by Stephen Torbit, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
I have never been an 8–5 wildlife biologist. All my life I have taken every opportunity to get outside and be with wildlife. I am relaxed and rejuvenated just to have a chance to observe animals in their natural habitat.
Love for Biology Inspires Nature Photography
Along the way, I, like many others, became interested in photography and have now spent thousands of hours over the last 40 years trying to record wildlife, first on film and now digitally. One of the most important lessons for me is that no matter what equipment you have, or how far you travel or how much money you spend, the critters are the final arbiter of whether or not they reveal themselves or their behavior to you. Timing and luck are everything with wildlife photography.
Seeking Out Rutting Bighorn Sheep
Such was the case after Thanksgiving this year when I made another trek to Northern Colorado to see if I could find rutting bighorn sheep. I needed time outside; I had just put down my dog of 11 years and needed to escape the emptiness. I returned to the Cache la Poudre River Canyon west of Fort Collins where I had spent countless hours hiking, hunting and photographing wildlife since the mid-1970s. This was where I first captured bighorn sheep on film.
I had witnessed a few brief rutting battles over the years, when male bighorns rear up and clash horns in order to establish dominance. Usually it only occurs if the males are about the same size. These encounters had been short, the weather usually bad, and although I had been captivated by the behaviors I witnessed, they never lasted very long and I had very little photography luck.
This day started out much the same as other November trips to watch bighorns during the rut. It was cold, with high wind and blowing snow. The weather actually seemed to discourage others from recreating up the canyon. As I was driving, I had a destination in mind to stop and glass for sheep; it was an area that had been productive over the years. I had worked with bighorn sheep when I was employed by the Colorado and Wyoming wildlife agencies and understood quite a bit about the behavior I was witnessing, there is much more to their breeding battles than just the head butt.
As I reached the lookout, I was rewarded by a small group of bighorn ewes and lambs. I searched more of the rocky terrain and in time spotted a very large ram and a smaller ram insulting and threatening each other. They soon began to battle. I maneuvered myself for the best view.
I watched as the two rams came together, they would sometimes stand side to side and one would lay his head across the back of the other. This is a classic bighorn insult; the males treat all animals smaller or similar in size as females and position themselves as if to mount the lesser ram. The behavior of one ram laying his head on the other is just a prelude, as I watched, the supreme insult followed where one ram actually mount the other as if to breed. The two rams are both dominant and so then the battle royal began.
They walked away from each other as if they were disinterested; suddenly one would whirl around and rise up on his back legs. The opposing ram, seeing this behavior, also rose up on his back legs and they ran towards each other on their back legs, timing their acceleration and fall to collide with each other. After the collision, they spent a few minutes turning their heads from side to side and thereby showing off the size of their horns to their opponent.
After such a clash, they would take a brief break; sometimes they would come together and use their front legs to kick their opponent in the abdomen or between the back legs. As I watched all the behaviors, I was able to hear their interactions too. I actually heard them lip smacking, snorting and bellow as they insulted each other vocally too. I had maneuvered myself to a point where I was able to watch, listen and photograph without disturbing them.
For almost two hours the rams insulted and provoked each other always leading to head-butting. Sometimes the head butts were less than 15 yards away from me and I could hear the crash echo of the main and side canyons for several seconds. It was an incredibly intimate experience, just the sheep and me alone on a mountain canyon.
I finally had to give up and leave the sheep to their battles alone. I had drained my camera batteries and my stamina. My hands were like ice and my cold and dying batteries were incapable of shooting any more frames. I gave a brief nod to the sheep in thanks for allowing me into their world for a short while and retreated back to my truck and the warmth it provided.
I was very fortunate that day to observe and photograph this sheep behavior for a long period of time. I did not use a huge lens for these images, the photos were taken with a 200mm lens, only providing about a 4-power magnification.
It was a great day to be outside, reconnecting with wildlife. It was cold and windy for sure, but it helped recharge my conservation batteries for whatever challenges lay ahead.