Hawk Mountain Sanctuary 2021 White-tailed Deer Spotlight Survey

Hawk Mountain Sanctuary 2021 White-tailed Deer Spotlight Survey

Using Population Trends to Guide Forest Management

Posted on in A Year in Stewardship by Stephen Wade, Sanctuary Steward

HMS 2021 White-tailed Deer Spotlight Survey


On March 17, 2021, at approximately 19:00 hours, the Hawk Mountain Stewardship Department conducted our first white-tailed deer spotlight survey in conjunction with our esteemed colleagues from the Conservation Science Department.

“What is a deer-spotlight survey?” you may ask. Well, for the purposes of this blog you did ask and I thank you for your question. A deer spotlight survey is a method of sampling a given area of land and the density of the deer found there. The methodology for conducting the survey is fairly straightforward, using a high-powered flashlight observed eye shines of white-tailed deer are recorded by each counter as they move along their prescribed routes.

In truth, nobody truly knows the exact number of deer in any given area, and all methods of attempting to ascertain that number are estimates at best. Deer spotlight surveys are not intended for this purpose but instead are designed to sample a representative portion of habitat and the total number or density of deer found there. While we can not accurately estimate the number of deer on our property at any given time through these surveys, we do anticipate being able to accurately assess population trends.

Six routes were planned for the survey, maximizing the areas surveyed while taking into account accessibility and the propensity to find deer in any given area:

  1. Sawmill Trail to Golden Eagle Trail to Skyline Trail
  2. Education Trail to River of Rocks to Golden Eagle.
  3. Main Lookout Trail to North Lookout to Escarpment Trail
  4. Hawk Mountain Road (East/West)
  5. Owls Head Road
  6. Sawmill Lane to Little Schuylkill River

The original date of the survey was scheduled for February 3rd but as with most things in life, what could go wrong did. Thanks a lot Murphy!  Mother nature decided to adorn our mountain with a substantial amount of snow.  Be sure to check out A Year in Stewardship: First tracks after the storm and Snowstorm Cleanup for a view of the aftermath.

In the end, our first survey was conducted successfully and, speaking for myself, was rather enjoyable. In truth, any time I can get out for a night hike is a win for me. While I personally saw no white-tailed deer on my route, I did inadvertently harass a porcupine… twice.  Don’t feel too bad for the porcupine though, it got me back in the end by nearly giving me heart attack as it scurried up an oak tree right next to me; cheeky porcupine.

Overall, 20 deer were surveyed in 2021 across all routes. Additionally, the team observed coyote, a flying squirrel, two raccoons, and heard a barred owl calling near North Lookout.

Going forward, we hope to use the reliable, long-term data gained through these annual surveys to help inform stewardship and sanctuary staff on the efficacy of our habitat management practices as well as assisting in the prioritization of future initiatives.

Thank you again to our wonderful Conservation Science Team who assisted Stewardship with this survey as we work towards our mutual goal of maintaining Hawk Mountain Sanctuary as a model observation, research, and education facility through judicious, evidence-based habitat management practices.

If you have any questions about our white-tailed deer spotlight survey or would like more information please feel free to reach out to the Stewardship Team.

Thank you for taking the time to check out A Year in Stewardship and I look forward to seeing you on The Mountain!