A White-tailed ptarmigan and the value of snowshoes

By February 9, 2015Wildlife Blog

My need (some may say ‘obsession’) often starts with a picture.  Whenever I find myself anxious to photograph a certain species, an image of said species is usually the culprit. Such was the case with the ptarmigan. A couple of years ago I saw a picture of this grouse-like bird in its winter whiteness – the ‘must find ptarmigan’ command immediately inserted itself into my brain.

White-tailed Ptarmigan, Icefields Parkway, AB

White-tailed Ptarmigan, Icefields Parkway, AB

The desire was not always front and center – it lay dormant in depths of my consciousness, only to be teased out when I was presented with a reminder. Like a hiking trail called Ptarmigan Cirque, for example, that is located at the summit of the Highwood Pass, Kananaskis. From June to November I drive by the trailhead for this hike several times, ever vigilant of the possibility of a ptarmigan sighting . A friend and I even tried doing the hike once, but were woefully unprepared for the early snowfall and did not make it very far.

‘Enough is enough!,’ I said to myself last November (2014) when I was planning a weekend trip to Jasper. It was time to get serious about my search. I heard ptarmigan can be found along the 230 km stretch of the Icefields Parkway, from Banff to Jasper. Some online research confirmed this inkling, and the ‘must find ptarmigan’ command fired intensely during my hours of driving.

I did not find ptarmigan on my Jasper trip, but it was still an amazing weekend. I did, however, find what would hence forth be know as the ‘ptarmi spot’ – the area surrounding the parking lot for the hike to Bow Falls. Both my research and gut told me there were ptarmigan in this area. There was no snow in early November, so it was difficult to see any signs. I knew I’d have to return in the winter.

In early January, after an uneventful run on the 1A highway in Banff, I decided to drive the extra 30 minutes or so to the ptarmi spot. Heightened by the lack of subjects to photograph that morning, my desire to find ptarmigan was verging on desperation. This time there was plenty of snow, making it easy to see several sets of ptarmigan tracks in various spots – they had to be there! For 2 hours, I slogged through the snow, looking for the tell-tale black eye peering out from the white ball of fluff. Still no ptarmigan – I left exhausted and frustrated, but more determined than ever.

White-tailed Ptarmigan,  Icefields Parkway, AB

White-tailed Ptarmigan, Icefields Parkway, AB

Two weeks later, I asked my friend Jamie, CrzyCnuk Photography, to join me on another ptarmigan search. Thankfully, he agreed. Deep down, I knew I was being neglectful in not preparing myself and Jamie for the deep snow. Jamie has snowshoes, but for me, the logistics of renting some for myself overwhelmed the ‘lazy’ part of my brain. I was solely focused on the ptarmigan, not wanting to think about the difficulties of the deep snow.

We arrived at the parking lot and decided to walk back along the road in to scan the environment on both sides. About a minute or two into the walk I heard Jamie say, ‘I think I got one.’ His camera was raised and pointed to the base of a tree about 50 feet in – my camera followed his trajectory and sure enough, there was a white ‘football’ with the black eye!

Yes! We snapped a few pictures from the road, then discussed how to get closer without scaring our subject. Large dimples of snowshoe-sized prints marked a slight, almost non existent, trail to the bushes. It wasn’t much, but it was something to follow.  Without snowshoes, we were at the mercy of the better prepared outdoor folk who had blazed a trail before us.

The snow had the consistency of slushy maple syrup – each step was a herculean effort for poorly conditioned thigh muscles. We got within about 20 feet of the ptarmigan when he waddled away from the bush then flew towards some willows directly in front of us.

We sat down in the butt-numbing snow and watched as the ptarmigan delicately worked his way around the branches, pecking at the buds. The light was dull, but the clouds were diffuse enough to allow us to see the burning silhouette of the sun. Jamie and I were hoping the sun would break through, providing more depth for the tricky white on white exposure. We decided to leave the ptarmigan and explore other areas while we waited for the light to get better.

Photo by CrzyCnuk Photography. See more of Jamie's ptarmigan images here.

White-tailed ptarmigan. Photo by CrzyCnuk Photography. See more of Jamie’s ptarmigan images here.

We walked through the area on the opposite side of the parking lot, and just like two weeks before, there were tons of tracks but no ptarmigan. Well, no visible ptarmigan – they must have been hiding in the bushes, amused by our clumsy movements as we trudged through the snow. About an hour later, we found our lone ptarmigan in the same area, still pecking at the willows, still in dull light. Our hopes for the sun did not come to fruition. We watched him another 10 minutes or so, then left feeling exhausted but happy.

White-tailed Ptarmigan, Icefields Parkway, AB

White-tailed Ptarmigan, Icefields Parkway, AB

With one ptarmigan sighting under my belt, I figured I discovered a treasure trove of ptarmigan that would provide me with a sighting whenever I so chose to do the 2.5 hour drive. Maybe I could even catch one in better light next time?  With that hope in mind, Turbo and I visited the ptarmi spot  a couple of weeks later for a quick look. Turbo was even prepared with snowshoes, but we didn’t see any ptarmigan and very few tracks. Four trips to the ptarmi spot and only one ptarmigan.

I learned a couple important lessons in my search for the ptarmigan:

1. Ptarmigan searching in deep snow requires snowshoes.

2. Ptarmigan, while not easy to find, are amazing little creatures!

I realize how fortunate Jamie and I were to view and photograph this beautiful bird. Thanks to Jamie for indulging my obsession and helping me cross a target species of my list.  That ptarmigan, revealing itself with a mere pea-sized black eye, was no match for Jamie and his eagle eyes.

A quick note about ptarmigan species in Alberta. We have willow, white-tailed and rock ptarmigan. I had initially assumed that our ptarmigan was a willow (because he was eating willows), but I learned that he was a white-tailed ptarmigan.  They all turn white in the winter, but willow ptarmigan have black under their tails. I’m not sure off hand what makes the rock ptarmigan distinct. If anyone knows, please feel free to comment below. And all species of ptarmigan’s varied summer plumage makes it much easier to tell them apart in non-winter months.

Until next time, continue loving life and all things wild 🙂

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