Tuesday, November 20, 2012


Any birder worth his or her salt knows that there are three ptarmigan species: Rock, Willow and White-tailed. To observe the first two species requires a trip to Alaska or the northern sections of the Canadian Provinces. The third species, while also found in Alaska and northwestern Canada, is found at high elevations in the Continental U.S.  While more readily accessible, geographically speaking, White-tailed Ptarmigan, like all ptarmigan, are frustratingly difficult to observe due to having highly cryptic plumage that seamlessly blends them with their environment.
Birders from all over the world search for White-tailed Ptarmigan in Rocky Mountain National Park where this species is frequently seen. However, “frequently” does not translate into “easily” as many a birder will attest. In the summer months White-tailed Ptarmigan sport grayish-to-brown speckled plumage that helps them to nearly disappear among lichen covered rocks in alpine meadows where they are permanent residents. In winter, their plumage molts into mostly white, an advantageous camouflage in its snow covered meadow habitat.

winter/summer White-tailed Ptarmigan plumages
White-tailed Ptarmigan range map
Since we steadfastly now avoid areas that are snow covered, we search the Rockies for ptarmigan in spring, summer or early fall. And while we frequent the Rockies every year, it isn’t every year that we happen to find ptarmigan. It’s not that we don’t know where to look. Or try to look. But, like seeking a needle in a haystack, some luck is also required. Lots of it.
So far during our 2012 visit we had come up empty while checking our usual ptarmigan haunts along Trail Ridge Road. These are the same places we’ve visited since the 1990's. Not until 2003 did we find ptarmigan, the first and last year we've seen any. It seemed that we would be ptarmigan-less for another year but our luck finally changed as we finished up a mid-afternoon hike at the Tundra Communities Trailhead. While chasing after a small flock of birds (they turned out to be American Pipits), movement down one of the slopes caught Tom's eye. It could only mean one thing - ptarmigan! Sure enough, an adult White-tailed Ptarmigan hen with six young were spread out, feeding slowly along a rock strewn slope, barely perceptible to the naked eye. Oh what luck!

find the ptarmigan
six of the seven

waiting patiently - hen is on a rock checking me out
clicking away at ptarmigan
We watched for several minutes before Tom plotted an intercept point. He slowly but deliberately worked his way down slope to where he thought the birds might venture past  and settled onto a low rock where he waited. Patiently. The covey finally made its way toward his location and in about ten minutes time, began to pass on either side. So close were they that one of the young approached to check out his boot laces. Several times he heard the hen utter barely audible clicking and chucking sounds as she guided her brood, always watching for danger (mainly from predators in the sky, like a Prairie Falcon on the hunt).

ptarmigan hen
youngsters hunkered down
young inquisitive ptarmigan
Ptarmigan tend to be very trusting. They don’t encounter humans very often and these birds had not yet learned a fear of people. Nearby road traffic obviously had little effect either. As they moved past his location he breathlessly observed and photographed. After the group had moved far enough away, and when he felt comfortable retreating, he made his way back up the slope. The whole awe-inducing experience lasted twenty minutes.
Earlier that day we had encountered a couple from the northeast U.S. who’s prime mission it was to see ptarmigan in the Rockies - a life bird for both. How unfortunate that we could not share this experience with them. However, you’ll note that in one picture, the hen ptarmigan was adorned with “bling” (color bands). These indicated that the bird was probably part of a population study. We knew that a researcher might appreciate our sighting of a banded bird.

color bands: left leg yellow over black; right leg white over red
An inquiry at the Alpine Visitor Center with one of the park rangers provided us with the email of Greg Miller, a resources management biologist with Rocky Mountain National Park. Greg in turn shared our email with Jeff Conner, a resource management specialist with the National Park Service. Jeff forwarded our sighting information to Greg Wann, a grad student conducting ptarmigan research with the Natural Resource Ecology Laboratory, Colorado State University. Within a week of our sighting, Greg wrote back to say that the 2+ year old hen (state band #7214) was banded on 19 August 2011 on the southeast side of Toll Memorial Trail at Rock Cut, close to the location we had reported finding her. When she was banded in 2011 she had no chicks with her and was recorded as an unsuccessful breeder. Since the bird was not being tracked by radio telemetry, it required an eyes-on sighting such as ours to confirm the bird’s location and breeding status. There had been no reported sightings of this hen prior to ours so Greg was now able to confirm that hen #7214 was still in play and had bred successfully in 2012. Yay!

even at close range, camouflage was so effective

speckled back against lichen-covered rocks
Ptarmigan are members of the Family Phasianidae which includes Grouse. White-tailed Ptarmigan (Lagopus leucura) are the smallest of this group. The genus name, Lagopus is derived from the Greek lagos meaning “hare” plus pous meaning “foot” in reference to the bird’s feathered legs which serve as protection from extreme cold. The species name leucura is derived form a Latinized version of the Greek leukos, meaning “white” plus oura, meaning “tail”, in reference to the bird’s year round white tail. Pretty accurate name given the bird’s field marks!
Ptarmigan subsist on a herbivorous diet consisting of seeds, catkins, and alpine flowers like buttercup. Ptarmigan chicks begin their lives by eating insects and by fall when their digestive tract is mature, will switch over to an adult diet. These young birds, although fairly along in their development, appeared to still be catching insects.

"X" marks our sighting location
It’s not often we get to be so intimately immersed with wildlife. Our experiences more often revolve around what we see at our feeders or through our binoculars, camera lenses, and scope. Experienced wildlife watchers understand that a little patience, knowledge of habitat, and some accurate wildlife finding resources are must haves. And, as many birders will attest, a little bit of luck sure goes a long way.

Bighorn Sheep
Marmot family

Mountain Goat

Clark's Nutcracker
Gray Jay

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