Ranger Kathryn's Arches

October 10, 2011

Picking up poop pellets

— Continued from previous post –

Oh, see how shiny and dark and plump these are? Still tacky enough to have sand stick to them? That means they are fresh. (Ovis canadensis)

Lots of things leave small dark pellets in the desert; rabbits and mule deer come to mind. Bill’s search, however, was for the leavings of Ovis canadensis — desert bighorn sheep. One could walk purposefully around in places they hang out and look for droppings, or one could find an individual and trail it until it defecated and then go pick up the necessary pellets. The latter is more reliable.

We had followed the radio-collared beeps as far as we could, and were in a canyon with semi-circular walls; the only place she could go is straight up. Pulling out our binocs, we settled onto the rock for some good elbows-on-knees scanning. “How high up should I be looking?” “Probably pretty low.” We each started on one edge.

Eight pellets go into the envelope.

I must say, it feels like looking for needles in haystacks. The sheep are the same color as their surroundings and it is only movement that gives them away to beginners. Bill could probably find them by their nostrils if they’re bedded down, but I need the whole animal, in motion. Which is what appeared in my field of vision after only five minutes of searching. NINE of them! Six ewes (led by Mrs Radio Collar) and three amusing lambs decorated the cliff.

No guardrails. No shoulders. Hundreds of feet straight down. (Shafer Trail, Canyonlands NP)

Our mission almost accomplished, Bill found and collected the necessary specimens and we made it back to the truck just as a cloudburst dampened everything, including the scary switchbacks ascending to the canyon rim.

Next time you are asked if you want to come along, try answering in the affirmative. I’m so glad I did.

Red-Spotted Toad (Bufo punctatus) found in a wash

Dinosaur bone! Embedded in sandstone on Shafer Trail.

August 19, 2010

This time, a ram

Filed under: Uncategorized — Kathryn Colestock-Burke @ 7:41 am
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Radio-collared Sheep #410, our quarry for the day. Pushed the zoom to 40x and look what I got!

#410, a six-year-old ram, was eluding us. There were beeps coming across the receiver on Tuesday as we spent the day criss-crossing the mesa tops looking for signals on Bill’s radio-collared bighorn sheep, but he couldn’t pin this one down. It gave confusing location clues, and if it were across the canyon we had no choice but to drive many miles on rocky ledgy roads AROUND the head of the canyon to try to get to the other side and pinpoint it. Then it would fall silent. No sheep sightings on Tuesday; we’d look again Wednesday.

Tracking bighorns isn’t easy, and it is time-intensive. They are excellent at hiding out, tucking under ledges where the line-of-sight signal won’t be picked up, meandering into another drainage. Ultimately, they’ll all get found, sometimes later rather than sooner.

We started Wednesday gazing through binoculars at a pictograph panel that Bill had found only because one of his sheep had bedded down right below it. While waiting for the collars to turn on (only eight hours per day of signal, to save battery power) we drove to another that my Prius would never be able to access — both of these from centuries or millennia B.C.  Rock art moves my soul; I sense a connection with whomever painted or pecked it. It is found everywhere down here.

The monsoons are excellent this year. Green is everywhere!

As we went from canyon rim to canyon rim, holding up the antenna and receiver and hoping to hear beeps, Bill spied a new arch in a remote section of BLM land. It was hardly taller than me, and maybe ten feet wide; we took pics and left it Unnamed.

Storm clouds were thickening to the south and west. Lightning is not your friend on any mesa, but least of all when carrying a lightning rod, so we hurried to find this ram. Bill finally homed in on it in a side drainage off of Spring Canyon, just as the electrical storm began in earnest. Back to the truck we hastened; at least we knew where he was. Wind, dust, and rain swirled all around us for the next hour.

The ultimate "Where's Waldo" is spotting a sheep in this habitat

As the remaining gruff rumbles of thunder moved off to the northeast, we took up positions on the cliff top with our binocs. It was now time to locate the needle in the haystack. Check this photograph of the boulder field. Now imagine it is your job to find a perfectly-camouflaged animal, sitting statue-like, not wanting to be sighted. Bill can do it — sometimes from just a horn poking out from behind a rock. I sure can’t. You can guess who sighted ram #410.

