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About Author: Amanda Lussier

Posts by Amanda Lussier

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Extreme Volunteerism: Bighorn Sheep Count 2015

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We watched for bighorn sheep—and this ewe watched us!

We were up before the sun in an effort to beat the heat. July temperatures in Anza Borrego Desert State Park can soar up to around 120 degrees Fahrenheit. We had a little more than an hour’s hike ahead of us from our campsite to our count site in Cougar Canyon. Once we loaded our packs with enough water and supplies to carry us through the day, we were on the trail.

You might be wondering who would be crazy enough to willingly go desert backpacking during the hottest part of the summer. Those were my thoughts, before I became part of this brigade of citizen scientists who volunteer Fourth of July weekend every year to do just that. Our all-girl squad of mammal keepers from the Safari Park (Charlie Hyde, Mandi Makie, and myself) has been “counting sheep” for the past several years at this site. The Safari Park’s mammal department includes another team of counters who have been involved with the program for over 20 years—Gloria Kendall, Eileen Neff, and Michelle Gaffney are seasoned professionals when it comes to spotting sheep!

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Bighorn sheep live in harsh, rugged terrain.

All of this hard work is an effort to conduct a census on the bighorn sheep population within Anza Borrego Desert State Park. These animal counts are critical in determining how effective recovery efforts are for this species.

With the count in its 45th year, the general trend has been an increase in the number of bighorn within the Peninsular Range. At one time numbers were as low as 400 animals. Although their population has climbed to around 955 animals at best, they are still extremely vulnerable due to habitat loss and fragmentation and disease from livestock.

While bighorn sheep can be seen year-round in the park, we get our most accurate counts from early to mid-summer. Not only does the hot weather drive the sheep down towards their watering holes, where volunteers are stationed nearby to count and identify the animals, but also enough time has elapsed since the lambing season that neonate mortality rates will not skew our numbers. This gives researchers the most realistic snapshot of the current bighorn sheep population in the park.

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We nicknamed this young male “Blondie,” and his female companion “Dark Ewe.”

Once the team has safely reached the observation site, we sit quietly for the next 10 hours scanning the hillsides for any sign of movement. After nearly an hour, Charlie signaled that she’d spotted sheep. We all looked directly across the canyon where two individuals, an ewe and a young ram, had been sitting in the shade watching us the entire time. Clearly unfazed, they continued to rest for several hours before moving down the hillside. We saw this pair, nicknamed “Blondie” and “the Dark Ewe,” several times over the next three days.

In years past, our team has been lucky enough to encounter a desert tortoise each time we’ve camped near Cougar Canyon.  As we hiked out on our last day in the park, I worried that we wouldn’t encounter this elusive animal. When the air temperature and the sand heat up, these reptiles hunker down in their burrows to stay cool, not emerging until early evening. We were running out of time.

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Bonus sighting: a big, beautiful desert tortoise!

Once we reached the last stretch of trail before our ascent into another canyon, I glanced to my right and spotted a large moving rock. Staring back at me was a big, beautiful desert tortoise! Unable to believe my eyes, I excitedly called to Mandi and Charlie to check it out. The tortoise had no obvious markings on it to suggest that it was an animal researchers were monitoring. It’s good to know that there is a tiny group of tortoises flourishing on their own in this inhospitable habitat. After we gave this little guy (or gal) a good once over so that we could share details of our encounter with park rangers, we were back on our sheep finding expedition.

Hours passed in the blistering heat on our final count day, and there were no sheep to be found. What a way to end our trip! We packed up and made our way back to camp, checking for tortoise burrows along the way, when a flash of movement caught my eye. Gracefully running across the valley wash was a herd of 11 bighorn sheep! Many of the individuals we had counted and nicknamed were in the group. There was “Dark Chocolate,” a beautiful ram who was over 11 years old; “Old Girl” and her two lady friends; as well as some other young males who were new to us. Altogether, we spotted 18 different bighorn sheep over the four-day weekend—a new best for our team.

With that incredible experience fresh in our minds, we ended our outdoor endurance test and headed back to the ranger station to tally the sheep numbers from all of the teams.

The overall total from all count sites was 253 bighorn sheep. This number fell short of what we’ve seen in the past few years, but it may be due to lack of volunteer sheep counters; not all observation areas were staffed.

