New animals have arrived at the Okeeheelee Nature Center. In addition to new baby alligators Chewy and Bacca, there is a new raptor, a black vulture named Harley, and a new white-tailed fawn.
Okeeheelee Nature Center Manager Callie Sharkey is excited about the new additions.
Harley, who arrived at the nature center in March, is about 4 years old, with a 4-foot wingspan. Harley is thought to be a female, based on size; in birds of prey, the females are typically larger than the males.
“She’s healthy; she’s what is referred to as an imprint. An imprinted animal is an animal that has not only no fear of humans, but they associate humans with food, or they prefer being around humans instead of living like a wild animal,” Sharkey said.
Another example of that at the nature center is Hootie, a screech owl. He’s perfectly healthy but is imprinted. “He is awake during the day. He doesn’t behave like an owl,” Sharkey explained.
Harley was brought in as a baby, without a family, to the Busch Wildlife Sanctuary. She was raised at the sanctuary with limited physical contact in an attempt to prevent imprinting. However, that did not work out. “They may have received her that way,” Sharkey said. “They tried releasing her, and she did not want to go.”
Harley prefers humans to other vultures, and because of that, she cannot be released. Wild animals should not prefer humans, and feeding them is discouraged.
Harley is currently being trained and will be used in nature center programs. She is named after Harley Quinn of DC Comics fame.
Black vultures are social birds, and some have come to see Harley.
“It’s common for us to have wild species come and check out and interact, and talk to — for lack of a better word — the birds that we have here,” Sharkey said.
Different raptors at the nature center are there for different reasons, whether they have been imprinted or, in the case of Abel, are blind in one eye and are a survival risk.
Though vultures are often looked at negatively by humans, they’re strong, intelligent and have unique adaptations to help with their survival. They have ocular vision, forward-facing eyes and hooked beaks, and will take prey that is still alive.
“Typically, you see them scavenging, and that’s where they get a bad rap, but if you did not have birds like them, you would have some serious issues,” Sharkey said.
Munchkin is what Sharkey is calling the new fawn until its gender is determined.
“We believe it was born on Earth Day, which is April 22. We had a large event going on here,” Sharkey said. “It still has its spots.”
The fawn is now the sixth member of the Okeeheelee Nature Center’s deer herd. Handsome and Baby are the parents of Tigger, who was born in 2014. Tigger and Chloe are the parents of Andi, who was born in 2016, and now, they had another child in 2017.
Chloe tipped off nature center staff that she had just had a baby because she suddenly looked thinner and she was becoming food aggressive toward Andi and Tigger. She was hoarding her food, which is a maternal instinct, Sharkey said, and within a week, they were able to spot the baby.
“It’s not uncommon, when a deer is born, that we may not see it for weeks or months,” Sharkey said. “Andi was first seen in June, and right around this time of year. She was probably about a month old when we saw her for the first time.”
Munchkin still has its spots, which act as camouflage in the wild. As the deer ages, the spots will fade.
The area of the preserve where the deer live is kept as natural as possible. Their enclosure is about six acres and shaped like a peanut. The intent is to have one deer per acre, which means the center is at its ideal herd size.
“You don’t want them to breed too much; its unhealthy. It’s hard on their system. Chloe is not a young deer. She has been great, she’s a fantastic mom, but she has earned a break,” Sharkey said. “We were very surprised. We actually didn’t even really know she was pregnant. She did not show in the same way that she did last year.”
Her weight had to be monitored closely in 2016. As soon as they noticed that it dropped this year, they searched for the baby and found Munchkin. Chloe’s food was separated, so she wouldn’t feel like she was competing with Tigger and Andi, and she is doing well.
Munchkin is just starting to eat solid food, is about 2 feet tall and is often seen with Chloe.
Visitors can see Tigger, Chloe, Andi and Munchkin at the overlook, a covered area with binoculars at a nature center trail.
“Generally, if you’ll look across the water, you’ll see them,” Sharkey said.
For now, Handsome and Baby are in a separate area. As Munchkin grows and gets larger, the two families will be able to be together.
Come fall, behind-the-scenes tours are an hour long, available around October. People have the opportunity, for $3 per person, to see the raptors and the deer up close. Depending on the deer behavior at the time, participants might even have the opportunity to feed them through the fence. Summer camp participants have the chance to go behind the scenes.
“It’s a really unique experience, for people who do not hunt, to get that up close to them,” Sharkey said.
Deer from different climates vary in size; the white-tailed deer from Florida are smaller than deer from Pennsylvania, but larger than Key deer.
“They’re all related, but they have adapted based on the ecosystem that they live in,” Sharkey said, explaining that the deer in Florida do not have to bulk up for the winter as deer in cooler climates do.
To find out more about programs at the Okeeheelee Nature Center, call (561) 233-1400.
ABOVE: A new fawn has joined the deer herd at Okeeheelee.