Sheep River Provincial Park Alberta - The Canadian Nature Photorapher


Sheep River Provincial Park in the Canadian Rockies

By Dr. Robert Berdan
November 26, 2011



Sheep River Sanctuary Windy Point at sunrise by Robert Berdan ©

Windy Point overlooks the Sheep River and the Canadian Rockies in the Background at sunrise.

The Sheep River Sanctuary is located about an hour drive south of Calgary and is a great place to see and photograph Bighorn Sheep, moose, white-tail and mule deer, coyotes, and wide variety of birds especially raptors during migration. Wolves, cougars and bears are also found in the park. The Sheep River Sanctuary was established in 1973. The Park is closed to vehicles between December 1 and May 15 to protect the winter sheep range. The Sanctuary is located on the eastern slopes of the Rocky Mountains and the park offers a variety of activities including: camping, cross country skiing, hiking, birding, horseback riding, mountain biking, fishing and of course photography. Fisherman can catch Bull trout, Brown trout, Rainbow trout, Pearl dace, and Longnose sucker. The round trip drive from Calgary is about 170 Km and there are facilities and food available in nearby Turner Valley and Black Diamond. As your drive from Turner Valley into the Park you pass through gently rolling grasslands, aspen parkland, river bottoms, mixed woods and coniferous forests. It makes a great half day trip from Calgary with the best light occuring in the morning.

Sheep River Falls in November by Robert Berdan ©

Sheep River Falls in Autumn (November 24)

On November 24 I headed down to the Sheep river sanctuary with fellow photographer Dr. Wayne Lynch. We were hoping to find some Bighorn sheep (Ovis canadensis) in rut. As is often the case we saw almost everything but Sheep. The park closes for the season on December 1 so we had to make a trip before then. I picked up Wayne at 6:30 am in Calgary and after stopping for coffee at Tim Hortons and a McMuffin at McDonalds we headed to the park. We had fresh snow that night and the roads were icy. Along the route we saw fog in the lower valleys and contemplated stopping and waiting to capture the sunrise but decided to press on. In Turner valley we turned toward the Sheep river Sanctuary and after driving a short way we encountered a young moose that crossed the road in front of us. A little further down the road we came upon another moose and several deer.

Moose by Robert Berdan ©

Young Moose

We each used two cameras, one with a 300 mm F4 lens attached for quick shooting and another camera body with a larger telephoto lens. Wayne used a 600 mm F4 lens and I had a 300 mm F2.8 lens with 1.4X teleconverter. Initially the light was low so we set our camera ISO speed to between 800-1600. As it got lighter out we both reduced the ISO speed settings on our camera to 200.

White-tail Doe and Fawn by Robert Berdan ©

Doe and Fawn that was being followed by a Buck

White-tail buck by  Robert Berdan ©

White-tail buck that was following the Doe above.

Moose by Robert Berdan ©

Moose along the roadside

We had seen several moose and deer before we even reached the park boundry. As we drove through the foothills the sun began to rise and light up the valleys. The temperature was a comfortable -10 °C and getting warmer. We stopped several times to photograph the distant foothills and mountains. I used a 2 stop neutral density grad filter to darken the sky, though Wayne indicated he would use Adobe Camera RAW to darken the sky if warranted.

Sunrise on foothills Sheep River Sanctuary by Robert Berdan ©

Shortly after entering The Sheep river sanctuary - the sun began to light up the distant foot hills and mountains.

Rockies in the Sheep River Sanctuary by Robert Berdan ©

Distant mountains about an hour after sunrise - photographed from the road with my 300 mm F4 lens.

As we drove down the road we passed a University of Calgary research vehicle, but few other cars. We stopped to photograph several more white tail deer. We thought we could see Bighorn sheep high up on a distant hill, but after getting closer we saw they were a herd of Elk or Waputi (Cervus canadensis). Elk are one of the largest species of deer in the world only being surpassed in size by Moose (Aleces aleces). Elk are similar to Red Deer (Cervus elaphus) found in Europe, but are a distinctly different species based on their mitochondrial DNA. We also saw wolf tracks beside the road and a spot where the wolf appeared to have rested in the snow.

Elk in Sheep River Sanctuary by Robert Berdan ©

A herd of Elk high up on the hill watched us as we set up our telephoto lenses down below. 300 mm F4 lens.

White-tail deer in Sheep River Sanctuary by Robert Berdan ©

This White-tail Doe was being followed by a buck. We managed to snap a few photos of her from the road. 300 mm F4 lens.

Dr. Wayne Lynch at Sheep River Falls by Robert Berdan ©

Dr. Wayne Lynch sets up to take a photograph of the Sheep river falls ( Visit Waynes web site)

In cold weather it is best to dress in layers and bring a thermos of hot coffee or hot chochlate. I was driving my new Merlin by Robert Berdan ©Jeep Wrangler which had heated seats - a luxury I am coming to appreciate. We drove further into the park and Wayne spotted a Merlin and some redpolls though both were quite far off - still I took a picture of the Merlin (Falco columarious) also known as a pigeon hawk (next) with my 300 mm F4 lens on a Canon 7D (equivalent to 480 mm on a full frame). A little further down the road we stopped at Sheep River falls, a small but beautiful water fall that was largely encased in ice. For safety reasons we only photographed the falls from above. I was surprised that Wayne had never visited the Sheep river falls before in spite of living close by in Calgary, Wayne travels the world to take wildlife photographs, but sometimes doesn't have time to explore his own backyard and what a backyard it is - at least that's what I keep telling him.

Below are few photographs of the Falls and wildlife I photographed during previous visits in the Summer.

Sheep River Falls in Summer by Robert Berdan ©

Sheep River Falls in Summer - the falls is only about 6-8 feet high.

Sheep river Falls and Blue Rock Canyone in summer by Robert Berdan ©

Sheep River Falls in summer                                                               Blue Rock Canyon

Brown Trout by Robert Berdan ©

Trophy Brown Trout I photographed for the Bow Habitat Museum in Calgary.

Northern Saw Whet Owl by Robert Berdan ©

Northern Saw Whet Owl - I owe Al Mackeigan credit for guiding me to this owl - visit Al's web site.

Big horn Sheep on Rock ledge by Robert Berdan ©

Bighorn sheep on a rock ledge. They are common in the sheep river area, but we did not see any on this trip.

The morning passed by quickly and as the sun rose higher in the sky we decided to head back into town for lunch. We stopped at a restaurant in Black Diamond called Marv's Classic Soda Shop which has a 1950's theme. We ordered cheese burgers and listened to music from the 50's and 60's. What a beautiful morning to be out taking pictures, but we knew that being a nature\wildlife photographer is not all about travel and fun - its a tough way to make a living and thankfully we both teach and write to help support our photographic addiction.

Marv's Classic Soda Shop in Black Diamond by Robert Berdan ©

Marv's Classic Soda Shop in Black Diamond - a Retro Hamburger and Soda Restaurant

Inside of Marv's Classic Soda Shop in Black Diamond by Robert Berdan ©

Inside of Marv's Soda Shop.

In conclusion - if you visit the Sheep River Sanctuary bring your camera, a telephoto lens, a wide angle lens and a tripod for landscapes. Dress for the weather and if you are hiking in the Spring time check yourself for Ticks at the end of the day. The best time of day to photograph in the Sheep River Sanctuary is in the morning as the sun hits the front ranges. If you are planning on hiking into the backcountry I would also recommend bringing bear spray or someone you can outrun. Also keep your eye out for hawks and owls along side of the road as you drive toward this beautiful park. RB