Desert bighorn sheep – Part 2

The obvious feature of the desert bighorn sheep is its big horns.  Rams have the largest horns, which are curled and weigh up to 30 pounds (including the skull, according to Mark Jorgensen, in his book and slideshow, Desert Bighorn Sheep: Wilderness Icon*), and become especially important in dominance rituals* during mating season.

DSC_0259 Resting ram & annular rings)

DSC_0263 Resting ram (2)

The ewes have smaller, spike-like horns that help protect themselves from predators such as coyotes.

DSC_0244 Ram and ewe

DSC_0290 Desert bighorn ewes

Mark writes (page 73) that ewes use their horns to strike other ewes in competition for food and water, and that they also use their horns to expose the fleshy fruit of cactus, which is then picked out by their lips.

DSC_0140 Cactus chewed by bighorn sheep

Agua Caliente Regional Park was once occupied by residents that planted oleander for its durability, flowers, windbreak and privacy features.  Unfortunately, this non-native plant is toxic and one oleander leaf ingested by a bighorn sheep can be deadly (page 116).  Efforts are underway by the State of California to eradicate oleander from Agua Caliente County Park within the Anza-Borrego Desert State Park.  The plants were cut down and chemicals applied to the stumps, but last month we spotted an oleander regrowing at Agua Caliente site #80.

DSC_0068 Oleander poisonous to bighhorn sheep

Peninsular bighorn sheep were listed as an endangered species in 1998 and the California Department of Fish and Wildlife now monitors their recovery* by briefly capturing, testing, counting, radio-collaring and tagging sheep.

DSC_0301 Desert bighorn sheep close-up

While the sheep socialized, I imagined them “talking” to each other, but according to Mark, the lip curl (seen below) is actually the ram’s testing of the hormonal levels and receptivity of the ewe (page 77).

DSC_0303 Bighorn sheep lip curl

DSC_0302 Large horns on rams

Not only did the sheep appear contented, I was definitely contented and feelin’ groovy* with our special time together and am looking forward to the next meeting when our camping season in the desert resumes next fall.

DSC_0284 Contented ram

*This is a link to a YouTube video.

Desert bighorn sheep – Part 1

Ancestors of the desert bighorn sheep (Ovis canadensis nelsoni) once roamed the mountains and valleys of Iran, Afghanistan, China, Mongolia, and Siberia before crossing on ice and land bridges during interglacial periods across what is now the Bering Sea into the Western Hemisphere, says Marc Jorgensen* in his comprehensive book, Desert Bighorn Sheep: Wilderness Icon.  My first close-up encounter and photo shoot with the desert bighorn sheep occurred five years ago and is documented in my posts, “Peninsular Bighorn Sheep” and “Bighorn Sheep revisited.”  My second close encounter occurred last month and is seen below and in a following post.

Coming out of the restroom in Agua Caliente Regional Park in the Anza-Borrego Desert region, I spotted desert bighorn sheep on a nearby hill just above the campsites.  Their color and size blends in well with the landscape.

DSC_0163 Distant view desert bighorn sheep

This herd consisted of 14 sheep that often positioned themselves in different positions to look for danger such as mountain lions, coyotes, and humans that have been seen here.  I slowly and quietly hiked in their direction as they moved down the slope to the lush greenery around the campsites.

DSC_0168 Sheep coming down to eat

They first had a good look at me on the road just as they were about to cross into the campground and had to make a decision on proceeding to food or to safety.

DSC_0177_2 Decision time

I believe some recognized me from the previous encounter and others perceived I was not a threat, so they continued on toward their brunch.

DSC_0182 Crossing into campground

They enjoyed their picnic by the campsites…

DSC_0204 Campsite sheep picnic

until oblivious and noisy campers cut through the sites on their way to soak in the nearby spa and pools.*

DSC_0207 sheep wrapped up picnic

So the sheep crossed back to relax in their own “day use area”…

DSC_0211 Sheep on way to "day use" area

DSC_0223 Sheep in "day use" area

where they posed for me…

DSC_0251_2 Desert bighorn sheep

and then settled down to relax and sunbathe.

DSC_0237 Bighorn sheep group 2

 

DSC_0235 Ram smiling while sunbathing

I shared in the warmth and happiness of the moment and heard “Sunshine on my shoulders makes me happy“.*

*This is a link to a YouTube video.

