Friday, April 22, 2016

The Endangered Sierra Nevada Bighorn Sheep: Close Up

Dale Matson

Click On Photographs To Enlarge

I have been backpacking for three years across and over Bighorn Sheep territory in the Sierra Nevada looking for sheep. I have seen tracks and scat and briefly saw two sheep on the 60 Lake Basin trail. More recently I have had three organized opportunities to photograph sheep from the Mt. Langley and Wheeler Ridge herds. Each of the last three times, on field trips with Dr. Wehausen, The CDFW and finally Steve Yeager, I have had the opportunity to see and photograph sheep.

I have been on a slow learning curve and only gradually upgraded to bigger and bigger telephoto lenses. Actually, the Tamron 150-600mm lens I now have, I bought just before heading back to the Bishop area to look for sheep again this week with Steve Yeager. Go big or go home! He is in a different league when it comes to a 6th sense about where the sheep are. He claims (and I believe him) that he can smell the sheep before he sees them. I believe this Bishop native has more Sierra Nevada Bighorn Sheep photographs than any other person. The late Galen Rowell has a wonderful photograph of a ram in the Mountain Light gallery in Bishop. He set the quality standard and it was Dr. Wehausen that took him to the place where he took the photograph.

As I was heading north on Highway 395 south of Lone Pine, I called Steve to say I was on the way. We were scheduled to look for sheep together the following morning. He told me of a location to check out near Lone Pine and I thought it would make good sense before finishing the drive to Bishop to stay for the night.

Thus began another adventure with me parking my 4X4 Silverado way too soon. I climbed on a trail for another mile but noticed lots of sheep tracks and some mountain lion tracks too. I could see sheep trails running at an angle up the steep canyon sides. Eventually, I could see human boot prints and assumed it was where Steve had begun walking up the trail. I then followed both the sheep and Steve’s tracks. He said I would come to a point where I would look to my right. I was carrying my new lens on a shoulder strap connected to the tripod collar and the climb was becoming warm.

As I looked to my right, I clearly saw a ewe standing on top of a boulder about 300 feet away. It is so different when you are alone and have such a close encounter. I had seen lots of sheep from a distance but this was qualitatively different. I slowly lifted my Sony A7R2, turned it on and took a few photographs thinking at the time, “This may be it”.  As I continued up the trail, there were more sheep, about eight or nine with one young ram a couple of juveniles and ewes.

I spent an hour taking over 100 photographs at various focal lengths. At one point I was able to kneel down and rest the heavy telephoto lens on a boulder to steady it and take the weight off my arms. The problem was that the sheep, which were less than one hundred feet from me, all began to lay down and the thick grass and brush concealed all but their heads.

I got up and took more photographs realizing how much more difficult wildlife photography is than landscape photography. The sheep were comfortable enough to actually walk toward me as they grazed. I did remember the cardinal rule which is get close and then get closer. I had a sense that the distance I had established was at the edge of their comfort zone and as I edged closer they began to move away.

It was a wonderful experience, one that for me may never again be duplicated. I was able to appreciate first hand the harsh environment in which these endangered sheep live out their existence. In summer they are in even harsher, higher and safer (from predators) elevations.  They are rugged yet fragile. I left with thankfulness and respect. I hope you will share in my enjoyment as you view the photographs.

 Juvenile Sheep
Mountain Lion Tattoo On Young Ram

There is a YouTube video here:

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