to roaming outdoors into an inside-only pet, but for its sake, you should try. There is another benefit to this strategy as well. Domestic cats are themselves a fierce predator, killing wild birds and small mammals. It helps the survival of other species if we remove cats from the list of things they need to worry about. Indoor cats will not be hit by cars, are less exposed to various diseases and parasites that can harm or kill them, and do not get into fights or come home pregnant.

Amelia Island is still a wild place in some areas, and many of us enjoy this wildness. But we have to do our best to be vigilant and to protect our pets from the coyotes who have moved here too.

News-Leader

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