Counting Sheep

by Callie Mack and Phil Roullard

What comes to your mind when you hear the phrase “Anza-Borrego Sheep Count”? A dry, seared landscape, in which even the big black ants hide from the merciless midday sun? Sweat dripping down your back and into your eyes? The shrill buzz of the cicadas, growing louder as the sun climbs into the sky? Sitting quietly for hours, drowsy from the heat?

Participants in the Annual Bighorn Sheep Count (usually held over the Fourth of July weekend) experience all of this, and many of us keep coming back for more – in our case, for over twenty years. The chance to observe desert bighorn sheep for hours at a time is well worth any discomfort – and the entire experience is a welcome escape from the outside world.

For us, a Sheep Count day begins with rising at the unholy hour of 4:15 AM. We park at the Lower Hellhole Canyon trailhead around 5:30 AM. It’s a 2 ½ mile trek to our site, best done in the comparative cool of early morning. Even at this hour, it’s a long, warm hike.

For over ten years we’ve counted at the Lower Hellhole site, so arriving is like coming home. We set up our spotting scope and then take out binoculars, notebook, trail mix and potato chips. We scan the hillsides, drink some water, graze on our snacks, drink more water. Mourning doves, quail and tanagers fly past, while woodpeckers and cactus wrens visit the ocotillos behind us. We might spot a desert iguana on a sunny rock, or a nearby canyon wren may sing its “waterfall” song for us. Rattlesnakes sometimes pay a visit, basking in the sun near our rock seats or seeking protection beneath the same huge boulders that shade us. We might spot a gray fox or a coyote across the canyon, picking its way among the tumbled rockfalls.

For hours, we scan the dry, boulder-strewn canyon walls and ridges as the unforgiving heat rises. It’s 95°, then 102°, then 110 ° F. Distant boulders, ocotillos and agave stalks on the ridgelines are momentarily mistaken for our elusive sheep. We sweat copiously, drink lots of water, discuss world affairs and trade bad jokes with our count partner Denise Zuranski. We grow a little drowsy in the heat. One of us stretches out for a nap or opens a book while the others keep watch. The only sound now is the song of the cicadas.

Then someone hisses, “Sheep!”

That single word galvanizes the counters as if an electrical charge has raced through us. All the heat and drowsiness and the hard rocks numbing our rear ends are forgotten as we scramble to carefully observe the bighorn, identifying the animals by sex and age, checking for radio collars and numbered ear tags, and recording what we’ve seen in as much detail as possible. We’re all energized by the same thrill as we watch these magnificent creatures moving with skill and grace over the rocks, apparently mindless of the brutal heat, so beautifully adapted to this environment.

It’s why we return, year after year.

The Anza-Borrego Desert Bighorn Sheep Count needs more volunteers.

If you’d like to share this unique experience, please contact Ranger Steve Bier at Steve.Bier@parks.ca.gov.
Especially needed are those who can backpack to their site, but all volunteers are welcome.