As biologist John Wehausen explained, one of the Sierra Bighorn Sheep’s chief protective measures is their incredible vision. That helped to make taping Sierra Bighorns one of the most challenging episodes of this production.
He theorizes that they take a regular visual inventory of their surroundings, checking what the visual landscape looks like every few moments, and then focusing on any changes with intense scrutiny, making sure that they have the upper hand in access to an escape route before once again feeling secure in their surroundings, or fleeing.
While this made approach challenging, this actually seemed to work in our favor once the sheep felt secure with our presence. The tactic was to approach slowly, letting the sheep see you from afar, and then watching to gauge their reaction as you moved closer. However, the method of employing this strategy might seem a little strange in the annals of wildlife photography.
That’s because this approach is not executed with camouflage or even particular stealth. We didn’t creep and crawl, attempting to become one with the rocks, as a Wolfgang Bayer or an Iain Douglas-Hamilton, famed for their African wildlife documentaries extraordinaire may have done.
Nor did we work from a blind, well, not a blind per se–we used a vehicle, a big white official-looking truck. Now I don’t think Wolfgang or Iain used this method in filming their most elusive quarry–perhaps they did, maybe that was their secret. But somehow I don’t think so…
As John pointed out, the sheep seem less concerned with a vehicle than they are with a bi-ped animal that moves slowly. He figures humans look more like something that might be moving like a predator than a vehicle does.
So, we would approach slowly in a truck. First “glassing” them at the bottom of the hill, where they were sure to have seen us. The key was to let them see us and make sure we didn’t restrict their avenue of escape. If too close, we would drive right by them slowly, to a distance at which the sheep felt safe with our presence. Once within range we would let the sheep become aware and secure with our presence, and their access to escape–which is basically straight up–then I could get close enough and tape with the use of an extreme telephoto lens. Of course the “Big White Blind” approach is only possible in a place like Pine Creek, where a road serves an old tungsten mine.
We used the “Big White Blind” approach due to constraints, and avoided grueling treks into the high country because on the occasions that we did trek with crew and equipment we were unsuccessful. This is not unusual because as John was apt to note, there had been more than one occasion where he would spend days on his own employing the best of his stealthy and well practiced tracking and stalking skills and never see a single sheep where he knew they were from all the evidence he would find, including a radio collar he was tracking–only to be greeted upon his exit by untrained tourists who would relate stories of the half-dozen magnificent rams they came upon standing right next to the trail, just up around the bend, nonchalantly watching the strange two-legged beasts gawk at them.
As you will see in In the Shadow of White Mountain, we employed the “Big White Blind” approach to some success. In Pine Creek, under the imposing shadow of Mt. Tom, the sheep were coming down to the winter range where the first tufts of new growth were starting to show at this lower elevation. This is the range that provides pregnant ewes and new kids important nutrition that they need after scratching by through the long winter. It is also the range that brings them into harm’s way from mountain lions, which as In the Shadow of White Mountain explains, may be the consequence of large-scale ecosystem change caused by human influence.
Photos courtesy of Frank Green and John Wehausen.