Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Rocky Mountain Bighorn Sheep - Washington

Sam and I experienced an extended "National Geographic" moment last week that will be tough to beat. We spent about 45 minutes watching 3 groups of Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep, totaling 40 or more.
Close-up of ram.
The focal point of our viewing was a group of about 7 rams in rut. I saw and heard them butt heads 15 times or more.  
One of my favorite photos: two parallel rams. 
They were so occupied with each other that they hardly seemed to take notice of us. 
Different head poses. The size differential between the young ram and his elders is substantial. This young ram split off and is not a part of most of my pictures. 
I was visiting my son, Sam, who lives outside Leavenworth, Washington. We drove out to Chelan for lunch, then followed the north side of the Columbia River back toward Wenatchee. About two miles east of the Rocky Reach Dam, which forms Lake Entiat on the Columbia River, Sam spotted a group of bighorn sheep off the side of the road. We pulled over and watched a group consisting of one ram and at least seven ewes as they walked up the side of a mountain and then over the ridge. 
Four ewes scramble up the side of the mountain.
The ram lagged behind.
The ewes waited for the ram, then scrambled up and over a ridge.
We got in the car and drove a half-mile to a mile and I spotted a group of about seven rams in the foothills. They were on the other side of a fence about 100 yards or more away. We walked up to the fence and took some photos, then found a gate and I ventured in closer toward the bighorn sheep. I could hear an occasional crack and echo and realized they were in rut, but they were grouped together so closely that we had a hard time seeing the rutting behavior. 

I moved in closer, then caught my breath as one ram headed my direction, then a second, then the whole group of seven. The thought occurred to me that I ought to run, as these guys had heads lowered, noses jutting forward, and looked like they were in a mood to tangle. I wasn't sure if they were intentionally heading for me and I knew I would not fare well if I took one of those head butts. 
One alone is grand. A group of them is a feast for the eyes.
Autumn colors added to view.
This ram, like the other smaller ram, separated from the rutting group and headed up the mountain.
For a moment I caught their attention and they stared at me.
More varied poses. 
They pulled up short of me, then congregated, and started rutting behavior in earnest. I was about 30 yards distant with a 500 mm lens. They were fascinating to watch, grouped constantly, jostling and nudging, at times so close together I was reminded of a a rugby scrum. 
A ram rugby scrum. I am reminded that the Highland Rams, a Salt Lake City high school, have a great rugby team. 
More scrum, but now more engaged, heads butting against bodies.
They smelled each other's rear-ends, nudged and butted their heads against each other's bodies, kicked out with their legs, extended their noses forward and up, which I started to recognize as behavior that preceded a head-butt, then would extend up on their hind legs and then drop down and rocket forward into a head-crushing blow against another ram. Now the term "battering ram" has more meaning for me. 
These two separated themselves, then turned on each other. 
Nose extended forward and head tilted back. The hair on the back of the neck stood up. 
Smelling noses preceding a head butt.
Smelling and nudging.
Body blows.
Part head, part body blow.
Another body blow.
Head butt to the side.
Kicking and head butt.
Raised up, just a moment before a charge.
Two back on hind legs, ready to uncork on each other.
Raised on back legs, hair on the back of the neck standing straight up, testosterone filled the air. 
A clash: one went low and the other went high. 
High and ready to charge.
Crashing heads.
Crashing heads.
Glancing head blow.
The punctuating sound of butting heads had the woody sound of an ax striking a tree, but was much louder. Two or three tired or lost interest and wandered off, up-hill. The remaining rams continued their rutting behavior. I remained as still as I could, but did move around a bit and did not seem to concern them. 

I could have watched for hours, but the trickling rain was soaking me and we had to get Sam back for work. I took 564 photos and regretted afterwards that I'd not taken any video footage. About the time we were ready to leave, Sam pointed out a large group of bighorns off to the east, mostly ewes, but some rams, spread out over the lower reach of the mountain.   
10 sheep are in this picture, but an additional two were cropped out. 
12 sheep are in this picture, but an additional 3 were edited out. 


  1. Because of their bland facial expressions, in some of the pictures it looks like the rams are snuggling rather than fighting, but I'm sure that wasn't the case! I would have loved to see this, but it's better for you that I wasn't there trying to get you back on the proper side of the fence.

    1. You're right, the pictures don't convey the testosterone fueled fire that was raging through those rams. The nudges were much more than casual and the head butts were significant and loud.

  2. You have some incredible shots here! I've always wondered how painful that head-butting is. Do sheep get headaches?

    1. I think if they had money and a vendor was selling ibuprofen, they would sell out.

  3. I talked with a fish and game officer on 10/17/2023. He said that three Sheep were hit on the road near Rocky Reach dam in the past 3 days.