Fine-Tuning Your Desert Sight

This post is brought to you by a Roving Ranger in Borrego

Have you ever played the “one of these things is not like the other” game? Thanks to Sesame Street, it was big around my house growing up. It’s the game where you gather several objects together in a group and try to figure out which one of those objects doesn't belong. As a quick example, say we have some rubber boots, a rain coat, an umbrella and a sun visor. Which of these things is not like the others? If you chose the sun visor you’d be correct! Obviously, the sun visor is fair weather gear while the other items combined say that rain is on the way. So what does all this have to do with desert sight? I'm glad you asked.

I get asked a lot of questions in the course of roaming the desert backcountry. With over 600,000 acres of parkland to explore, many of those questions revolve around the best hikes to take in a day, or the quickest route to the best desert views or who serves the best food in town. Many of the visitors I meet have a limited amount of time to spend in the desert, so there's a lot of grab-and-go adventuring that takes place. By far the most common question I get is "Where can I see some sheep?" Probably the better question is not so much where, but how!

The first thing we have to do is train the brain. The desert is a vast open landscape that provides your brain with little in the way of obstacles. Coming from a city as most visitors do, your brain is used to large objects like buildings and vehicles breaking up the scenery. Sheep are large animals, so you'd think they would be easy to spot, but in the larger desert background they easily blend in. One way to train the brain is to look for people hiking. The shape of a person is something our brain can easily recognize and identify. This helps your brain move attention away from the larger landscape and focus in on something familiar.

The next thing we need to do is look for movement. There are lots of browns and grays in the desert. There are other colors too, but those are seasonal or mostly located near well-watered oases. Many of our desert animals – sheep included – use cryptic coloration to help them avoid being seen while they move about in the desert. The movements they make are almost always slight, and remember that the vast desert landscape is confusing to the brain. So the smaller the movement, the easier it is to remain hidden. Again we turn to people hiking to help look for movement. Focus on how the hiker’s movement changes the color (or shadow) of their surroundings as they pass by objects. No hikers? No problem. Take something you have with you, like a hat, your camera or your hiking partner, and place your object on the ground and walk away from it. Move around and away from the object and try and keep it or them in view. When you are far enough away that the object or person is hard to see, turn your back and count to ten. Now turn around!  Can you see me now?

Now it's time to use your senses! Your eyes are just a small part of your sensory toolkit that will help you find sheep and other wildlife in the vastness of the desert. Tune your ears to the desert frequency and let your brain get trained to its sound. I can't tell you how many times I've been alone in the back country and felt a slight breeze through the ocotillos, or been alerted to a tumbling stone off in the distance only to turn in that direction and be rewarded with an animal encounter. Sometimes it's just a feeling you get after having sat for a short time immersed in the surroundings, a sense that something else is nearby. I can't begin to describe it, I can only hope that you have a chance to experience the feeling for yourself when you come to visit.

Don't have the time to focus in on others, or give yourself time to acclimatize your mind? Then a sure-fire way to see sheep or any other wildlife in the desert is to turn your clock to Desert Time. Wildlife in the desert is most active in the early morning and late evening hours, and all through the night. Leave the daytime hiking to those who seek the shade of the oasis, or the sunlit views across the badlands. Get up early and head out on the trail by flashlight. Find a comfortable spot to sit and await the sunrise and let the daytime hikers bring the wildlife to you. Desert time is the perfect time to see and hear the desert in action. Far from the quiet of midday, the early morning and late evening hours are a wonderful time to enjoy a real desert wildlife experience. This is the best time to play “one of these things is not like the other” since the shadows cast by morning and evening sunlight will help your brain better distinguish desert features, and the colors will better help you pick out desert movement. Best of all, you'll get to experience some of the most beautiful sunrises and sunsets to be found anywhere in the state.

So again you ask, “Where are the Sheep?”  They are out among the hills and canyons doing what sheep do, blending in to Anza-Borrego's desert landscape. Take a stroll into the early morning backcountry, find a seat and use your desert sight. Look through the Ocotillo, over the cactus, around the boulders and past the horns… Horns!  One of these things is NOT like the others!

All photos by Ranger Steve.