Sunday, August 14, 2011

White-Tailed Ptarmigan

At 14,000 feet in the alpine tundra of Colorado we almost literally stumbled over the bumbling Inspector Clouseau of birds, the white-tailed ptarmigan. 
Within 30 yards of the summit of 14,153 foot Mt. Oxford, Sam and Andrew were startled to find themselves surrounded by a congregation (yes, that is correct terminology) of them. To their amazement, the ptarmigans did not move. As Sam or Andrew would get close to a bird, that ptarmigan would cuddle up against a rock and freeze. 
When they got so close that they could literally touch a bird (although they did not try), 
the ptarmigan would walk slowly away, appearing to be really stupid or without care, or both. I was sitting at the summit, watching a pika, not paying much attention to them, when Andrew flapped his arms like a bird to get my attention, pointed down, and then gestured to me to come over. As I got near them I saw the congregation, 15 or 20 ptarmigans, some walking, some stationary, and it was incomprehensible to me that these birds were not taking flight or running away. In fact, I later had to research to find that they can fly (like a quail, in short bursts, and then gliding). I pulled out my camera for pictures, and found it difficult to focus on the ptarmigans because their disguises were so good. Just take a look at some of these and try to spot the ptarmigan. I've even made it easier for you by cropping some of the pictures. This first picture is of the summit of Mt. Oxford. Can you find the ptarmigan in the picture (it is just left of center)?
I took quite a few shots where I knew a ptarmigan was in the picture, but could not actually see it through the view finder. 
Find this ptarmigan just north of center.
They even blend in standing in a patch of green grass.
The feather mixture is so amazing, that even in pictures it often looks fuzzy (note the name-sake white tail).
What you would think might stand out, the reddish-orange comb some of them had above their eyes, perfectly matched the color of nearby lichens (click to enlarge and compare the lichen to the comb). 
The browns, blacks, whites and grays of their plumage matched the color of the rocks that they hid among. I have subsequently learned that the white-tailed ptarmigan is the only full-time bird resident of the Colorado tundra, generally the treeless high country above 11,500 feet. Ptarmigans have learned to conserve their energy in both cold and hot weather, by playing statue when predators approach (the golden eagle and man appear to be primary), by avoiding flying, and even by immersing themselves in snow banks for warmth. They have also evolved white feet feathers that act like snowshoes 
and they have feathers around their nose which helps heat the cold air before it is breathed in. 
The color of their plumage changes with the seasons. We saw them in their summer splendor, but like the weasel that turns into the ermine in winter, the ptarmigan turns completely white, except for the red comb and black beak. 

Ptarmigans do not live along, only about a year. I suspect it is a combination of the rugged environment they inhabit and the ease with which they can be picked off once spotted, but overall the evolutionary features seem to be working as they still retain healthy populations. We saw three separate groups of ptarmigan on this particular Friday, all at an elevation over 13,800 feet on Mounts Oxford and Belford. I remember reading about ptarmigans as a young boy, and recognized them immediately when I saw them, but I was thrilled to see them for the first time and to have such an amazingly, up close, encounter. 

1 comment:

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