Bighorn Sheep revisited

Agua Caliente lies in the Anza-Borrego Desert at the eastern end of Vallecito Valley at the foot of the Tierra Blanca Mountains in Southern California where seismic activity created a spur of the Elsinore fault enabling water to come to the surface, which supports lush plant life and a wide variety of wildlife including the Bighorn Sheep.  Minerals come up in the hot springs forming mounds of natural salt licks.


Bighorn sheep are on the federal list of endangered species and seem to be making a comeback in this area.  An Agua Caliente County Park Ranger said there are about 13 of them here, so I was excited to have my first close encounter when I took a hike during our last camping trip and spotted four of them,


or more accurately, they spotted me.  They prefer to graze on rocky ridges and slopes where they can spot and escape from predators.

I stopped in my tracks and quietly prepared my camera and spent the next forty minutes in their world.  We saw eye to eye.


As long as I moved slowly and peacefully, they seemed comfortable in my presence.


They came down to feed,


and smile.


Poet, artist, and author Marshal South, along with his family, lived on Ghost Mountain for years before they spotted a great ram while hiking near here.  Marshal reported this experience in his article, Desert Refuge 41, December, 1944 issue of Desert Magazine:

As the dark body broke from the fringe of brush and leaped upon the lower rocks of a precipitous hillside not 30 yards distant, we saw that it was a great ram… a monarch among sheep.  In that flash instant in which poised upon a boulder, he glanced back at us before starting upward; he was a sight to stop the heartbeat… he halted, appraising us.  Then he started up, bounding swiftly up the almost perpendicular ridge with a sure footed skill that gave a deceptive illusion of leisurely ease… he reached the crest.  Here, silhouetted against the hard blue of the sky, the tall sharp line of a dry mescal pole rising beside him like a lifted standard he paused again.  Silence held the desert – and us – as for perhaps 20 seconds he stood outlined against space: A creature of freedom, gazing out across the rocks and ranges of his homeland in whose beetling cliffs and hidden canyons still some trace of dwindling freedom lingers.  Then he was gone.  The skyline was empty, and our hearts came back slowly to normal beating.

(All 102 articles and poems written by Marshal South for Desert Magazine from 1939 to 1948 can be read in Marshal South and the Ghost Mountain Chronicles: An Experiment in Primitive Living, 2005, Edited and with a Foreword by Diana Lindsay and Introduction by Rider and Lucile South, Sunbelt Publications, San Diego, CA.)


Peninsular Bighorn Sheep

I was lucky to have my Nikon D40 camera on hand as I took a hike on one of Agua Caliente County Park’s many trails when I had my first glimpse and extended photo session with Peninsular Bighorn sheep during our last camping trip here.  Up until this trip, we have never seen firsthand the famous Bighorn sheep of the Anza-Borrego Desert.  (“Borrego” is Spanish for lamb or sheep.)  “Bighorn sheep tend to keep a safe distance from human activity, but sometimes seem possessed of a kind of curiosity about humans,” writes Jerry Schad in his Afoot & Afield in San Diego County, 3rd edition, Wilderness Press, 1998, page 13.


Peninsular Bighorn Sheep, Ovis canadensis cremnobates, live in the Peninsular Mountain Ranges of California and Baja California.  Wikipedia states that Bighorn sheep originally crossed to North America over the Bering land bridge from Siberia during the Pleistocene (about 750,00 years ago).  Bighorn sheep population once peaked in the millions, but decreased to several thousand by 1900.  Threats to this endangered species include drought, disease, mountain lions, coyotes, feral cattle, off-road vehicles, and reductions in their natural habitat by encroachments of “civilization” (golf courses and housing developments).  Bighorn sheep prefer steep rocky slopes where they can graze on plants while avoiding predators.

After I spotted the first one, I walked ahead very slowly, quietly, gently with camera ready and heard above me hoof-steps and rocks moving and saw an ewe gazing down at me.  It was love at first sight.


This pregnant ewe accepted my peaceful company and grazed on plants.  “Favorite food is jojoba, mesquite, white ratany, bee sage, desert agave, and barrel cactus,” writes Diana Lindsay in her book Anza-Borrego A to Z: People, Places, and Things, Sunbelt Publications, 2001.


She grazed and gazed.


Other sheep gradually accepted me, while this ram came down with a clattering noise of sliding rocks to investigate.


An older and larger ram kept watch as a younger ram and ewes grazed towards me.


These were very special, magical moments with the great ram…


and pregnant ewe…


After 40 minutes, we said our gentle goodbyes and I walked ahead with a warm glow and beautiful memories.


Such beautiful and precarious creatures… may we be good shepherds to all of nature.

Basking in the desert sun

While our friends 50 miles north of us in Borrego Springs were experiencing cold, cloudy weather with rain during the day and sleet at night, we were enjoying the sun and rainbows during our return to Agua Caliente County Park on our first trip of the new year.


Our Safari trailer also seemed to enjoy basking in the warm sun in preparation to brave the cool nights that required a small space heater that ran continuously throughout the night at this full hookup campsite.


It’s quite peaceful and relaxing here. People like to sit and take in the beautiful vista views.  I saw some people sitting on a vintage art deco cement bench on the side of a nearby desert road.  From a distance, it looked liked they were waiting for a bus.  But as I got closer, it looked like they were hitchhiking.  Perhaps their car had tire problems or maybe they were trying to thumb their way to warmer climes.


It turned out that our friends Rich, Eleanor and Emma came down to visit while sitting and hiking in the sun.


The sun brings out such happiness!


Eleanor and Larry decided to spend the afternoon in camp chatting and sharing notes, while I joined Rich and Emma on a hike near the primitive Mountain Palm Springs campground.  This pleasant hike up a rocky arroyo led to Palm Bowl, site of 100 or so palms.


Emma, Zoe the cat, and I looked on as Rich stood on the edge of a rocky precipice to take his photo of 100 palms seen in his “Last days in Anza-Borrego” post.


We took our time and savored the sights and the sun.  Emma stopped here and there to examine mica particles glistening in a small creek and gently caressed the spines of an ocotillo.  “I’m petting them,” she quietly said to me, “Sometimes I talk to plants.”


We returned to camp with warm memories of a wonderful hike and spotted Eleanor and Larry happily chatting away in camp chairs positioned to catch the last rays of the sun just before it disappeared behind a nearby mountain ridge, bringing quickly lowering temperatures.

In my next post I’ll share with you my very special, intimate 40 minutes spent taking close-up photos of four Bighorn sheep that I came across while hiking the next day in Agua Caliente County Park… such magnificence!