Monkey business under the Hunger Moon

The Hunger Moon* was rising as we unhitched our Airstream Safari in the California desert, which marked the conclusion of the 15-day celebration of the Chinese New Year, the Year of the Monkey.*

DSC_0038 Hunger Moon 2016

This moon is also called the Snow Moon* because it usually occurs during the snowiest month of the year, but in San Diego, we just had the hottest February since records began in 1874.  Here in the desert, we experienced comfortably warm, sunny days, and cool, clear nights that were perfect for celebrating the Chinese Lantern Festival* as we did last year at this site, except this time, we suspended a large paper Chinese lantern with string attached to a long bamboo stick from our garden.

DSC_0049 Chinese Lantern Festival Full Moon

Evening breezes made low light photography of this large paper Chinese lantern challenging until I held on to it…

DSC_0079 Lantern festival celebrator

while our Chinese lucky lion* looked on and laughed (perhaps regarding the Year of the Monkey political predictions)!

DSC_0065 Chinese lantern festival lion

The Chinese New Year* is also known as the Spring Festival,* and this year, it felt like spring arrived early at our campsite, especially with freshly cut Freesia flowers that Larry brought from home.

DSC_0007 Spring Year of the Monkey

Larry also brought a pork and mushroom mixture that was placed in dumpling wrappers to make siu mai,* which were then steamed.

DSC_0121 Larry making siu mai

DSC_0131 Pork mushroom siu mai

Recent rain and warmer temperatures have brought new growth and flowers to Agua Caliente’s Moonlight Canyon flora.

DSC_0097 Moonlight Canyon

Swaths of red were seen across the desert due to prolific chuparosa, Justicia californica, blooms.

DSC_0106 Agua Caliente chuparosa

And a beautiful and fragrant Cattleya bloom greeted us upon arrival home and seemed to announce the arrival of spring!

DSC_0191 Cattleya (at home)

“Winter is gone, the mountains are clear, and water sparkles… Spring comes, birds sing, and flowers fragrant.” (A Chinese Spring Festival – New Year’s couplet,* Chun lian.)

*This is a link to a YouTube video.

Agua Caliente stars

Fasten your seat belts, its going to be a bumpy night* and a wild new year,” I thought as we returned to Agua Caliente at the beginning of the Mardi Gras season, to enjoy clear, cool nights under the desert stars and to discover new stars!  Howdy Doody was already celebrating* while sitting on the picnic table next to publication stars, Mardi Gras colors of purple (justice), gold (power), and green (faith), and behind the mask, a Buddha’s hand (fingered citron) symbolizing happiness, longevity and good fortune.

DSC_0021 Mardi Gras stars

Good fortune came to our early morning wildlife stars, first the white-winged doves, followed by Purple finches, as they feasted from wild bird seed held by our vintage, rustic feeder from home.

DSC_0115 House finch & rustic feeder

Our local roadrunner passed by, so we threw out some breadcrumbs, but the roadrunner disappeared, probably because a hungry, young coyote was lurking nearby and soon made its bold appearance.  (Its mother made her appearance last month, resulting in the permanent disappearance of a chihuahua!)

DSC_0028 Agua Caliente coyote

Driven by hunger, this coyote came into our campsite, while keeping an eye on us and our dogs!  (Larry held corgi Tasha while I crouched and photographed by the rear of our truck.)

DSC_0038_2 Coyote eating crumbs

While hiking, I came across a more natural food for coyotes, a 3-inch Coyote melon, Curcurbita palmata, which when ripe, yields seeds that have been found in coyote scat.

DSC_0060 Coyote melon

At the beginning of my hike, I saw a new sign warning of recent mountain lion activity.  The rangers told me that around Christmas, a bighorn sheep carcass was found with marks and covered with sand consistent with a mountain lion attack near the seep area of Moonlight Canyon Trail.  Cameras were set up around the carcass for four nights, which turned this puma into a poster star!

DSC50 Moonlight Canyon mountain lion

More wildlife drama occurred the following day at camp when Larry spotted a white-winged dove dangling by its foot attached to the top of a  20-25-foot Agave deserti dead flower stalk by entangling string.

