John's Journal...

Taking Great Waterfowl Pictures and Viewing Wildlife in their Habitat with Jeff Coats

The Exotic Sika Deer of Maryland

Click to enlargeEditor’s Note: Jeff Coats of Bel Air, Maryland, is a fantastic waterfowl hunter who guides hunters to sea ducks on the eastern shore of Maryland. But he also is an even-better waterfowl photographer. Here are some tips from Coats on how to take great waterfowl and wildlife photos.

According to the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, Maryland’s exotic Sika deer (actually miniature elk) are native to southern Japan, and first appeared on Maryland's lower Eastern Shore when Clement Henry released them on James Island in 1916. Today, Sika deer inhabit all of the lower Eastern Shore counties, with the highest density located in the marshes and the wetlands of southern Dorchester County. Too, Sika deer that were released on Assateague Island during the 1920s established populations there. Since Maryland biologists and deer managers first worried that the miniature elk would expand into the upland territory of native white-tailed deer, they set higher bag limitClick to enlarges to encourage hunters to harvest and control the Sika deer population. However, over the years, managers have learned that the Sika predominantly lives most of its life in the sub-optimal regions of the white-tailed deer’s habitat, apparently lessening competition between the species. The Wildlife and Heritage Service’s (WHS) management techniques have somewhat changed toward the Sika deer.

Sika deer are now managed to keep the population at its cultural carrying capacity, meaning the maximum number of deer that can co-exist compatibly with local landowners and native species. Current population levels appear to be low enough to ensure crop damage is minimized, while still providing plenty of hunting opportunities for sportsmen. A radio-telemetry study conducted on Dorchester County Sika deer revealed that most Sika hinds had a home range of about 150 acres and moved about 1/2-mile between bedding and feeding areas. Sika stags had much-larger home ranges, often greater than 500 acres, and depending on the time of the year, they moved much-farther distances in a day. Habitat use by Sika deer and white-tailed deer differed markedly during the study. Sika deer preferred marshes and thick, forested wetlands, while the white-tailed deer liked the more-common agricultural and upland regions. The popularity of Sika deer hunting in Maryland has increased considerably over the last decade. The challenge of the hunt, the Sika deer’s uniqueness as a trophy and the Click to enlargedelicious-flavored meat they provide, has resulted in a steadily-increasing harvest of the Sika. Hunters interested in pursuing the elusive Sika will find the field-dressed weights of yearling females averaging 45 pounds, with 53 pounds the average dressed weight for yearling males. A big stag will field dress around 100 pounds.

Sika deer also differ in appearance from the native white-tailed deer. They’re shorter in stature with the adult Sika deer standing only about 2-1/2-feet at the rump. Their coat tends to be reddish brown during summer months and dark brown to black during winter. Even as adults, Sika have white spots, mainly running parallel down their back. Stags generally have a dark, shaggy mane running down their necks, and their antlers are narrow and sweep backwards rather than forward like the whitetail’s antlers. A 6-point stag is a trophy, with 8-pointers being extremely rare. Finally, unlike white-tailed deer that raise their tails like flags when alarmed, Sika deer have a round white rump patch that flares outward when they’re excited or alarmed. Because Sika deer are primarily nocturnal and inhabit marshy terrain, hunting can be very challenging and sometimes difficult. Therefore, the Sika rut that occurs in mid-October is considered to produce the best chance to harvest an adult stag. During this time, males become very vocal by bugling. These bugles usually consist of a series of three whistles, heard priClick to enlargemarily during early morning and late afternoon. During the rut, stags define their breeding territories by making wallows (scraped-out depressions in the earth that the males urinate and wallow in), causing the stags to smell strongly of urine. The rut generally results in increased movement by stags during the day, which can increase the odds of seeing one during legal hunting hours.

Both male and female Sika deer use vocalizations to communicate. The barks they emit when alarmed are distinct. Hinds often communicate with their calves using soft bleats and whistles. By mastering Sika vocalizations, hunters can increase their chances of bagging stags during the rut. A hunter also can increase his or her luck by hunting on edges and gaps within patches of phragmites located between marshland and woodland terrains. Sika deer often use phragmites as movement corridors between feeding and bedding areas. Although Sika deer don’t appear to rely on agricultural crops as heavily as white-tailed deer do, they still respond favorably to agricultural food resources. Thus, many of the management techniques used for white-tailed deer (i.e. food plots, warm-season grasses, etc.) also work well for Sika deer. Too, Sika deer rely on the mast crop during the fall and the winter, making acorn-producing oaks an important component of the forest overstory in Sika habitat. Other common foods of Sika deer include poison ivy, catbrier and marshgrass. Choosing hunting areas or photography places that provide some of these food sources may aid in your hunting success. Jeff Coats enjoys shooting photos of Sika deer.

To contact Jeff Coats about his photography, write to 1522 Southview Road, Bel Air, MD 21015, or call (410) 937-4034, or email, or visit or

Tomorrow: Protect the Wild Horses

Check back each day this week for more about "Taking Great Waterfowl Pictures and Viewing Wildlife in their Habitat with Jeff Coats" "

Day 1: Learn to take Great Waterfowl Photos
Day 2: How to Set Up for Wildlife Pictures
Day 3: Taking Unique Shots
Day 4: The Exotic Sika Deer of Maryland
Day 5: Protect the Wild Horses


Entry 446, Day 4