Pharaoh and the Badlands
The setting sun on the weathered
formation in front of us reminded me of the pyramids of Egypt and then soaring
above them was the "phoenix" or a Golden Eagle if you prefer.
Daylight was fading fast when we got to
our destination, Sage Creek Rim Road on the north boundary of the Badlands
National Park in South Dakota. Our objective was Bighorn sheep going through
their mating rituals.
There were bighorn sheep all over the
place. Even though we were losing light, as a wildlife photographer, you
find out that the number one rule "is any shot is better than none".
By the way I just made that up. So we shot a number of images and then
headed to Wall for the night.
Before continuing, I should fill you in
on a few other details about this trip before you say "We should do
that". The timing, this is the second rut and unfortunately it occurs on
or around Thanksgiving Day, not good if you have family obligations. The above scene was played out on the evening
before Thanksgiving. The explanation handed to our children was that the sheep
rut does not happen everyday and it was on our bucket list. We probably won't
get by with this excuse again this year.
Secondly, most of the motels in Wall are
closed for the season, minor problem, there were only two of us and about a
dozen travelers who also opted out of family obligations or were on business, so there were rooms to spare.
Thanksgiving dinner! Now here is a big
problem. No restaurants were going to be open on Thursday. The nearest metro
area is 60 miles away and most of that was to be traveled in the dark. Not a very
inviting situation for a turkey drumstick. The other option was to plan on a
turkey dinner by motel microwave. Also not very inviting. This turkey dinner
could possibly go down as one of the worst in my entire life. I say this with
some experience, as an avid deer hunter I have spent more than one Turkey Day
in deer camp in Wisconsin or Montana. Inquiring at the front desk about our
turkey day options, (Like most men, I have to think about my food intake to
sustain life.) I was pleasantly surprised
when the desk clerk invited us to join her and her family for the evening meal.
Not even southern hospitality could beat good old "WESTREN
HOSPITALITY" at this offer. When we declined thanking her for
the kind offer she replied "the church is having Thanksgiving Dinner at
1pm, maybe you would like to join them?"
Mary was reluctant to impose on the good
citizens of Wall in something they were planning for the wayfarers, but I convinced
her to at least stop by and check it out.
What a surprise! We were unable to decline their invitation as
they welcomed us with open arms and made us feel at home as we entered the
hall. We were treated as old friends and
felt like family as they gathered around and joined us with the meal. It was great, we shared our table with a
wildlife technician from the park, who was able to give us some real
information on what was happening in the park. they even sent us home with
Now back to the main subject of this
The bighorn sheep (Ovis
canadensis) is a species of sheep, named for its large horns. These
horns can weigh up to 30 lb (more than the combined weight of all the
bones in their body), while the sheep themselves weigh up to 300 lb
Our optimum goal was to photograph those
classic clashes that you see on National Geographic. With an early morning
start we arrived on the sheep grounds at first light. Bands of sheep all over
the place, eating, resting, looking at us and LOOKING at us some more. They
would actually walk up to the vehicle and lay down right by it to nap. To
clarify this, this behavior was done by the ewes and lambs and not the few
junior rams that were in the herd. We were able to find out what this peculiar
attraction to our vehicle was later on in the day. There were no clashes,
nothing, just eating,sleeping and chewing their cud.
Then just like if some ancient Egyptian
Pharaoh sounded his horn the mature rams came up out of the interior and
marched toward us like the warriors of those bygone days. They, the rams,
appeared over the rim and started marching towards us with a steady and
unhurried gait. My imagination kicking in, "Mary they look like soldiers
of the Pharaoh's army with their impressive helmets or (horns)". No
New dynamics moved through the bands as
the mature rams roamed about looking for a ewe in estrus. It was fascinating to
watch the rituals of mating as the rams jockeyed for position in the hierarchy
of the herd.
If a ewe, which was not ready to breed,
was pressured to much by her suitor she would lay down. He would then stand
there and paw at her to get her up. A couple of the ewes went a step further
and laid down right by our vehicle. The rams were not that brazen, these ewes
had gone through this ritual before. So sorry big boy go paw somebody else! The
sad look that an ewe would give us when we would pull away was almost heart
Another ritual we observed was an
interaction between the rams. The right to breed by the dominate male went
through a process of elimination, which was not just by ramming their heads
together until one or the other fell over. We saw rams walking up to one or
another and kick them in the _____s. If there was no response then the
big guy would move on. Every now and then there would be a response and then
they would go through a lot of "I am tougher than you stances". Every
now and then a clash would occur. It was one whack and that was it. Maybe a
lack of aspirin in the herd?? We saw a few clashes, missed a few but
heard them and managed to get a couple of keeper images. Nothing that we could
send to National Geographic, so, unfortunately, we'll have to try again this year and
reluctantly miss another turkey day with the Kids.
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