DSC106 White-winged dove entangled

DSC107 White-winged dove & familyLarry notified Camp Host Dan and Ranger Melinda.  Dan quickly arrived in his utility cart, assessed the situation, and returned with appropriate tools, such as a saw, large lopping shears, chainsaw chaps, and needle nose scissors and tweezers.  Since the stalk had already bloomed and died, it was permissible to cut it down in order to rescue this bird.  Dan donned the chaps to protect from nearby thorns and sawed three quarters into the trunk, while I supported it with the reacher.  He then supported the trunk as I made the final cut with the lopping shears.  We rested the stalk on the utility cart and Dan folded back the dove’s wings and calmed it while I cut the many threads that were wrapped around the foot, toes and branch.  Photos were then taken and the dove was released and flew off to our delight.  Camp Host Dan saved this bird’s life and is a star in my eyes!

DSC111 Camp Host Dan & dove

Larry and I celebrated the season each evening by turning on a string of LED light bulbs that Larry had covered with Mixed Pepper Light Covers, which was wrapped around a wreath of homegrown red trumpet vine encircling enameled laser-cut steel in the shape of the sun – our star given to us by friends!

DSC101 Holiday wreath, Mardis Gras colors

A wild beginning of the new year, yes, but I think everything will be OK because here comes the sun!*

*This is a link to a YouTube video.

A desert homecoming

The “promising new site” mentioned a year ago in my article “Grazing and gazing at Agua Caliente” has become our desert home-away-from-home where we can set up camp and enjoy the desert in relative peace and quietness and hear the hum and chirping of hummingbirds* darting to our feeder or ravens circling and calling overhead.*

DSC_0265 Morning at Agua Caliente

One of the features of this site was a lush growth of Nerium oleander that provided beautiful flowers, windbreak and privacy that we cherish.

DSC_0095 Nerium oleander bloom

But, alas, a California State Park mandate required its removal because oleander is a non-native plant with toxic foliage that can have a negative impact on bighorn sheep that frequent the area (a temporary exemption was lifted on May 25, 2015).  “A single oleander leaf ingested by a bighorn sheep can cause death,” states former Anza-Borrego Desert State Park Superintendent, Mark C. Jorgensen, in his book, Desert Bighorn Sheep: Wilderness Icon, Sunbelt Publications, Inc., 2015, page 116.  So we were not surprised to find stumps instead of lush plants when we returned earlier this month…

DSC_0297 Oleander cut & poisoned

… and a lack of privacy (compare the photo below with those seen in my article noted above).

DSC_0261 Our site without oleander

Fortunately, we have very nice and friendly neighbors, so our celebration of the season and our return to the desert was not diminished!

DSC_0189 Holidays in the desert '15

Our day at Agua Caliente typically begins before the sun rises as ever-changing soft pastel colors of red, orange, and yellow bathe the nearby mountains.  The early morning is chilly, but Larry is already outside, enjoying this peaceful, magical moment as I crawl out of bed in a comfortable Airstream trailer kept toasty by a quiet and efficient Vornado AVH2 Whole Room Vortex Heater that can “heat an entire room without using intense heat and remain cool to the touch.”*  Larry hears me move about and comes to the door to take the dogs down their ramp for their morning walk.  (Corgis’ long backs make them prone to injury. Tasha has made a full recovery after her $6000 laminectomy for a ruptured spinal disc 2 years ago.)  I enjoy the moment by seeing and smelling freshly brewed coffee steam swirl about over the coffee filter as I listen to NPR’s Morning Edition, and then take time to savor the flavor of rich coffee and mellow out.*

DSC_0245 Early morning coffee

After morning chores (and eating homemade cookies and apple slices), I take the Nikon camera along for a hike.  I enjoy the textures of the desert…

DSC_0234 Desert textures

… and look for signs of wildlife, such as coyote scat…

DSC_0217 Fresh coyote scat

… and whatever else comes along…

DSC_0233 Ocotillo, cholla & barrel cactus

After a midday shower, I enjoy one of Larry’s delicious sandwiches, and sometimes a roadrunner* drops in.

DSC_0291 Roadrunner

The days are now short and it’s not long before the sun sets, the air chills and the splendor of a desert night sky reveals itself.*

DSC_0197 Under desert night sky

*This is a link to a YouTube video.