Tuesday, December 25, 2018

LOOKING FOR BIG HORN SHEEP




A WEEKEND ON WHISKEY MOUNTAIN

The National Big Horn Sheep Center is dedicated to educating people about Big Horn sheep and the conservation of wildlife and wild lands.  Located in Dubois, WY, it has one of the world’s largest wintering herds of Rocky Mountain Big Horn Sheep in the Whiskey Mountain Area.  The center offers 3 to 4 hour guided viewing tours.  This was a planned and fast track trip with Bob Colvin and myself.  From our homes in Jefferson City, MO to Dubois it is an 18 hour drive straight through.  We left on Wednesday and drove about 7 hours before getting a motel.  On Thursday we drove on through to Dubois, stopping along the way to get a few landscape shots with snow.  Our plan Thursday to Sunday and back on Monday.  Two days at Dubois and one day at the Grand Tetons.  The Grand Teton portion is for another Blog. (Click on any image to see an enlarged version)

Nikon D750 w/Sigma 24-105mm Art @95mm, f/16, 1/100sec, ISO 100
We stayed at the Stage Coach Inn in Dubois and ended up with a room with a kitchen which was sweet.  We had scheduled a tour for Friday November 30, 2018 with Sara Domek, the Executive Director and on Saturday with Bill Savage, Board member and photographer.

We started our day Friday by having breakfast at the Blue Coyote Coffee Shop. https://www.facebook.com/CoyoteBlueCoffeeDeli/.  The owner fixed breakfast for us and the locals invited us to set with them.  We got some good tips on sightings of Big Horn Sheep.  The food was very good as was the service and atmosphere.

We met Sara at the National Big Horn Sheep Center https://bighorn.org/ at 8AM.  Sara had the Suburban warming up and had provided hot tea, hot chocolate, and a lemon loaf cake.  It was a very cold morning below freezing, windy, and the ground was snow covered. 
Nikon D750 w/Sigma 24-105mm Art Lens @75mm, f/9, 1/800sec, ISO 250
How do you dress for a trip like this?  It is important to layer your clothing and wear moisture wicking materials.  We were going to be in and out of the car throughout the tour.  I wore insulated underwear under my cargo pants, and insolated snow boots.  For my upper body I wore a heavy insulated shirt, covered with a sweatshirt, then a down filled vest, and a Gortex Jacket.  I had shooter gloves and a hat with fur lined ear flaps. The temperature for the day was a high of 34 and a low of 18.  However being in the higher elevation and with the wind it was a lot colder.  I might mention that there was a dusting of snow for the first part of our trip but it cleared and we were left with beautiful clouds and a blue sky.  With the earth covered in white it made for a beautiful landscape scene.

Sara took us up to Whiskey Mountain by way of the Tora Road.  For the most part this was a decent road but there were a couple stretches that were heavily rutted or washed out.  You definitely need a high clearance SUV.  Sara was an excellent guide and within no time we were all friends.
Nikon D750 w/Sigma 24-150mm Art Lens @ 58mm, f/16, 1/250sec, ISO250
The scenery was awesome and the valleys and canyons spectacular.  It wasn’t long before we spotted the bands of Ewes and Rams.  The Ewes were in estrous cycle but may not have been ready to breed.  Rams were checking out the Ewes and chasing after them. 
Nikon D850 w/Sigma 150-600mm @420mm, f/6.3, 1/1600sec, ISO800
The Rams were frisky and occasionally challenged each other but not yet butting heads. A characteristic of the Rams is raising their heads, pulling back their lips in search of estrus.  A ewe in heat (estrus) will generally seek out the ram. She will sniff and chase after him. The ram responds to urination by the estrus ewe by sniffing, extending the leg, and curling his lip. Curling the lip is called the "flehmen response." If the female is receptive, she will stand for mating. The Ram may fail in several initial attempts to mount the Ewe. He may repeatedly mate the same Ewe.
Nikon D850 w/Sigma 150-600mm @ 600mm, f/6.3, 1/1250sec, ISO800
There were clusters of Rams who banded together. (Image below) A lot of male animals will mount each other as a means of domination.  In this image we have one male challenging another by mounting him and then right behind this pair you see two Rams butting heads.  It was below freezing and snowing when this picture was taken.

Nikon D850 w/Sigma 150-600mm @500mm, f/8.0, 1/1250sec, ISO800
We were able to get out of the Suburban and set up our tripods for more controlled and hopefully sharper photography.  The sheep were pretty oblivious to our presence and we for sure kept our distance so as not to disturb or stress them.  Got to love those telephoto lenses.  I was shooting with a Nikon D850, D500, and even my D750.  When you are operating out of a car it is great to have multiple cameras with different lenses.  There is no changing of lenses out in the elements for me.  If however, I do need to change a lens I always pack a white trash bag and change the lens inside the bag. The downside is downloading images from multiple cameras at the end of the day.

