My Montana

My Montana
My Montana

Sunday, July 7, 2013

Bighorn Bemusement

This morning, I was the volunteer that got to drive around the refuge.  We have three of us on duty on Sundays, so one of us gets to mostly play. We can start at any time and, if we start early, we can get off early. Since what I want to see is up early, I try to get out by six-thirty.

My plans were to quickly drive to High Point, which is almost to mile seven of the nineteen mile auto tour, and then hike the quarter mile trail to the highest point on the refuge, to photograph wildflowers on the hillside in the early morning light.

But when I got there, I saw two, then five, and finally eight bighorn sheep rams.  They were in the shade but moving toward the sun and the tour road.  I quickly walked down to the road to intercept them in better light, but they never showed.  So I turned around with the intention of chasing wildflowers and bees. As soon as I got back  to where I could see up the meadow, I saw them again.

A picture take early when the rams were distant and in shade
 Both the sheep researcher and a photographer that has been working on a brochure about the bighorns say that it is pretty easy to approach them from below.  The photographer says he sings to them as he approaches. So I started walking slowly,  not quite towards them but crabbing over as I moved forward.  And I hummed a repetitive phrase to them. Soon I was under 100 yards from them and they weren't showing any agitation.  But I was shooting them in the shade with harsh light behind them, making for terrible pictures.  So I attempted to get uphill from them. Again I hummed and didn't walk directly towards them.This got me to within 100 feet of  them.  Then one by one, they laid down, some facing me , and some facing away from me. I decided to just sit down and enjoy them for a time and wait for the sun to reach them. 

Guess that creature isn't after us

Stranger but probably no danger we can't handle

I settled down to enjoy them. After a few minutes they got up, one by one, and resumed feeding.  They established a pattern of grazing for a few minutes, then laying down and chewing their cuds for a few minutes.  And all the while, they were coming closer.

For a long time, this ram was closest to me

About this time I noticed another photographer coming up the trail.  He had a much larger lens and was quite a distance away. While he was taking pictures, another group came up behind him, waited a minute and then continued up the hill.   I also started moving closer to the rams by moving sideways with my hands and feet while in a seated position.


I didn't quite get that remark

The hikers came back down the mountain without disturbing  the sheep.  Then the sheep suddenly got up and walked to within twenty feet of me.  I thought the other photographer, who had also been getting closer, had taken a picture of me with the sheep. 

Mutual watching

Dad and son? These two spent a lot of time together

Cud chewing is best done lying down
At this point, I was somewhere between shock and ecstasy. I've never been this close to a  wild animal who was just doing what he would normally do and then to have this multiplied by eight! I'm still flying.

I moved down to where the other photographer was taking pictures - he too, had moved off the trail and was sitting down.  We continued to take pictures of the sheep as they came toward us, then passed us up.  Finally they disappeared down the hill and probably took a rest in the shade of the Ponderosa pines.  He hadn't gotten a picture of me with the sheep because I was hidden  by the sheep from his position. Both of us were very moved by this experience.

Meanwhile, we watched several cars stop at the restroom area and even watched one group take maybe twenty pictures of themselves in various permutations - all without noticing the real drama going  on  three hundred yards from them.

Visitors that are unaware of the rams
It's a tough job.  I'll try to stay up for it.