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Beginner’s Guide to Watching Desert Bighorn Sheep in the Winter

Beginner’s Guide to Watching Desert Bighorn Sheep in the Winter

Everyone wants to see large animals like desert bighorn sheep in the wild.

But, how do you actually find them?

Sometimes, it is just pure luck. 

However, there are some desert bighorn sheep facts you should know before you go looking. 

I’m sharing my process of looking for and watching desert bighorn sheep in the wild.  This includes how to stay safe AND how to protect wildlife while you do.

Desert Bighorn Sheep Basic Facts

Just to make sure we’re talking about the same species, here are some facts:

  • Male bighorn sheep are called rams.
  • Female bighorn sheep are called ewes.
  • Both male and female bighorn sheep have horns.
  • Rams have very large, curved horns.
  • Ewes have smaller horns with some curve, but nowhere near the curve of a ram.
  • Horns are made of keratin (the same stuff as your fingernails).
  • Horns are NOT shed and regrown.
  • Fur is mostly light brown.
  • Their butt and nose have white fur.
  • Bighorn sheep are in the Bovidae Family (like cows and bison because they are cloven hooved).

Bighorn Ram
Bighorn Ram

Where to Find Desert Bighorn Sheep

For starters, you can find them in the desert.  Where you may ask?  There is no solid answer to this.  Desert Bighorn Sheep move depending on access to water and local predators.

Generally speaking, they like open rangeland near slopes.  The open rangeland provides food while the slopes provide some escape routes if they are in distress.

I find it helpful to look at range maps online or in the Peterson Field Guide to Mammals.  The range map will give you areas where you have the opportunity to see them.

I tend to use the guide’s range map in conjunction with google maps to find parks, forest service land, or BLM land.  Often, parks will have populations of Desert Bighorn Sheep because they offer some protection from hunting. 

But, How do I Actually See Them?

This requires quite a bit of patience.  Desert Bighorn Sheep blend into their environment.  First, their coats are light brown just like the soil.  Second, their movement is often minimal. 

While hiking, I keep an eye out for tracks and scat.  The bighorn sheep track is similar to a deer size, but more curved.  Their scat is often in oval-ish pellets.  If I begin to see tracks and scat, I often follow them slowly and carefully. 

If I’m driving around a state or national park, I try to drive slowly.  While looking, I focus on the light browns of the landscape. 

Either way, I often pause to make a sweeping look.  It can be hard to see movement when you’re moving as well.  Therefore, frequent pauses in my movement will sometimes alert me to movement around me.

Remember: Desert Bighorn Sheep are Wild

I cannot stress this enough.  Wild animals should be treated with respect.  You can keep your distance and still observe wild animals without alarming them. 

How far is far enough?

Once you spot bighorn sheep, immediately observe their behavior.  Do they see you?  Are they running away?  Are they still eating or laying down?

If they are still laying down and eating, you may be able to go a little closer.  HOWEVER, please base your movement on the obvious comfort of the animal.  If they get up in a rush, you may be forcing them to expend energy that they might not have.  Be curious, but cautious.

If you find them eating and looking up occasionally, wait for the look up to take the picture.  They are not a dog sitting for your family portrait.  Let them eat and wait to take the photo until they look up naturally.

A Desert Bighorn Sheep Story

Nature journal telling the story of finding desert bighorn sheep in the winter
The Journal Entry

Finding Bighorn Sheep

After about a month of looking, I found them.  Well, to be specific, I saw five rams laying down and basking in the winter sun. 

My partner, Karma, and I drove around the desert and finally spotted them.  We parked and noticed they were a good distance away. 

I got out and climbed onto the roof of the van to get a better view.  With my camera, I could see the five rams laying down in rolling rangeland.  I saw lots of creosote, Mormon tea, and a few other desert shrubs around them.  The wind blasted me on the roof.  And, the sun warmed me between gusts.

Desert Bighorn Sheep Eating

One of the rams stood up.  I always find it interesting to watch them stand.  The bighorn sheep stands by getting up their hind legs first.  Then, their front rises as if a human stands from a kneeling position. 

He wandered into a ditch and began the slow process of eating.  Another followed.  Then, a third. 

As they did not seem bothered by my presence, I moved a bit closer on a rock near the van where I could see into the ditch.

The fourth bighorn sheep ram stood up and joined the others in eating.  I watched the fifth stay resting in the sun with his eyes partially closed.

I kept watching, snapping pictures whenever they looked up from their feeding. 

Eventually, the fifth stood up and began eating as well.  He had the biggest horns.  His horns had chips in them from fighting. 

They Spot Me…

I was definitely wearing bright purple and blue.  I stood out on in the desert landscape. 

The ram with the largest horns looked up from his eating and I could tell he saw me.  He paused his chewing and watched.  A distance of roughly 150 feet separated us.  After a solid pause, he started chewing again while still watching me.

Then, he bent down and kept eating.

The five sheep slowly ate and walked a little closer.  I had Karma spot for me to make sure they weren’t getting super close while I looked through the camera.

At one point, the ram with the largest horns stood up on a woody plant and began eating the mistletoe.  He also seemed to be using it to scratch his head.

This cycle of pleasant eating a glancing up at me continued.  As they came closer, I slid further away, closer to the van. 

While I watched one of the younger rams, the older ram snuck up closer.  I snapped a few photos and retreated slowly, yielding the space to him. 

As we moved, they realized they had gotten close as well and they moved further away.

A Note on Ethics

As Karma and I turned the van around and went to leave, a truck pulled up.  Another photographer got out and started whistling to the desert bighorn sheep. 

I used my camera through the window to look at the bighorn sheep.  Their eyes had become more alert and wider.  They started moving faster with less lazy eating habits.    

Then he clicked his teeth and they ran toward him to cross the road.  They had to run to get away from him. 

Please, don’t be that guy.

Bighorn Sheep are animals just like us and no one likes to be whistled at while you’re trying to eat.

A Note on Nature Journaling

There are so many ways to make a nature journal. I shift my style all the time. The important thing is to do what makes you happy while you record your time in nature. Want to make it a habit? Check out my post for 5 Tips to Make Nature Journaling a Habit.