November 11, 2012
As summer ends and we head into fall, one of my favourite times of the year fast approaches. Rutting season. Late October and into November tends to be a very active period for the California Big Horn Sheep which reside here in the South Okanagan Valley. While the sheep are preoccupied with the rut they let their guard down a bit and this lets the photographer in close for some great action and some great shots. Usually the sheep won’t stick around if they see a human walking about and this continues to be true during the rut. One has to become very stealth like in order to get in range despite packing a 500 mm lens. Camo clothing, logistical approach routes, and a tremendous amount of patience is necessary. The sheep have moved down from the high country to an area of brushy grasslands and this means visibility for them is great. While human activity is nearby, the presence of someone will send them packing. I have been watching and photographing these sheep for a number of years and as each year goes by I find that what I learned over those many years is now starting to pay off when it comes to getting near them without being seen. I have learned that there is some form of consistency in their movements.
Very early in the day they come down from their bedding areas on the rocky crags above, and they move out into the open grassy areas to feed. As the morning approaches the noon hour they move back towards the rocky crags and tend to bed down for the afternoon. Late in the day they will head back out into the grasslands to feed again and of course to breed. This consistency allows me to pick certain spots where I can “bed down” as well to await their arrival. It can be many hours hunkered down in brushy areas where I can set up my tripod and camera awaiting their return. I spray myself with a scent off product hunter’s use and I pay attention to the wind direction. Binoculars are a must in order to scan for movement of the sheep as it’s not a given that they will venture into the area where I am bedded down. I have had a number of occasions where the entire day goes by and the sheep are just not cooperating.
Early on in the rut one finds large groups of Rams congregating on the ridges above, spending their days watching the larger group of Ewes grazing below. It’s not unusual to spot upwards of a dozen Rams moving together along the ridges and gullies but they are always keeping a watchful eye on the Ewes. As October wanes the Rams begin to move down to where the Ewes are and start the early rut by chasing the girls around in circles sniffing their hind ends and the air, in an effort to locate those that are in estrus or near to estrus. The Ewes though have little interest in the Rams at this stage and so the game is on. Lots of running around with sometimes five or six Rams chasing a lone Ewe. As October ends the Ewes are now in smaller groups of about 5 to 15 and with them constantly now will be upwards of about five Rams. I believe the reason for the smaller groups is in fact Ewes that are in a breeding state. They will graze together and interspersed with the grazing are bouts of chasing and attempts at copulation. However they remain unsuccessful at this time as the Ewes are just not yet ready and or they have not accepted the Rams that have approached them.
Into November and with the colder weather, we now see more action between the Rams. The intensity of the rut picks up as there are Ewes now in full estrus and the Rams are trying to establish their own group of Ewes for breeding. This is the time when, if you are lucky, that one gets to witness the Rams head butting. This is truly an amazing scene. They have this crazed look in their eyes as they line up for a charge. The winner of this contest tends to be the Ram that does not bounce backwards after contact has been made. This process is not always visible to the photographer but the sound of the horns colliding can be heard.
Occasionally though you find yourself in the right place at the right time for this magnificent act of nature. It truly is amazing to witness. As November moves forward the Rams have separated out a number of willing Ewes for breeding while the unsuccessful Rams buddy up with the other unsuccessful Rams and then they hang around the edges of the breeding groups looking and hoping for a stray Ewe to come by unseen by the lead Ram.
With Ewes numbering well over one hundred and Rams at well over twenty for this overall herd, the outcome from the rut is deemed to be successful, so much so that a limited hunting season has now been created in order to keep the herd numbers in check for the limited resources (food) available.
Equipment I use for these episodes consists of a sturdy carbon fibre tripod, the Manfrotto 055CXPRO3. Atop this I have my Wimberley head and mounted to this I use a Canon 7D with the Canon 500mm 4.0 lens. I also pack along the 1.4 Extender as well as my 100-400 Canon zoom lens should I get lucky and the sheep come to close for the 500. Also along for the ride are binoculars, water, snacks and a pair of small pruning scissors so that I can trim some branches from the numerous antelope bushes that dot the grassy areas which is a source of food for the sheep.
I construct a brush cover so that I am not so out in the open and so that any small movements I make will go unseen. Lighting is the one item no one has control over. October and more so November here in the Okanagan can be overcast. One needs to be vigilant with their camera settings making the necessary adjustments for lowlight, cloudy and even drizzle rain days. I usually arrive very early (before light) and get into position before the sheep come down from their bedding areas. I also have permission from a nearby rancher to cross his property in order to get into the better positions for photographing.
For more information you can reach me through my web site www.naturecapturedphotography.com. This is Bruce's 2nd article for the Canadiannaturephotographer.