In wildlife photography we look for what could be called “Holy Grail” photos.
I think that phrase is over-used, but the fact remains. We look for specific types of behavioral scenes to photograph. In this case, the bighorn ram fight scene.
I’ve seen this combat several times over the years. It isn’t hard to observe it happening, one must simply keep trying to find it. The hard part is finding it in a situation that allows a decent photograph. It is rare to get a good look at this occurring. The trick of course is to have the right camera/lens combination in the right environment at the right time. More easily said than done.
There is a distinct pattern of behavior to look for when seeking this shot. There are also things you can do to prepare yourself for it when it does happen.
Most important to know is the fact that this behavior only occurs at a certain time of the year. The annual rut. In Colorado, the bighorn rut begins in October and runs through late December. The combat is more commonly found at the beginning of the rutting period. I seldom find two rams in combat in December. These guys want to get things sorted out early. There is mating to do and the sooner one establishes domination over the competition, the better chance of attracting the affections of the mating females.
When seeking this action, the first thing to look for are two equally mature adult rams hanging out in a herd of females or even roaming the hills together. While you may find younger rams with less developed horns trying to spar with an elder, the elder will normally ignore the younger ram. I think peer pressure is key to this. Two equally developed animals are in direct competition with one another to gain the rights to mate.
These two were near a herd of females and youngsters, but decidedly apart from the group. Notice the development of the horns on each animal. I’ve read that it takes about 10 years for a ram to grow a horn that is fully circular. In my estimate, these two are roughly the same age, with roughly the same head-gear, maybe 6-8 years old.
They hang out together for most of the morning and moved around together in and out of the herd but it became apparent that they needed to prove to the ladies and to each other, whose horn was better.
The action typically begins with the two contenders standing face-to-face together, with their heads side by side. Eye contact, visual comparison, body language. One of the animals will turn and walk about 15-20 feet away from the other and then turn back around to face the other animal at a gunfight distance. For a few moments they’ll stand there staring at one another and then instantly both will rear up on their hind legs and simultaneously lunge at one another with all their strength. The collision of the heads is powerful and makes a sound similar to two bowling balling colliding. Often, both animals will completely leave the ground when they collide. It’s powerful and deadly. One mistake in angle or body preparation could be fatal.
They will repeat this ritual combat action several times. I’ve seen it go on for up to twenty minutes. Sooner or later one of the animals will realize he isn’t getting the better of the other and will turn away and the combat ends. Afterwords, they act like they were best friends. Only now, one knows he gets first dibs on the females.
The photographic trick is to position yourself to capture the event if and when it occurs. You’ll need a good telephoto lens too. These guys don’t do this in the parking lot of Starbucks, they are more likely to be on a rock covered steep hillside 75 yards away. Another trick is to never distract them when you find the two similar rams together. If you do, they’ll head on over the hill and do it somewhere else. They are there for themselves, not four your photographic pleasure.