Nikon D750 w/24-105mm Art Lens @24mm, f/14, 1/500sec, ISO400
Let me touch base on that for a minute.  I always travel with a laptop and compact 500G external drive.  My work flow at the end of the day is to download all my images onto my laptop and also to make a copy to my external drive.  Once I have confirmed that I have good downloads and a copy, I will reformat my cards in their perspective cameras.  When I get back home I transfer the files to my desktop and backup drives.  I usually don’t clear my laptop or compact backup drive until my next outing.

What about my equipment in the cold?  I carry a hand towel and throw it over my camera while it is on my tripod to prevent moisture from getting into the zoom when I change focal lengths.  Remember earlier I said it was lightly snowing. I also carry a rain coat for my camera and lens as well but the towel seems to work pretty good for this outing.  We asked Sara to keep the heat down in the Suburban.  In addition when my cameras are laying on the seat next to me I cover them with a wool blanket.  Taking your cameras/lenses in and out of the cold can cause condensation. At the end of the day I remove the file cards before going back inside and keep my equipment in their bags so they can slowly adjust to the room temperature.  Again, I cover the bags with my wool blanket.  Prior to heading out the next day I put the equipment in the car and yes using my wool blanket, cover it to allow the equipment to slowly adjust to the cold.

According to our guide Sara, Dubois does not get a lot of snow even though everything around Dubois and the mountains can be covered in snow.  Again this area is the wintering grounds for Big Horn Sheep.  Back to my story. 
 
In addition to Big Horn Sheep there were a lot of Mule Deer in the area as well with some impressive antlered bucks.  They appear to get along and share the grazing area, at least this day they did.  At one point we spotted a Ewe who appeared to have some rear leg or hip damage which made her ability to get around very restricted.  I inquired as to what predators were in the area and Sara indicated there were Mountain Lions as well as a wolf pack.  Although they appear to stay higher up in the mountain. It appears there were two small bands of wolves and they banded together.

Sara stayed with us until 1PM and by then we were ready to take a break from this mountain.  Several thousand pictures of Big Horn Sheep, Mule Deer, and some awesome landscapes completed our first day.

On day two we met up with Bill Sincavage at the center.  Bill had hot beverages ready for us.  Because this marked the first day of December the road up to Whiskey Mountain was officially closed for the winter.  Bill is a member of the association board and an avid photographer himself.  Bill lives in the area and had been scouting out the area prior to our arrival.

We drove south of town to an area Bill had seen a band of sheep earlier in the week.  We didn't see any sheep but Bill pointed out a Mountain Lion track to us.  This was a beautiful area with a river running through it.

Nikon D500 w/150-600mm @150, f/10, 1/160sec, ISO250
We came upon several areas were Mule Deer were grazing on the sides of the road.  I think these deer must be conditioned to all the tourists because they were not that skittish even when we got out of the car to photograph them.

Nikon D500 w/Sigma 150-600mm @290mm, f/10, 1/400sec, ISO250
Mule deer are generally easy to identify due to their large mule-like ears (generally 3/4 the length of the head). They usually have a distinctive black forehead, or mask, that contrasts sharply with a light grey face. The lighter facial coloration makes the eye rings and muzzle markings seem less obvious. Mule deer are brownish-gray in color, have a white rump patch and a small white tail with a black tip.

Nikon D850 w/Sigma 150-600 @155mm, f/8, 1/3200sec, ISO500
I got several full body shots of this buck but this one called out to me.  He blended into his surroundings but let me know that he knew I was there.

Nikon D850 w/Sigma 150-600mm @350mm, f/8, s/800sec, ISO320
This group of Mule Deer Does really shows the size of their ears.  They were aware of us and curious but make no mistake they can move rather quickly.
 
We headed to the Whiskey Basin Habitat, also known as Torrey Valley.  This area is open year round but parts of it is private land so visitors are encourage to stay on the road. It also supports a Conservation Lodge which is used for education and a series of lakes.
Nikon D850 w/Sigma 150-600mm @ 160mm, f/8, 1/800sec, ISO500, EV 0.33
Near Torrey Lake we found a band of Ewes and some young Rams near a rest room area.  Some were grazing while others were laying down resting.  We were able to get out of the car and photograph within a respectable distance making sure to not encroach on their space.  The above image shows another group of Ewes on the oposite side of the road.  This Ewe shows how sure footed they are.  I would have slid right off that rock.  It is important to not disturb them.  These animals have traveled from the high mountains to winter in this area.  They have no where else to go so it is critical that this area remain a safe environment for them.