Special thanks to the San Diego Zoo Safari Park Mammal Department for the support they offered this keeper team on our latest field excursion.

Amanda Lussier is a keeper at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park. Read her previous blog, Party Time: Leroy the Giraffe Turns One!

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Party Time: Leroy the Giraffe Turns One!

Safari Park keepers created a special celebration for a special giraffe.

Safari Park keepers threw a party for a special giraffe.

January 8, 2015 was a day for celebration at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park. After a long bout of illness and recovery, giraffe calf Leroy turned one year old! To celebrate the thriving “Birthday Boy,” we threw him a little party, complete with banana-apple-carrot cupcakes for him and chocolate cupcakes for the staff.

It’s hard to believe it’s already been a year since this very special giraffe calf was born to female Shani. Every one of our giraffes special to us, but this birthday milestone is cause for celebration because while he had a bit of a rough start, he’s doing great today! Although he spent the first few months of his life in and out of our Harter Veterinary Hospital receiving care for multiple health concerns, Leroy remains one of the most cheerful and easy-going giraffe I’ve ever met. He continues to receive excellent follow up care from our veterinary and keeper staff, which is helping him thrive.

After our little party, Leroy spent the rest of the afternoon doing what he loves most—eating acacia leaves from the hands of guests on the back of caravan safari trucks, cruising the exhibit with the rest of the giraffe nursery group, and getting special attention from the keepers who have been there with him every step of the way.

Party Prep: Giraffe treats on the left, keeper treats on the right

Party Prep: Giraffe treats on the left, keeper treats on the right

And in case you’re wondering, the other giraffes let Leroy have all the glory during the party, but were quick to clean up afterwards. Chuku, Leroy’s 20-year-old “auntie”, scarfed down what was left of the “cupcakes” shortly after the festivities ended!

Cheers to Leroy! We wish him a many more years of good health, great fun, and delicious leafy browse!

Amanda Lussier is a keeper at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park. Read her previous blog Giraffes: A Creche Full of Cuties!

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Giraffes: A Creche Full of Cuties!

Here's our creche of cuties!

Here’s our creche of cuties!

About every 18 months, something very exciting happens in the East African field enclosure at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park: we have newborn giraffes! When these big babies are born after a 15-month gestation period, they stand 6 feet (1.8 meters) tall and weigh up to 150 pounds (68 kilograms). This year we welcomed four more to our herd: two boys and two girls. Right now they range in age from 3 to 10 months and can still be seen hanging out together in their nursery group or creche. Giraffe herds are very fluid, and females often switch off as babysitters for each others’ calves. As these youngsters age, they start to head off on their own adventures, and we see their personalities begin to take shape.

Acacia holds her own with the adults.

Acacia holds her own with the adults.

Little Acacia is the most cautious of the calves and feels more comfortable when she has backup from the other kids. Within the last few weeks she’s started breaking out of her shell and becoming bolder. She will roadblock our keeper trucks, preventing us from going about our day, and begin giving us a car wash with her tongue! While the saliva doesn’t help improve visibility through our windshield much, we do appreciate the sentiment.

Kamali is daring. He walks right up to the Caravan Safari tour vehicles to eat the acacia leaves our guests hand-feed the giraffes. He also excites easily, which causes him to jump around and kick his legs out. This kid really knows how to have a good time!

Mchumba, who is the youngest of the bunch, still likes to stick close to her mom, 20-year-old Chuku, the matriarch of our herd. Her easygoing nature seems to be a family trait that she also shares with her older sister Chuchumia.

Kamali nibbles on a tasty twig.

Kamali nibbles on a tasty twig.

Leroy is a love. He is always seeking out attention from keepers, Caravan Safari guests, and his older giraffe brothers. When Leroy was a few weeks old, he suffered from multiple infections that led to him being hospitalized and hand-reared (see post From Milk to Solids for Young Giraffe). Because of this, he is extremely comfortable around people and serves as an amazing giraffe ambassador!

You can visit the East African giraffe herd during an Africa Tram tour, feed them from our Caravan Safari truck, or take in views of their 60-acre field enclosure from the Park’s Kilima Point.

Amanda Lussier is a keeper at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park.