Whether it’s an actual rainbow or our river wildlife – from condors soaring high above to Desert Big Horn Sheep and wild horses slurping river water – these are images not soon forgotten.
You’ll instantly recognize our Desert Big Horn Sheep by their muscular body with chocolate brown fur. They have white fur around the muzzle, rump, and belly. Rams (males) have large curved horns, while females (ewes) have short horns with only slight curvature. They are the largest native animal in the park, with rams weighing up to 250 pounds.
From your launch point below Glen Canyon Dam, use binoculars and begin to scan cliffs and rock outcroppings along the right hand bank for Desert Big Horn Sheep. They might be hopping rock-to-rock more than 1,000 above the river on a cliff or down at the water’s edge for a drink. But wherever you find them, be respectful. They are a National Treasure!
As you paddle with the current down river, look left and you’ll soon see flat beach areas with plenty of grass, shrubs and other good eats. Here is where you’ll often see wild horses gazing – particularly in late afternoon. Do not attempt to go ashore to pet or disturb them in any way. If you remember nothing else, remember this: They Kick Hard.
As for our winged friends, according to the National Park Service, there are some 350 species to be seen. Some are seasonal – wintering birds are common – but many are year-round residents. Probably the two most dramatic birds are the California condor and Peregrine falcon. The California condor is one of the world’s largest and rarest birds, with a wingspan of 9- to 10-feet and weight of up to about 25 pounds. Just keep looking to your right, up above the 1,500 foot high cliff walls into the bright sky and near the rocky perches.
The Peregrine falcons are predators that feed on exclusively on other birds. Common prey includes pigeons, ducks, songbirds, and other falcons. You’ll see them soaring high in the sky – again, generally river right – as they search for prey. Once they find a target, they dive at their prey at incredibly high speeds of up to 200 mph … so if you see a flash, it was probably a Peregrine. They hit the wing of their prey to knock it out of the sky without harming the falcon. Interestingly, while diving, Peregrines use a special bone in their nostrils to guide airflow away from the nostrils, preventing the airflow from damaging their lungs.
The National Park Service reminds us that from 1970 until 1999, the Peregrine falcon was listed as an endangered species in the United States. The pesticide DDT caused the eggs of Peregrines and other birds of prey to develop very thin shells, so that they often broke before the chick hatched. By 1975, only 324 pairs of Peregrine falcons remained in the United States. Thanks to careful conservation efforts – and the banning of DDT – Peregrine populations have rebounded, and they are no longer considered an endangered species.
Look both river right and river left for countless waterfowl including ducks, coots, grebes and loons along with long-legged wading birds.
For additional information, visit the National Park Service (NPS) site.
Paddle quietly, speak softly and watch what happens.