Nikon D500 w/Sigma 100-400mm @400mm, f/8, 1/1250sec, ISO250

We spotted this mature Ram on the cliffs over looking the valley.  I am not good at judging distance but I will guess somewhere between 100 to 200 yards.  I have traveled to several National Parks and I have photographed many Ewes but this was my first time being able to capture Rams.  So this big guy was a treat.  I might mention that our Guide, Bill, was shooting with the new Nikon Z6 and a Sigma 100-400mm lens f/5-6.3.  He let me borrow it to try it out.  It weighed next to nothing.  I put it on my Nikon D500 which gave me a focal length of 150-600mm.  I was impressed with how well this image came out. 


Nikon D500 w/Sigma 100-400mm @400mm, f/8, 1/1250sec, ISO 320
Boy you can't get more regal than this.  Relaxed with not a care in the world.  This image was also shot with the Nikon D500 and Sigma 100-400mm Lens.  I have been looking for a telephoto lens to use when hiking and also to pair with my Fujifilm XT-2 by way of an adapter.  The reason for my camera settings for this and the previous picture were as follows. 1) Most lenses have a sweet spot at 2-stops above their maximum aperture.  When in doubt f/8 is a general sweet spot for a lot of lenses.  Since I was not really concerned with depth of field I went with f/8. 2) Since I was hand holding the lens I wanted to make sure that my shutter speed was greater than my focal length.  In this case at 400mm focal length with a 600mm 35mm equivalent I opted for around a shutter speed of 1250sec.  Remember multiply your focal length by 1.5 if shooting a Nikon and 1.6 if shooting a Canon. 3) Even though it was a bright sunny day I increased my ISO because this lens at f5-6.3 is a slower lens and I needed more sensitivity to maintain a faster shutter speed.

Nikon D500 w/Sigma 150-600mm @360mm, f/8, 1/1250sec, ISO320
There were several Rams in this area but we were told that it would be about another week before any head butting occurred. Although we did see and hear a young pair going at it once. Many bighorn sheep populations in the United States experience regular outbreaks of infectious pneumonia which likely result from the introduction of bacterial pathogens carried in domestic sheep.  Once introduced, pathogens can transmit rapidly through a bighorn population, resulting in all-age die-offs that sometimes kill up to 90% of the population. In the years following pathogen introduction, bighorn populations frequently experience multiple years of lamb pneumonia outbreaks. These outbreaks can severely limit recruitment and likely play a powerful role in slowing population growth. Big Horn Sheep which come in contact with domestic sheep can be euthanized by conservation agents to prevent the spread of pneumonia.(Wikipedia and Big Horn Sheep Center)

Nikon D850 w/Sigma 150-600mm @ 600mm, f/10, 1/500sec, ISO 140 EV, -0.33
The above image  shows a mature adult Ram.  Notice his horn is broken but add a couple inches back onto it and it is getting closer to a 360° circle which is an indication of an 8 year old Ram.
 
Nikon D850 w/Sigma 150-600mm @ 600mm, f/10, 1/500sec, ISO 160, EV-0.33
This big guy was not with any Ewes or any bachelor Rams.  He was a good 100 to 200 yards away but we really appreciated his posing for us.

Nikon D850 w/Sigma 150-600mm @600mm, f/8, 1/500sec, ISO 90, EV -0.33
One final shot of this guy.  He begin moving up the hill but stopped to look over the valley and I couldn't resist this shot or including it in this Blog.  What a great experience being able to photograph these majestic animals in a natural setting.  We can only hope and pray that future generations will protect them and this land.

Nikon D750 w/Sigma 24-105mm Art lens @42mm, f/16, 1/500sec, ISO 250, EV-0.67
Whiskey Basin was a favorite winter ground for the Sheepeater Clan of the Shoshone Tribe because of the relatively mild winters and the abundance of big game.  Petroglyphs carved in the large glacial rocks by the Sheepeaters provide a vivid history of this area.  These petroglyphs are irreplaceable treasures.  Bill told us that at certain times of the year photographers will set up to photograph this scene with the north star in the background.  I can see a return trip in the spring to attempt this shot with the Milky Way as a backdrop.

I can't thank Sara Domek, and Bill Sincavage enough for a great and successful adventure and to Bob Colvin for doing all the driving.  The  17 hour straight trip back home was a killer for him, I on the other hand read a book, played solitaire, and enjoyed the ride.

Thanks for stopping by and reading about my adventure.

John Gilbert








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