Photographing bighorn sheep during the rut

November 19, 2012

Each November and December, bighorn sheep go through their rutting, or mating, season. For the wildlife photographer, this season is a short but active time filled with a lot of interaction, behaviors and photo opportunities.

When adventuring out on your first bighorn photo outing, take some time to observe the behaviors of the animals before taking the photos, and be prepared to spend time with the bighorn sheep from sunrise to late morning. The early morning light on a sunny or partially sunny morning will provide lovely warm tones on brown and tan bighorn coats. As the sun rises higher in the sky, the light on the animals will become more contrasty causing the highlights and shadows to get more harsh and therefore creating a less desirable photo.

Bighorn sheep, which are the state mammal of Colorado, are diurnal, meaning they are most active during they day. Sheep usually sleep high on rocky terrain where they feel safer from predators, and then come down during the day to feed. But during the rut, the sheep focus on one thing - mating. Therefore, they will be active lower and longer during the days as the males, called rams, battle each other in head butting competitions for up to 20 hours at a time. And the ewes (females) watch to mate with the winners.

The lambs of the previous spring may also be seen trying out their skills at head butting or just having fun running and jumping. All of this activity provides excellent photo opportunities to capture rut behavior.

Watch the action because the best photographs result from anticipating the action rather than capturing just a few frames of the tail end of the activity.

Between butting challenges, the rams follow the ewes to determine which ones are in heat. Photographing this behavior may result in some interesting shots of the flehmen response. This is when the rams will elevate their nose, curl their upper lip and cock their head to one side after picking up the scent of a female in heat.

Another great photo opportunity is to capture rams exhibiting the low-stretch behavior. By lowering and stretching their heads, they can show off the size of their horns. If this doesn't work to establish dominance, then the situation may escalate into a horn clash.

Every wildlife photographer has the goal to capture rams in battle. When two rams, usually of equal size, battle they will pull back a little before ramming at speeds of up to 20 mph. The best photographs will show the impact of the heads and horns cracking together.

But no collection of bighorn sheep photos wouldn't be complete without the standard sheep-on-a-rocky-cliff photo so look at the surroundings and capture the animals in their natural habitat. The tan coats of bighorn sheep blend very well into the rocky cliffs. The best way to spot bighorns is to look for the white rump, which will be a little more prominent against the landscape.

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