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|
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|
|youngsters hunkered down|
|young inquisitive ptarmigan|
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|
|even at close range, camouflage was so effective|
|speckled back against lichen-covered rocks|
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|