White-tailed ptarmigan, northern pygmy owl and moose = a great day in the Canadian rockies

by | Mar 1, 2016

‘Hey Kerri there was one in the sun yesterday afternoon just past Num Ti Jah lodge in the willows.’

An enormous ‘DOH!‘ rumbled its way through my body as my brain processed the facebook message. The ‘one’ my friend Peter Brown was referring to just happened to be a white-tailed ptarmigan. He had tracked down the stunning grouse-like bird with fellow photographer Tim Hopwood. Peter was responding to my facebook post lamenting about the fact that Jamie and I once again struck out on what was becoming an exhaustive search for white-tailed ptarmigan.Screen Shot 2016-03-01 at 2.41.58 PM

I know the exact location Peter described. Jamie and I had seen the tracks that led to the ptarmigan earlier that morning. We were planning on following them on snow shoes, as we had done with so many  ptarmigan tracks before, but got distracted and kept driving north. By the time we returned, the light was all but gone.

Sheepishly, I had to admit to Jamie – ‘ummm, you know the one set of tracks we didn’t follow yesterday? Well, I’ve discovered they led to a ptarmi in the sun.’

‘Noooooooooooo!’ – was his response.

Yes, maybe we were being a bit over-dramatic, but Jamie and I had spent hours in that area searching for white-tailed ptarmigan. We had seen one in January 2015 and were both aching to get this bird in better light. We had even equipped ourselves with snow shoes this season, specifically for more in depth ptarmigan searching.

A few weeks later, on Feb 7, I successfully wrangled Jamie into trying again (it didn’t take much convincing). I felt the need to temper possible ptarmigan-related disappointment, so I decided to frame our outing that day around highway 1A in Banff. ‘We’ll do the 1A and then see if we are up for the extra hour or so to the ptarmi spot,’ I said, trying to sound nonchalant, like I wasn’t simmering with an overwhelming desire to find ptarmigan.


Northern Pygmy Owl

Our 1A drive started off great, with a sighting of a northern pygmy owl about 20 minutes in. The tiny owl was perched on the tip of a spruce tree, intently zoned in on what I assume was some sort of prey below. Unfortunately, the owl did not turn around before diving into the trees, so we had to settle for the back view only. However, a northern pygmy owl is always a great find and we were both feeling pretty optimistic about the day.

The rest of the 1A was quiet, so we (of course) continued on to the ptarmi spot. Once in ptarmi territory, about 35 kilometres north of Lake Louise on highway 93, we slowed down and did our usual scanning of the sides of the roads, looking for tracks. Finding none, we entered the parking lot area for Num Ti Jah lodge and examined the surroundings. We found a fairly fresh imprint of a ptarmi that appeared to have landed on a mound of snow, then flew off.  A good sign, but nothing to follow so we continued on.

White Tailed Ptarmigan, Feb 7

White Tailed Ptarmigan, Feb 7

Two kilometres or so north of the lodge, Jamie spotted some fresh tracks, so we fastened on our snow shoes and headed into the deep snow. As usual, the ptarmi tracks were around the willows bushes they love to eat. The tracks branched in both directions towards separate sets of willows, so Jamie went left and I went right.

‘I got one,’ I heard Jamie say – music to my ears! I slogged over to his set of willows and there was a white-tailed ptarmigan, burrowed in the snow. We found our ptarmigan! What we didn’t have yet, however, was good light. I looked to the south and could see there was a soft veil of clouds covering the sun, but it was moving quickly to the east and followed by a slice of blue sky. All we had to do was wait.

White Tailed Ptarmigan, Feb 7

White Tailed Ptarmigan, Feb 7

Before the sun fully emerged, the ptarmigan popped out of the snow, ruffled his feathers and waddled towards the buds on some nearby willows. We followed, and soon discovered there were two more ptarmigan! They seemed to be working their way deeper into the trees and it was becoming increasingly difficult to keep up. We could still see them in the distance, but Jamie was suffering from a massive headache so he went back to the car to rest. I stayed and watched the three white figures waddle amoung some distant willows, eventually working their way out from the trees and closer to the side of the road. They chose to take another rest at the base of a pine tree.

White Tailed Ptarmigan, Feb 7

White Tailed Ptarmigan, Feb 7

They were in a great position, about 10 to 15 feet in from the side of the road. We parked the car on the shoulder and watched them rest and preen for about 2 hours. During this time, the sun occasionally came out from behind the clouds, offering up our long sought after sight of ptarmigan in the sun.  We soon realized there were four ptarmigan in total – one was nestled into the branches at the base of the tree, barely visible.

White Tailed Ptarmigan, Feb 7

White Tailed Ptarmigan, Feb 7

The scenario played out perfectly. We were close enough to see the textured white tail feathers with thin black veins running through the center, the small imprint of a slightly red eye brow above deep, black orbs and the elegant dark beak peaking out from a bouquet of tiny white feathers.

Moose Calf, Banff, Feb 7

Moose Calf, Banff, Feb 7

We left feeling tired but content, the disappointment from a few weeks back dissolved into a sense of fulfilment, knowing our persistence paid off. To top off a great day in the Canadian rockies, we were treated to a view of a beautiful cow moose with her calf on the way home.

Please take a moment to view some amazing photos (of ptarmigan and many other creatures) from the friends I have mentioned in this post:

Living Balance Photography (Peter)

Tim Hopwood Photography

Crzy Cnuk Photography (Jamie)

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


  1. Jody Skinner

    Stunning! Love hearing about your day of photographing, and glad it was so successful!

    • Kerri Martin

      Thanks Jody 🙂


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