Did you ever wonder how Bighorn Sheep manage to climb rock faces so effortlessly? It is their hooves. The structure of a Bighorn Sheep’s hooves is unique and quite different from the hard hooves of cattle and horses. Their hooves have a flexibility that allows excellent agility and helps them climb steep terrain that keeps them safe from predators. According to the National Wildlife Federation, “the outer hooves are modified toenails shaped to snag any slight protrusion, while a soft inner pad provides a grip that conforms to each variable surface.” This combination gives them traction on slippery rocks and the ability to climb sheer cliffs. They can cling to a 2 inch ledge on the side of a rock and maneuver gracefully down a cliff face. I’m certain the structure of their hooves is the envy of every mountaineering boot manufacturer. Here are a couple of examples that show how Desert Bighorn Sheep use those hooves. They look quite different from the hooves of other ungulates.
I just can’t get enough of the Desert Bighorn Sheep. They are gorgeous, elegant creatures. It was a privilege to be able to photograph them in their native environment last week. This beautiful ram watched us as we photographed him on our last morning in Nevada.
A Surfbird gets ready to take off from the rocks that line the surf in Pacific Grove.
Nikon D5, Nikkor 500mm PF, Nikon 1.4 Teleconverter
Our trip to photograph Desert Bighorn Sheep is over and it is too soon. We started out early on our last morning in the Great Basin expecting to find our flock of about 90 individuals where we’d seen them descending from their lofty perches each morning previous but they were nowhere in sight. We drove further up Hwy. 95 than we’d gone before but saw not a single sheep. We thought they had moved to another location because it was well past time for them to be on the move. We turned around and headed back to pack the car and head home. I stared out the window at the cliffs whizzing by the car when suddenly I saw a magnificent ram perched on a small outcropping. “There’s one!” I shouted. We were lucky that he was posing for us across the highway from a large pullout on the side of the road above the lake. We leaned against the railing and photographed the ram. It was as if he’d stopped and waited to pose for us to say good-bye. The rest of the flock had already crossed the highway and made it down to the lake where they were drinking.
Desert Bighorn Sheep can climb on precarious ledges and they spend plenty of time on craggy outcroppings. Because they escape predators by their ability to climb where nothing else can, they bed down at night in high, inaccessible places that are safe. In our quest to photograph these graceful creatures, we start each day looking up, scanning the ridges and outcroppings and rocky ledges for them. They blend into their surroundings so until you acquire “sheep eyes” it is almost impossible to spot them. We eventually spot them as they begin to make their way down the slopes to forage for food and drink water in the morning. This ewe leaps with ease as she descends the slope to join her flock.
We’re visiting Nevada to photograph Desert Bighorn Sheep. As their name implies, Desert Bighorn Sheep live in the desert…in this case, the high desert that is part the Great Basin which includes most of Nevada. The sheep photography experience has been phenomenal. I wasn’t expecting phenomenal landscape photography, but, thanks to a phenomenon called a Sierra Wave, we’ve had that, too. According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, a Sierra Wave is one of the most spectacular lee waves, which occurs when westerly winds flow over the Sierra Nevada Range in California. We were on the lee side of the Sierra Nevadas and when strong winds kicked up Wednesday evening, we watched as a Sierra Wave developed before our eyes. By this time, the sheep we were watching by the lake moved up the slopes to spend the night so we were able to concentrate on the gorgeous skies. I’d never seen anything like this.
Nikon Z7, Nikkor 14-30 S
Nevada’s State Animal is the Desert Bighorn Sheep. A large flock of these majestic ovines roams the craggy hillsides in the Great Basin in Nevada. We found some of the flock Tuesday morning, more than 70 individuals by one count, making its way through an area near the lake that is sparsely dotted with mostly ramshackle trailers and mobile homes. It is a rocky, arid, and treeless area at an elevation of about 4000 feet. The sheep forage among the grasses and scrubby plants, climb the crags, and sleep. Twice a day they must go for water. The lake is the usual destination which can be perilous as they must cross the two-lane Hwy. 95 that separates their foraging territory from the lake.
We experienced our own perilous journey the day before as we traveled to our destination. It started early for me. I drove from home to Reno to meet Moose and Richard. As I approached Rocklin, a low tire alert flashed at me from my dashboard. I was able to pull off the highway and to the Goodyear Tire store in Rocklin where they graciously inflated my tires and sent me on my way. Then, as I drove east toward the summit, a slight drizzle turned to torrential rains. It rained so hard at times that my windshield wipers could not keep the rain from obscuring my sight. Big rigs in the slow lane created huge rooster tails of water that covered my car as I drove past. At one point, a CHP vehicle pulled out in front of me and with its blue and amber lights flashing, led a convoy of cars at very slow speeds for almost half an hour as the rain pummeled us. It was clear in Reno by the time I arrived exactly on time, my one hour time cushion evaporated by the need to service my tires and the slow freeway speeds. The winds picked up as we drove south on Hwy. 95. We were constantly buffeted by the winds in our Yukon. A Nevada Highway Patrol vehicle screamed past us lights flashing. A few miles up the two lane road we came to a complete stop. A big rig accident moments before had closed the highway…and we sat for four hours until it opened again. We watched a med-evac helicoptor land on the highway in front of us as the winds created havoc with its maneuvering. An ambulance drove away from the scene. We sat, never learning what exactly was happening. It was well past 8 PM when they reopened the highway and we were able to continue on. We were still a half hour from our destination.
Despite our difficulties getting to our destination, we were rewarded with a wonderful morning photographing these Desert Bighorn Sheep. The winds had calmed. The temperatures were comfortable. And, because they live near a small residential community, they are somewhat acclimated to people so our presence was not threatening to them as long as we were quiet and didn’t make sudden movements.
Nikon D5, Nikkor 500mm PF
The Monterey Bay Aquarium is home to critters that live in and around the sea but one inanimate thing that caught my attention there was an old fishing boat that was suspended from cables. The inside was visible from a walkway. I was taken with the play of light on the nets, ropes, and cork floats on its deck.
Nikon Z7, Nikkor 105mm f/1.4, taken in black and white.
Oystercatchers are coastal birds. Black Oystercatchers like this one I photographed on the Pacific Coast near Monterey last week, spend their time foraging on rocks for mollusks. The bright reddish orange beak and eye ring are quite distinctive and contrast sharply with the bird’s black feathers. They provide color to an otherwise muted scene. This Black Oystercatcher is very focused on something in front of it and is approaching whatever it is with great stealth.
Nikon D5, Nikkor 500mm PF, Nikon 1.4 Teleconverter. Handheld.
We came prepared to do some “beach panning” in Monterey, toting our panning plates and Frisbees with us. That proved to be unnecessary when we found ourselves seated on the sand late one afternoon holding our cameras instead of laying prone with the cameras attached to the panning plates. It was much more comfortable to have my elbows resting on my knees, supporting my camera with long lens. We were entertained by several Black Turnstones, a lone Whimbrel and a lone Semi-palmated Plover, watching them wander up and down the beach in search of a late afternoon meal. The Semi-palmated Plover proved to be most cooperative as it scurried up and down the beach within sight of our lenses. This was the closest he came to me and there was no need for the teleconverter or High-speed crop. To photograph this tiny bird, I used the D5 and 500mm PF alone. We sat still on the sand and waited for the birds to come to us which they quickly did as we did not move or talk more than was necessary. That approach was just right so that the birds quickly adjusted to our presence and then ignored us.