We struck gold one day at Point Reyes recently, when we watched a coyote dramatically dig a gopher out of its hole.
At first the coyote was sniffing around in that canine way, randomly checking out his favorite spots in the grassy field. We were on a broad ridge, a windy ridge, with the Pacific Ocean to our left and Drakes Bay to the right.
He was quite far away, ambling closer.
It was mid-afternoon when the road is fairly busy, we couldn’t just stop and watch. Fortunately there was a pause in traffic, and I was able to stop the car and quickly pull over; the berm was flat and wide and not too soft. There was a large electronic traffic sign on the roadside we could park in front of without impeding traffic or attracting attention.
Other cars whizzed by while we watched the cool and silent drama unfold.
Athena captured these photos from the car’s open window.
We marveled at his lustrous coat, so thick. It was January and he had on his winter coat. Beautiful bushy tail.
It is a sad thing to see wild mammals who have suffered from drought, starvation or injury; visible ribs, wavering gait, ghostly countenance.
This wild mammal was robust and confident.
We had only been watching about five minutes when he found something–he stood tense and alert, engaged. His nose was, literally, to the ground.
He dug so feverishly that soon his front legs were deep inside the hole. Digging, relentless and urgent digging.
The coyote was very aware of us, but had more important things on his mind. We stayed in the car and let him be.
He continued to dig…and then it all stopped. We couldn’t see at first what he was crouched over.
He was bent over something. Then he came out of the hole and lifted his head, gnawed and chomped. We saw a limp, muddy lump between his jaws.
Got a gopher.
It was covered with mud, very black mud, must’ve been deep in the burrow.
Canis latrans are primarily carnivorous and have a wide diet; small, burrowing mammals are one of their common prey. He had probably injured the gopher, trapped it.
The whole event lasted about two minutes.
Native American folklore calls coyote “the trickster.”
And there was something to this, because out of nowhere, just after he finished his last bite, a second coyote appeared.
It was obvious the two of them knew each other, there was no strain, tension or posturing.
As they left us and walked off, our gopher warrior was easily recognizable: he kept licking his chops, reliving his tasty snack.
Our Northern California spring days have been a joy. Come join me for a morning walk. It’s a little chilly so button up.
It is in the low Fahrenheit 30s every morning (-1C) and by mid-day reaches about 55F (13C). The sunshine’s warmth opens up the buds a little bit more each day.
The early spring flowers, like narcissus paper whites and daffodils, are out now, adding an occasional heady scent to the path.
The flowering quince is in bloom, another early spring flowering delight.
Deciduous oaks and ornamental gingkos are still leafless, but they have promising buds. We walk along a creek where there are many willow trees. It is a glorious sight to see so many willow branches covered with cottony catkins…pussy willows.
Our early morning walks reveal frost on the grass and rooftops, but as we reach the third and final mile, the grass has already become dewy and a popular spot for robins.
American robins are often thought of as spring harbingers in American culture; but that does not ring true for those of us who live in mild climates. Robins live here in northern California throughout the winter. I have seen them in large flocks of 100 a few times, but usually it’s flocks of 25-30.
Almost every day I am now hearing western bluebirds, even very early when it is still frosty cold.
Reptiles and amphibians are waking up too. Sometimes on a very warm day a tiny western fence lizard will be sunning on a rock. Only the tiny ones are out right now, they have less body to charge up than the adult lizards. Adults are still hibernating underground.
The spring calls of occasional frogs and toads ribbiting around the creeks can also be heard.
Some of the birds are changing their repertoire, singing their spring songs.
The oak titmouse is changing voices from its scratchy winter call into melodious tunes of spring.
Lately not a day goes by without the red-shouldered hawks proclaiming propriety with their piercing calls.
Last week we spotted one of my favorite spring arrivals in the backyard: the Allen’s hummingbird. They spend their winters in central Mexico and are now returning here to Northern California to breed. So far I have only seen the males; the females will come soon. The Allen’s are creating quite a stir for the year-round resident Anna’s hummingbirds, and the fierce battles have begun.
