Ouray, Colorado is known as being the “Little Switzerland” of America and this reputation helps to draw winter season tourists. This old Victorian town offers mineral hot springs, cozy ski lodge resorts and plenty of winter sports activities, which includes ice climbing, cross country skiing, snowshoe hiking and snowmobile trail riding. The setting of Ouray is as picturesque as can be, because this winter resort town is situated in a small valley that is surrounded by steep mountains, which resemble the European Alps.
The mountainous Ouray setting may cause a visitor to think that only a mountain goat could climb the steep slopes and this assumption is partially correct, because plenty of Rocky Mountain Bighorn Sheep frequent this area. The National Forests that surround Ouray are a bighorn sheep habitat. These wild animals have become accustomed to negotiating the human presence in the mountains that tower over Ouray, so it is fairly easy for a visitor to spot a few Rocky Mountain Bighorn when touring this area.
Bighorn Sheep are very adept at rock climbing and they can tackle vertical slopes that look impossible to other creatures, including humans. These herd animals have very good eyesight, so the chances are that they will see you long before you notice them. For this reason, patience or plain old dumb luck tends to create more viewing opportunities than attempting to track these animals down.
It is not good to approach any kind of wildlife, especially bighorn sheep, because a wild animal’s patience will grow thinner the closer you get. Bighorn are powerful animals that are well known for butting with their big horns, so if one gives you a cold look, then you are definitely too close for comfort. The old rule of thumb is to stay at least 25 yards away from herd animals and to stay at least 100 yards away from dangerous predators. By following this rule, the wildlife will be much happier and the viewing will be safer.
Bighorn Sheep know that they have an extreme advantage in mountainous terrain, so they have the luxury of being able to take the time to observe any other creature that approaches them near or far. These wild animals are naturally curious and they will stare at whatever presence is nearby for a lengthy time, before making their next move. Once a herd of bighorn figures out that a human is not a threat after endlessly staring from their high perches, they will usually carry on with whatever they were doing before being interrupted. For a photographer this behavior is like a blessing, because it provides just enough time to get the camera in action for a memorable still shot.
Concerning my own recent bighorn photography experience, getting the camera in action was not an option. It just happened to be the one solitary day that I forgot to bring my trusty old Nikon D-90 Camera when doing one of my regular drives north to a destination in Ridgway on the Million Dollar Highway (U.S. 550). I usually pack the camera, just in case I spot a bald eagle or something interesting along the way, but the thought of getting out of the house after being snowed in for a few of days was overwhelming. Just like a curse, the day of forgetfulness turned out to be a day of opportunity.
Just after entering the dangerous Red Mountain Pass section of the Million Dollar Highway near Ouray, it looked like a small elk jumped down off the rocky slope right onto the middle of the road about 30 yards ahead of my car. After taking a second look at the funny looking short stocky elk, I realized that it was really a large bighorn sheep that had just started growing new horns for the upcoming spring season. I was driving slow because of icy conditions anyway, so stopping to let the bighorn do its thing was no problem. I knew that where there is one, there is likely to be more, so I looked up at the solid rock wall to see the rest of the herd staring down at me. It was then that I realized that leaving the big camera at home truly was a curse.
The only item that I had for photographing the bighorn sheep was a smart phone that I had just recently purchased. This turned the situation into a real struggle, because I could not recognize the widgets or icons on the new display screen. After using some deductive reasoning, I finally got the camera function to work, just as the herd of bighorn were starting to finish the staring contest. I snapped as many shots as I could, with the hopes of a few photos turning out good enough to share, so my apologies if the smart phone photos are not quite up to high standards.
The entire bighorn smart phone photography episode took about five minutes and there were still no other cars on the road. The lack of traffic was due to an approaching blizzard, which was supposed to drop a few feet of snow within a couple hours, so the only concern was getting down to the lower elevations before the storm began. After the herd of bighorn moved down the steep rocky slope to a jumping off point, they stopped to stare once again and I noticed that the ones on the lead were yearlings with little tiny nubs for horns. I could tell that the herd of bighorn were patiently waiting for me to move on, so they could all cross the road to the box canyon on the other side, so I moved on. After waving goodbye, I started the final leg of my trip and left the bighorn staring at my rearview mirror.
For those who are prepared to brave the icy cold conditions in the high elevations when doing a wildlife photography mission, there are some good spots for staking out the local bighorn sheep around Ouray. There is a good observation perch at the roadside Bear Creek Trailhead on Highway 550, which is where the Bighorn crossed the road during my trip. The trails starting at the Ouray Amphitheater are another good choice. Of course, for those snowy winter days when there is no other traffic on the road, just drive real slow and let the curious bighorn sheep come to you!
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