How my ptarmigan quest has made me a better photographer

by | Jan 19, 2017

A triangle of light showered down on Bow lake, infusing the icy surface with a yellow glow that enhanced the intricate beauty of the frozen water. I willed the slice of light to move towards my location at the opposite shore, to bath its brilliance on the white fluff-ball that sat before me. I knew the sun light would imprint the white-tailed ptarmigan’s orb-like eyes with a soft glint, reveal the delicate pattern of textured feathers, uncover the slight line of a red eyebrow – basically highlight every amazing aspect of this beautiful bird. But there was a mountain between me and the magical light. No amount of willing was going to change that – all I could do was wait and watch.  It took an hour and 6 minutes, but the sun finally emerged from behind the mountain, shedding her light on the shores of Bow lake and allowing me to capture this image.

Bow Lake, Banff, aB

Bow Lake, Banff, aB

I had been dreaming of such an image for awhile – white on white, soft foreground, ptarmigan partially hidden but highlighted by the sun.  The journey that led to my dream ptarmigan image has left me with a deeper understanding of this unique and beautiful species, the ability to observe and photograph these birds from a place of utmost respect and a greater appreciation for the gift of being able to photograph wildlife. Basically, I’m now a better photographer

Patience and Persistence

I have now been blessed with four ptarmi-encounters- here’s a brief run-down.

Jan 2015 – my friend Jamie (Crzy Cnuk Photography) saw our first ptarmigan at Bow lake .

Feb 2016 – Jamie and I found four the next year in February – same general area but at least a couple of kilometres from the first sighting.

Jan 8, 2017 – mere weeks ago, Jamie and I did the drive to Bow Lake and managed to find three more of these beauties.

Jan 15, 2017 – Jamie and I were in the area so we had to look again – this trek resulted in the above dream photo.

A pretty good record I think, but I haven’t mentioned the many failed attempts and hours of searching.  Without patience and persistence, we never would have found them.

Bow Lake, Banff, AB

Bow Lake, Banff, AB

Appreciation and Respect

After I posted my blog about my second sighting from February 2016, I got a note from someone from Parks Canada about the impact snow-shoeing can have on ptarmigan. It makes sense, of course. Ptarmigan burrow in the snow for protection, so trampled snow means less protection. Below is Jamie’s image of one of the three ptarmis we saw on the Jan 8 trip this year. The indents in front and beside were not made by us, but him – he seemed to have burrowed under the snow at least a foot ahead and just popped his head out. Not only is this fascinating, but it’s an obvious indication of how these guys need fresh, undisturbed snow.


On our first ptarmi encounter, Jamie and I walked through the snow without snow shoes at all, and on several subsequent outings we trampled through fresh snow following tracks. Even though we were consciously keeping our distance and trying not to stress or scare the birds, we still many have caused harm by not paying attention to the environment.

With every scenario, photographers can always strive to do better in terms of minimizing our impact. I believe the goal should always be to put the heath of the animal in front of the desire to get a good photo. For me, it’s those subtle nuances of behavior and the impact on the environment that I struggle with. It’s easy for me to take a stand, to not practice the ‘really bad stuff,’ like baiting, getting too close, purposely stressing an animal, etc – but I am certainly not always as conscious as I should be.

My philosophy is to know I won’t ever be perfect, but constantly learn from my mistakes and strive to do better. So with the ptarmigan sightings from this year, I believe both Jamie and I did a much better job. For the three on Jan 8, we mostly followed a pre-existing snow shoe trail. For the Jan 15 sighting, we stuck to the skiing/snowing/walking trail and didn’t use snow shoes at all. And we were rewarded with a beautiful sight and more insight into this unique bird.

Daring to dream big

Having a dream image come to fruition is the best feeling!!! I was so happy to get my dream photo of a ptarmi in the sun. It was the process of visualizing, combined with persistence, respect and appreciation, that ultimately led to this amazing sight.

I’m so unbelievably grateful for what these gentle little football-birds have taught me. I’ll leave you with one last image from the Jan 8 trip of the burrowed ptarmi:

Bow Lake, Banff, AB

Bow Lake, Banff, AB

Until next time, continue loving life and everything wild 🙂


  1. Paul Turbitt

    Beautifully written! I applaud both your honesty and your dedication. I am proud to know you Kerri Martin. You make us all better photographers.

    • Kerri Martin

      Well that means a lot Paul, especially coming from you – thanks so much 🙂

  2. Sally Bee

    A thought-full message, Kerri. To my mind, must reading for all who venture in search of wildlife. Thanks.

    • Kerri Martin

      Thanks so much Sally!


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