We came upon this Anna’s hummingbird feasting on the flowers of a bolted vegetable plant.
It’s a little too early for the riot of spring flowers and dancing butterflies, but it is a marvelous time to take in the bounties of the new spring season.
It was a chilly but sunny day last week when we had the fortune of spending time with a colony of elephant seals.
There are only about a dozen spots in the world where northern elephant seals breed, and Point Reyes in Northern California is one of them.
They spend most of their lives at sea, only coming to land for breeding.
At Point Reyes, the bulls (males) arrive in December and the cows (females) arrive in January.
The pups had recently been born and there was a bonanza of excitement on the day we visited, with this colony numbering over 120 individuals spread out across the short beach.
There were mostly mothers and pups, and a couple dozen bulls made their presence known.
There were orange barricades up, keeping people at a distance to protect the seals; and this sign, below, with the seal count. We were on the southwest side of Drakes Beach at the Kenneth C. Patrick Visitor Center.
Always with elephant seals, the first thing you are instantly aware of is their gargantuan size. The bulls are noticeably larger, but the cows are also formidably large.
Quick Facts from National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration:
Weight: 1,300 – 4,400 pounds (590-1,996 kg)
Length: 10-13 feet (3-4 m)
Adult male elephant seals have a large inflatable nose, or proboscis, that overhangs the lower lip resembling an elephant trunk, thus its name. The proboscis is his tool for amplifying sounds in female competitions.
Mirounga angustirostris nearly went extinct in the late 1800s from over-harvesting. Their blubber is oil-rich. They had been absent from Point Reyes for more than 150 years; then in the 1970s elephant seals returned to the Point Reyes beaches, and in 1981 a breeding pair was discovered.
They are protected now and the California population is continuing to grow at around 6% per year.
As of last week, the mothers were still nursing and the pups, in that newborn way, were demanding, screaming.
You can see in the two photos below they are dark black and wrinkled, having been recently born.
This pup, below front, has learned how to sit up.
The pups would scream and whimper for a few minutes, and then figure out how to get over to their mother for sustenance.
The mothers were laid out, soaking up the sunshine. I liked watching this mother, below, who was apparently hot. Every once in a while she languidly dug her front flipper into the sand and swept some cooling sand onto her back. You can see the morsels of sand on her back and the depression she has made in the sand on the right.
You can also see her whiskers in this photo (above). Living at sea for most of their days and foraging at great depths, elephant seals use these whiskers (aka vibrissae) to fish in complete darkness, sensing the location of prey.
Often a little itch was scratched with the flipper claws.
The bulls were fun to watch too. Occasionally one would awake and prop himself up, lifting the front of his body, and proclaiming his superiority with a territorial roar or two. There were rumblings and roars that always turned my head.
But every single time I watched, it was all more bluster than anything. They are so heavy and awkward on land, they would plop across the sand for about three steps and then collapse, lay back down and go to sleep.
I’ve read that males have brutal fights in their hierarchical society, but we were witnessing a different stage of life when there were few males and the females were busy with pups.
There was an overflow lagoon where a few males swam around. You can see a male in the photo below, just right of the center.
This male, below, hauled out of the lagoon and found himself a comfortable spot in the parking lot.
Crashing waves, brisk winds, briny sea aromas, and squawking gulls are all a thrill when we go to the beach on a winter day. Watching active elephant seals–roaring, nursing or squealing–and it all makes for an absolutely super day.
Northern California is in quite a storm stir this week and last, as many of you have probably seen on the news. Here’s a look at the winter bird migration before the storms began.
In mid-December we visited two wildlife refuges in the Sacramento Valley and it was fantastic, as always.
Since then, blustery storms have battered this area with heavy winds, toppling trees, relentless flooding, mudslides and broken levees. Much of the state has been devastated.
