Ranger Kathryn's Arches

August 6, 2010

Peregrine, sheep, orography

Peregrine falcon -- file photo

A silent shadow passed over our heads and we both instinctively looked up. “Peregrine,” Bill announced, and our binoculars were lifted in unison to view the resplendent falcon that had just soared above us. We watched in awe as the bird spiraled upward slowly, slowly, until it was a thousand feet directly overhead — ready  to “stoop,” or drop on unsuspecting prey at 200 mph. It must not have seen anything worthy, as it drifted at great height to the north and soon disappeared. This bird was almost extirpated in the middle 20th century due to DDT toxicity, but has made a remarkable comeback. We are grateful that Canyonlands NP has a healthy number of breeding pairs, which Bill has been monitoring for decades.

Our stream crossing this morning had some quicksand spots, which were skillfully avoided. Sheep #938 is now our target; she is extremely wary and spooks easily. Bill’s antenna is silent. He can tell me exactly where he last saw her in March as well as last year, and mentions that she has never had a lamb with her. He’d like a visual on her today.

Away we go, bouncing in the government truck over rocks and across washes, to the next promontory. We’ll reward ourselves with a tasty, crunchy wedge of fresh cabbage each if we find her; we’ve already eaten half a bag of peanut M&Ms and that hasn’t helped the effort.

By now, each of the three mountain ranges surrounding Canyonlands is amassing its own cloud bank. [Orographic lifting — very cool!] Today’s skies are showy, playful, and variegated; it feels as if something may be brewing, but for now it looks benign. Bill’s antenna, however, picks up lightning crackles from far distances, so we know we have to stay on task and find that ewe.

file photo of bighorn ewe

Our efforts are finally rewarded at a stop further down the canyon. Crystal-clear beeps come in on her frequency, and even I can tell that she must be very near. As I reach for my binoculars to start scanning, two shapes move left in the canyon just in front of us. “There she is!” I happily announced, a little too loudly. The pair startles and takes off. Oh dear. I must learn to be silent in the tracking business. I apologize profusely to Bill, who shrugs it off, and we go hiking in the general direction of the animals’ flight.

We find them over the next ridge, which I choose to approach quietly and cautiously, and position ourselves on a couple of rocks to observe them for as long as they’ll allow. Their white muzzles jump out from a distance; Bill knows them so well, he can identify each by sight just by field markings. (To me, a newbie, all sheep look alike.) Sadly, no lamb is with #938. Maybe she is as wary of rams as she is of humans.

[To be continued…]

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