Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Bighorn Sheep in the Waterman Mountains

Yesterday, Randy and I took the dogs to the Waterman Mountains. They are part of the Ironwood National Monument and visible from our house, but I had only been there once before with Bob Beatson. The desert there seem harsher than even our own Tucson Mountain bajada. I wanted to do a bird count for the GBBC but I soon forgot about it because there seemed to be just Black-throated Sparrows, White-crowned Sparrows and Gila Woodpeckers.

Nichol's Turk's Head Cactus, Echinocactus horizonthalonius var. nicholii
 We were also looking for Turk's Head Cacti which Randy hadn't seen before, and he actually did spot the first one. We found all sizes, from little round balls to nearly knee-high  twisted columns. Buds were promising early flowers which I have yet to see.
 Judging from the healthy, not frost-damaged foliage of the Ironwood trees and the freshly sprouting ocotillo leaves, this area was less hit by the latest freeze than the Tucson Mountains. Yesterday around noon the temperature had probably climbed into the seventies. After hiking in about 2 miles, steadily uphill on a loose-gravel road that made walking a little awkward, we were hot and the dogs were thirsty.   

Desert bighorn sheep (Ovis canadensis nelsoni) in the Watermann Mountains
 When we were about to turn back our Coydog Frodo barked alarm. The object of his interest was high up on the slope above us: a small herd of Desert Bighorn Sheep. About eight of them, several rams with big horns, and some smaller animals with lighter horns, probably not females but young males(they form bachelor groups like deer). The were rather camouflaged. Without Frodo we would not have seen them at all. They moved effortlessly up the steep slope and they seemed sturdy and well-fed.

Big Ram (Watercolor by Margarethe Brummermann)
 After a stabilization in numbers from the sixties to the eighties, Desert Bighorn Sheep lost ground around here over the last 20 years. The Catalina Heard is probably completely extinct. It is thought that the drought weakened the animals and also destroyed the vegetation that they used for cover. The predation pressure of Mountain Lions under those changing conditions may have been too much. The Red Rock herd not far from the Waterman Mountains was decimated some years ago by a devastating eye disease. A developer had brought in domestic goats to clear vegetation of his land. They were carriers of the disease and infected the wild sheep to whom it proved deadly.

So we were very happy to see this healthy little group.  

Bighorn Sheep petroglyph
 For thousands of years Bighorn Sheep have been very important to the human inhabitants of our area,  not just as prey for hunters but also as inspiration for artists. They figure prominently in petroglyphs all over the Southwest and they are a big part of the imagery of Picture Rocks that was name-giving for our own little community northwest of Tucson.    

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