But let’s go back to December and take a look at a pleasant, mild day in the Sacramento Valley.
In addition to several bald eagles at the refuge, many other raptors greeted us that December day–plenty of red-tailed hawks, some red-shouldered hawks, and a few northern harriers.
Northern California, the Pacific Flyway. The migrating birds fly down from the continent’s northern regions and spend the winter in the Sacramento Valley, typically from November through February. Then they fly back north for breeding during the warm months.
The Pacific Flyway is shown on the map below in green, along North America’s west coast.
You can see from the map that there are three other flyways across the country/continent as well. Bird migrations occur all across the world.
For 30 years Athena and I have visited the Sacramento Valley every winter to observe the migration. Amazingly, it is always different.
At the Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge this time there was less water in the ponds, less geese; but the water levels of course have since dramatically changed with the onslaught of recent storms.
At the time they were experiencing an extreme drought, consequently many of the rice fields that attract the birds had had the water redirected into municipal water reservoirs.
Hard to imagine now, with rainstorms raging every day, that a few weeks ago we were in a severe drought.
The birds in biggest numbers on the Pacific Flyway are always geese and ducks.
The predominant goose species is snow geese (see first photo), but there are also many thousands of white-fronted geese (photo below).
There are thousands of ducks. We were happy this time to see the northern shovelers and green-winged teals in bright light, showing off their vibrant features. Often there is thick fog, but not that day.
Northern shovelers, so named for their shovel-shaped bills, were in abundance.
Green-winged teals, one of America’s most beautiful ducks, boast a variety of colors with emerald highlights.
Wading birds were predictably present including great blue herons, great and snowy egrets, black-necked stilts and white-faced ibis.
Often the ibis appear just black, but with a day of sunshine we had the full effect of their magically iridescent feathers. Green, maroon, brown. Their colors actually change as you watch them walk, depending on how the sun is striking.
When it comes to sporting colors, the ring-necked pheasant is a showstopper. There was a brief three seconds before he vanished in tall grass.
There are always plenty of songbirds here, too. Yellow-rumped warblers, scrub jays, and sparrows were prevalent, and the two special songbirds of the day were the western meadowlark and American pipit.
This photograph below shows bits of mud on the meadowlark’s bill where he or she had been probing. They seek wide open spaces of native grassland and agricultural fields for foraging.
American pipits, below, are in the songbird family, but I have never heard them sing. They come here to our mild climates for the winter in their nonbreeding plumage. They don’t sing until they go back home to the Arctic tundra and alpine meadows where they breed and nest.
Although you wouldn’t guess it by the plain and drab brown markings, this bird is a jewel for birders like us. Unlike sparrows, we don’t see a lot of the pipits.
At the Colusa National Wildlife Refuge about 20 minutes away, we were happy to find these black-crowned night herons in their usual place. They are more active at dusk; during the day they are nestled in bare trees, and few are moving.
On the auto route, this colony of black-crowned night herons doesn’t look like much from the car. I often see cars drive by without noticing the herons at all. To the untrained eye I suppose it looks like bits of trash in the weeds.
But a good pair of binoculars or a powerful camera lens bring this stately heron into better view.
We also had some fun sightings of river otters at the refuge that day.
These days I am feeling a bit like a river otter myself here in stormy northern California–slipping in the mud and constantly wet. Although more storms are expected, I’m hoping my fine pelt continues to protect me and that next Friday I’ll have entertaining stories to bark about.
Last week was another great adventure to Point Reyes, but this time we explored the Lighthouse area. Here are some of the sights we savored that day.
Called Outer Point Reyes, this part of the peninsula extends 13 miles into the Pacific Ocean.
Usually it is dense with fog–wet fog obliterating every view; and gusting, buffeting winds so strong that you can’t stand still even if you tried.
Often when you stand at the top of these steps (below), you can’t even see the lighthouse. But not that day.
