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BCA News: Fall 2019

In Search of Desert Bighorn Sheep
Bob Turner, RBP, FBPA

Capturing wildlife images is never a guarantee when one heads out on an imaging quest. For a number of  years I've attempted to capture images of Desert Bighorn Sheep (Ovis Canadensis nelsoni), but without success. These endangered animals, smaller than the better known Rocky Mountain species, are only found in the craggy desert mountains of a few far western states. On March 26 this year I drove east from my home in Encinitas, California for better than eighty five miles to the Anza-Borrego Desert State Park in search of these elusive animals, and was especially hoping to see their newborns!

Accompanying me on this photography trip me was Bobb Sleezer, RBP, FBCA from Westland, Michigan. We deliberately arrived late in the afternoon to avoid the mid-day heat, typically in the 90s F even during the winter months (>110 F in the summer). We went directly to the trailhead of Palm Canyon to scout-out the area where the Desert Bighorn Sheep are known to come for water before bedding-down for the night. No luck, but we would be back early the following morning and ready to give it our all.

Palm Canyon Trail heading westerly toward steep rocky mountain slopes, including Ocotillo (orange) and Brittlebush (yellow) vegetation. © Bob Turner

And indeed the next morning, before the sun was above the mountain ridges, we were out on the trail. We walked very slowly as the sheep are known to simply stay still and you might walk right past them as they lay among the rocks. We carefully searched every nook and cranny on the surrounding mountain sides, and were easily fooled a number of times thinking we had spotted one only to discover it was just rock or a dead  limb. The cryptic coloration of the sheep, a mottled gray, cause them to easily blend-in with the rocks and boulders. But we were determined to find them and pushed on. After better than two hours we were starting to resign ourselves to the reality that we were not going to spot any sheep. But we were wrong!

A small group of Bighorn Sheep, including two newborns (~ 2-3 weeks old), slowly navigate down a rocky desert mountain. © Bob Turner

Finally, with ever so slow motion, one adult sheep emerged on a distant steep hill and made its way down to the bottom of the hill where a small stream of water was running. Next, in single file, seven more sheep, including adults, juveniles and two newborns ( ~2-3 weeks old) worked their way down to the water. They all paused, looked around, and then lapped-up the cool water. The largest adult ram stood watch as the group quenched their thirst.

Then, without any urgency, they all continued on their way and climbed a very steep mountainside. I thought that was the last I'd see of the small herd. However, I was pleased to see them all again at the top of the mountain where they began grazing on the various vegetation. And the adult sheep took turns standing "sentry" while the others roamed among the rocks seeking food.

Ewe (female) Bighorn Sheep stands guard atop a mountain peak while its newborn gets accustomed to the rocky terrain. © Bob Turner

Later, with all the sheep moving up and over the ridge, and the sun starting to become intense, we decided to call it a wrap and hiked back to my Jeep. We had brought plenty of water and took many breaks to stay hydrated. All in all it was a great outing and I was very pleased to have captured a few images of the Desert Bighorn Sheep. And I think Bobb must have brought me the good luck!

Informational Sites

Anza-Borrego Desert State Park

Desert Bighorn Sheep

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