Good day, a good day. Ancient artwork, monsoon, subsequent waterfalls, a ram… and wilderness. A very good day.

I made it easy for you. I centered the ram. 10x zoom.

August 5, 2010

Desert Bighorn telemetry

Bill Sloan with his ever-present antenna

“There she is.” The yellow receiver spat out different types of static, but a regular beep now punctuated the fuzziness. Radio-collared bighorn sheep #538 was nearby; her VHF frequency was being picked up and she had to be within a line of sight. Walking intently across the rocky slopes, stopping on high points from time to time to hold up his antenna and listen, Bill related to me from memory her past movements, preferred territory, and reproductive history. Within the hour he had tracked her to a ledgy outcropping where our binoculars revealed she was with her lamb and five other animals — a healthy group for Canyonlands NP. Making ourselves comfortable on the rock, we spent another hour watching and documenting behaviors and interactions.

Desert bighorn ram (courtesy Google images)

Grateful to be in the remotest areas of the park, I was even more grateful to be there with a guide who has roamed these canyons and drainages for so many decades that he could do it blindfolded. Bill Sloan, wildlife biologist, designed this telemetry system nearly thirty years ago and has been refining and improving it ever since. He calls himself “the most blessed man on earth,” and rightly so; his work takes him to inarguably the most beautiful, rugged, wild places in the west. From Arizona to Montana, California to Colorado, he is THE bighorn sheep expert.

Long-Nosed Leopard Lizard -- my second-favorite lizard. Beautiful!

A solitary man, Bill spends his days following sheep and peregrine falcons through tracts of land that few other humans have experienced. He walks lightly, intentionally, respectfully across the desert, aware of every nuance of the natural world. Each plant I asked about, he knew by name. The mysteries of rock layers were explained to me as he traced the meanderings of whichever creek lay beneath us. When a Long-Nosed Leopard Lizard appeared, he froze, as did I; we earned ten precious minutes with this skittish creature, and as Bill described leopard lizards’ ways to me he earned my unflagging respect as one who knows his world and its occupants.

There are wonderful benefits to his lifestyle. Never having had a TV or a cell phone, Bill reads voraciously, quotes Thoreau passionately. Eschewing a bed in favor of sleeping on the ground, he favors a minimalist’s existence and the finer delicacies of canned tuna, yesterday’s brown rice, or a fresh cabbage. He can tell you what the weather is going to do, how to locate the nearest waterfall, and where to find a collection of planets in tonight’s sky. The cohesiveness of his lifestyle is endearing, and I get the feeling that he and John Muir, were John alive, would be inseparable friends.

Half the adventure is just getting to the sheep habitat

We observe the sheep, watching the ewes nurse their lambs; the group finds a shady spot and settles down for an afternoon nap. I lie back on the sandstone, thinking that sheep are very smart. Seven minutes later, refreshed, I’m back on binocular duty.

Large clouds are beginning to gather over the Abajo Mountains to the south, as the earth’s surface heats up. The National Weather Service issued an unusual multi-day flash flood watch instead of an afternoon-only one, so we stay alert. Occasional rumbles of thunder remind us of our vulnerability. We hop in the truck and follow the remnants of uranium mining roads from the early 50s across the canyon country.

Bill’s sense of direction is uncanny, and he needs no map to navigate the hundreds of miles of unmarked backcountry two-tracks. He’d like a visual on another ewe, so we head toward where she was last seen in March. At each high point, Bill holds his antenna up and scans the frequencies for a signal. Nothing. She could be down behind a ridge, or even just below us, but we can’t pick her up unless her collar is in a line of sight.

The sun is sinking as we walk out to a point and plop down to watch the sky color itself yellow, gold, bronze, orange, bittersweet, and finally the deep red of a smithy’s furnace. Canyon bats erratically swoop, rise, and dip, scooping insects into their mouths from their wing or tail membranes. A lone cricket begins to chirp.

I’m caked with sweat and sunscreen, hungry, tired, stinky… and deliriously happy. I can’t imagine a place I’d rather be. Wilderness feels like home to me.

Too beautiful for words

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