The first magical moment came when we were still in the parking lot. We were at the back of our car donning extra layers of clothes.
Far from any humans in a nearly empty parking lot, out of the blue a middle-aged man walked up to us. He said we might be interested in the whales. He’d been watching them for quite some time…”lots of spouts” out there.
Binoculars in hand, we walked to the overlook with him, facing out at the glorious expanse of the Pacific Ocean. He pointed out the spouts.
It was the most amazing sight! Over two dozen whale spouts silently shooting out of the sea.
Many of the spouts were difficult to photograph because they were so far away. But this photo below shows several.
Soon after, he drove off in his sports car.
Point Reyes is a marine sanctuary where gray whales can safely travel in their migration south. (Eschrichtius robustus)
They are headed for Baja California in Mexico where they will mate and give birth, and then return to the Arctic when the weather warms.
Sometimes a fluke breached the water, visible through binoculars.
We watched the whales for nearly an hour. Also saw a peregrine falcon soaring around the lighthouse, several turkey vultures, a wren and a busy black phoebe.
Next we ventured over to Drakes Bay to see if the elephant seals were at the overlook near Chimney Rock.
On the way, few cars were on the road, so wildlife were close.
We noticed the land mammals had thicker coats for the winter.
Another pleasant surprise greeted us at the elephant seal overlook: about a half-dozen elephant seals were frolicking and vocalizing. They are often seen sleeping soundly in the warmth of the sun…can easily be mistaken for driftwood.
But these were young males having some play time. These individuals have not yet acquired their enlarged noses that resemble elephant snouts or proboscis.
Brown pelicans, western grebes, various species of ducks and kelp seaweed were also in the water.
Turkey vultures, songbirds, ravens and flickers flew overhead.
Before heading home, we were treated to one last delight.
On the main road there are numerous dairy farms. Acres of pasture and herds of cows, a few ranches with barns and houses.
We were driving past a herd of dairy cows when we spotted three tule elk bulls quietly grazing beside the cows. All mammals were fenced in and safe from traffic. There is a tule elk preserve miles away; apparently they are escapees. Renegades. And so majestic.
Every day in the wilderness is one of beauty. Fog and wind are beautiful…rainy days are too. But occasionally a really special day comes along with sunny skies, tranquil moments, and a dazzling array of wildlife…extraordinary beauty.
Beautiful day at Bodega Bay, a spot in northern California that I gravitate to several times a year. Our visit earlier this month was highlighted by my dear sister and brother-in-law joining Athena, her camera, and me.
Upon our arrival, fishing boats were traversing the marked channels and fog horns pierced through the briny, moist air.
There is a commercial fish-cleaning dock I like to go to early when the fishing activity is bustling. We can usually find opportunistic sea lions vying for scraps thrown in the water.
This day we found two sea lions hauled out on the dock of the bay. They were sleepy, intertwined.
Common on our west coast, California sea lions (Zalophus californianus) are classified as eared seals in the Otariidae family. They’re called eared seals because they have visible ear flaps; seals don’t have these. You can see the “ears” in the next two close-ups.
I’ve read they can turn the flaps downward while swimming and diving, so water doesn’t enter their ears. They have hearing function both in air and under water.
Eventually one sea lion went for a swim. This sea mammal weighs several hundred pounds, and yet they manage to slip into the water almost soundlessly.
But the quiet ended there when the docked sea lion began barking very loudly…and went on for about five minutes.
This sleepy harbor seal dozed through all the commotion.
The bay is lively with birds, too.
By now the winter birds have migrated here from colder climes. Marbled godwits, a shorebird, and surf scoters, a sea duck, were two species we were celebrating that day, as we do not see them in most other months of the year. By March or so they will be heading back north.
Here are the marbled godwits (below). They are distinctive for their long, bi-colored bill.
Surf scoters are eye-catching with the male’s bright-colored bill, white eyes and white markings. Found all along our west coast in winter, they are large ducks, males measure at 19 inches long (48 cm).
Other bird species around the bay included western grebes, a few common loons and many herons and egrets. This snowy egret, below, found delicacies in tide-soaked sea grass.
There is a small pond by the bay where a gregarious flock of yellow-rumped warblers popped around. We’re lucky they spend their winters here on the west coast.
A five-minute drive up from the bay is a Pacific Ocean overlook called Bodega Head that offers hiking and gorgeous ocean views. Whales can be spotted from up here too, but not until about January.
The ocean rocks showcased brown pelicans, western gulls, Brandt’s and double-crested cormorants. A friendly birder with a scope gave us a distant view of a common murre, as black oystercatchers called from the rocks.
On the west coast we have black oystercatchers with a black belly, red bill and red eye; whereas the east coast has the American oystercatcher, a white-bellied bird.
The tide was low so we had the added pleasure of spotting a few sea stars clinging to the sides of the rocks (below).
We ate our packed lunch and watched the birds, humans and sea mammals as they foraged for sea life.
Then, after hours at the coast, it was time to head home. Fog horns continued their rhythmic warnings as we reluctantly drove off.
Written by Jet Eliot.
Photos by Athena Alexander unless otherwise specified.
My morning walks this week have been blessedly cool and shrouded in fog…please join me.
In Northern California this time of year the nights have become longer and cooler, and fog lingers in our valley until about 9 a.m.
I love it like this. Droplets in the air and fog dripping from the leaves means moisture…a pleasant respite from the monthslong drought typical of our summers. It brings us hope for rainy months in the winter ahead.
The local deer, the black-tailed species, quietly graze in the hush of the fog. They are a sub-species of mule deer. (Odocoileus hemionus columbianus)
In the summer the wild turkeys were often under cover as they raised their vulnerable chicks. But now they’re out in the mornings in family flocks, feeding on the ground seeds.
We do have changing colored leaves on the west coast in autumn, though not as prominent as our American friends in the east.
Color comes out in the liquidambar trees, pyracantha and other berries, deciduous oaks and still-flowering ornamental gardens.
The California buckeye trees (Aesculus californica), an endemic and the only buckeye native to the state, are completely leafless already. For a month they have had no leaves, baring only their dangling poisonous seeds, also known as horse chestnuts.
On my walk I found a fallen buckeye and brought it home to crack open and show you.
Gradually the morning quietness perked up with the chatter of songbirds as the shrouded sunshine began its rise.
With the autumn weather new songbird migrants have arrived from the north, including the Oregon dark-eyed junco subspecies, coming to join the resident juncos. Junco hyemalis.
The clear, plaintive notes of a white-crowned sparrow cut through all the fog…but the loud and distinctive honking of the Canada Geese quickly drowned it out.
The geese congregate every morning in this field. As we walked closer, we witnessed smaller groups descending through the fog, seeing them long after hearing them.
Eventually the sun started to burn off the fog and a patch of blue sky peeked through here and there, until its light and warmth had pierced the heavy marine layer.
The sun brightened the garden colors and highlighted the friendliest scarecrow I have ever seen.
This time of year, chili peppers can be seen in many gardens.
This golden-crowned sparrow had a moment of glory when the sun brightened his namesake crown.
As our final steps brought us to the front door, an Anna’s hummingbird bid us adieu.
I went to Bodega Bay last week, a west coast fishing village in Northern California. The day began with fog and low cloud cover, as always; and by early afternoon the fog had lifted, the sun was shining.
A shallow inlet off the Pacific Ocean, the bay is about five miles (8 km) across.
There’s a small road that curves around to the back of the bay. On the way you pass the town’s lodge and restaurant. Below is the restaurant, and below that is the dock in back.
Driving along, you pass the small local grocer (Diekmann’s) where you can buy firewood and bait. Turn off the main road and follow it around past the marina and chowder shop, and you’ll find plenty of picturesque places to stop and view the bay.
The marine influence is most pronounced in the bay’s water levels. At low tide there’s a lot of mud, naturally. I’ve visited this village close to 50 times, and it always looks different because of the tides.
In December it is crab season, and you will see individual crabbers venture out into the mud at low tide in their wellies digging for crab.
But at this time of year, the crab season hasn’t yet started.
You can, however, spot an occasional crab along the mudflats, darting in and out of the mud holes.
We go to Bodega Bay for the birds…primarily shorebirds. It is located on the Pacific Flyway. Most migrating birds do not arrive until autumn, where they will stay for the winter. But some birds, like the marbled godwits in the two photos below, are early arrivals.
Ruddy turnstones (below) were a pleasant surprise to find on the dock. They, too, are a little early. Early birds.
Several harbor seals joined an animated flock of brown pelicans in a feeding frenzy, and occasionally a silvery fish popped out of the water.
Alfred Hitchcock came here for the birds, too, in 1962. “The Birds” was filmed here.
Our day trip to Point Reyes this week was another pure delight, a summer day on the coast. Fifty miles inland a hot and dry July day was forming, but our visit to the coast was one of fog and blessedly cool temperatures.
The fog was so thick it was actually billowing in clouds that blew across the road. The sky had a low cloud cover and sweeping skyscapes all day.
Summer at Point Reyes National Seashore, Northern California. Migrating winter ducks and geese have not yet arrived, and it’s too early to look for migrating whales. But there’s plenty of color and beauty on this windswept coastal paradise.
It was still too early and too cold for shorts and sandals, so most visitors hadn’t yet arrived…just a few dedicated hikers quietly making their way down the trail to the sea.
The local denizens of Abbotts Lagoon, however, were busy with their day.
Upon arrival we noticed the lupine shrubs no longer have the yellow blossoms we saw last month. This is a snap of June.
And this (below) is a snap from this week, July. As you can see, this month the native shrubs have just the pods, the flowers are spent.
Coastal chaparral was colorful on this day, enhanced by the overcast sky, and was fragrantly herbaceous with the moisture.
Everything seemed to be hushed by the fog, including these Canada Geese.
The low-lying marsh area down by the boardwalk didn’t have water this time of year, but it had a thicket of marsh plants–docket (brown) and coastal hedge-nettle (pink).
Predictably there are almost always one or two black-tailed deer down at the marsh, grazing.
And sure enough, we spotted this fawn without its mother, who soon went bounding off.
Insects in the summer are different from the other seasons, and one of the stalwarts of summer is this beetle. We see them on the trail where their shiny black backs stand out against the sand. They’re about the length of a paper clip.
As we neared the sea, the trail turned to sand. It was too cold for the dragonflies who frequent this part of the trail, but a brush rabbit soon dove under cover.
Then we arrived at the shore and crossed the short walking bridge, always worth a stop to see if any creatures are underneath.
In the past we have seen river otters here, nesting swallows, a pelican carcass, and lots of different wading birds. That day it was a great blue heron hunting…and with success.
Since the spring, the beach plants have been flowering and they are different flowers every month. This month it is the gumplants that are in full bloom.
Robustly growing in large patches across the sandy beach, gumplants are named for the gummy white resin that grows in the center of each yellow flower.
It was about a 45-minute walk back to the car, and then we were off to other parts of Point Reyes. I’ll tell you about that another time.
We were happy to spot this coyote as we drove slowly along the country road.
We also spotted a few female elk, aka cows, grazing. Point Reyes is the only National Park unit where tule elk can be found. A grassland elk found in just a few places in California, they live on a preserve in Point Reyes.
That day the cows were too far away to get a good photo, but here is a photo from another summer visit.
We see the elk every single visit on this road, Pierce Point Road. We look forward to seeing the elk next month, when the rutting (breeding) season typically begins.
There is much excitement when the bulls join up with the females. The males put on quite a show of territorial sparring with bugling and antler bashing. It lasts for a few months, so I’ll be sure to share the excitement with you.
Always a pleasure, my friends, to share Point Reyes with you.
Every spring and summer in northern California we welcome the arrival of the grazing sheep. Here’s a look at how a few hundred sheep are used for fire prevention.
Vineyards hire them to eat the weeds between the grape rows and to thin the grape leaves. Landowners use them to organically mow the tall grass, a fire hazard, and other vegetation.
Typically our rainy season ends in May or June and then we don’t have rain again until about November. During this time the grass turns brown.
The sheep mow the grass, chew off invasive weeds, provide manure fertilizer, and aerate the soil with their hooves. Unlike weed whackers or mowers, there is no fuel used and the only noise is lots of “baaas” and “maaas.”
These photos were taken from the edge of town last month, the ovines were here for three weeks.
I estimated the flock at 200-300, and it seemed they were all lambs and ewes.
The sheep were accompanied by one shepherd, a Peruvian man, and an Australian Shepherd dog named Lollie.
Since fire dangers have increased in California, grazing services have become more popular. Sheep, goats, even llamas and alpacas are seen. Here we had just sheep, called the Wooly Weeders.
There are more than 200 distinct breeds of sheep on this planet and breeding is ever-evolving. This flock is some derivation of the East Friesian Milk Sheep, the world’s highest producer of milk.
The Wooly Weeders owner tells the story that he originally had the sheep herd for their milk, he sold it for artisan cheeses. Then one day while they were near the Mondavi Vineyards, the sheep escaped their pen and started eating the Mondavi grass. And that began the business of hiring the sheep for grazing.
There are lightweight temporary wire fences that contain the sheep, electrified by two car batteries to keep the sheep in and predators out. Every 1-3 days the shepherd moved the fencing. Then he and the dog moved the flock to a new plot until all the grass was eaten.
The day they were all done, the shepherd collected and packed all the equipment (below).
You can see they’ve eaten all the tall grass and the bottoms of the shrubbery but not the unreachable green tops. This is an oak woodland, and fortunately they do not eat the oak trees.
Herding time was dramatic.
First the dog circled and re-circled the flock several times, following short one-word commands from the shepherd. In this photo the black dog is in the front doing her job.
As she circled the flock, the ruminants were forced to stand up and crowd together, and after about five minutes of this they became concentrated into a small space. Here the dog is in back on the left.
Once they were crowded into a herd, they ran in one direction, then back over where they just were. Back and forth, the herd zig-zagging over the same spot, led and dominated by the dog. Although it looked non-sensical and completely chaotic, there was a reason.
Stampeding over the same spot where they’ve been grazing for a day or two had a purpose: they were grinding their own manure into the ground.
Everything is dry here, so the dirt would get kicked up and a dusty tornado hovered over the flock.
Each section usually took 24-48 hours for the sheep to eat the grass. They ate voraciously.
Regardless of how steep the hill was or how rocky, the sheep mowed it all.
Sheep, like other ruminants, have jaws designed for chewing. You can see from the sheep skull below that they have front teeth on the lower jaw only. These teeth press against the gum of the upper jaw to tear off vegetation. Then the rear teeth grind the vegetation before it is swallowed.
The sheep were never quiet. They have many vocalizations and many tones. They bleat (“baaa”), grunt, and snort. I’ve read there is rumbling when males are present during breeding.
The bleats are contact communication, and very distinctive. One sounded exactly like Chewbacca from Star Wars. Tones were low and deep as well as high.
We watched this sheeply spectacle so long that we got to be pretty good at recognizing individual calls.
None of it was baaaaaad.
There were dozens of nursing lambs in the flock, and their “feed me” bleating sounds were more high-pitched and insistent. They were often calling out to their maaaaaaaaa.
After three weeks, the sheep had finished mowing the whole area. They were herded into a long livestock truck, loaded up and off they went.