September 13th, 2016: A hike to find White-tailed Ptarmigan and a bonus stop-off on the way home
Shortly after returning from an incredible visit to South Africa (my first ever birding trip), I was excited to hear about a relatively reliable place to find a bird I’d always wanted to see: White-tailed Ptarmigan.
Fair warning: This is a longer post than usual…
Finding the Ptarmigan wasn’t easy, but was it ever rewarding! Living in Vancouver and often having work weekends doesn’t afford me too many chances to venture out of town to go birding. Sometimes, however, you just have to take a day and do it right!
I’d searched for White-tailed Ptarmigan (Lagopus leucura) before in Metro Vancouver after one had been reported on Mt. Seymour at the top of a typical North Shore day hike: a gradual uphill climb for a little under 10km. Last year, two good friends of mine and I headed up this hike two days in a row, spending hours at the top in a wide search pattern. We tried desperately to locate this well-camouflaged bird among the snowy rocks with no luck. Fortunately, it’s a great hike regardless!
This year, having heard that White-tailed Ptarmigan were sometimes seen on the Flatiron and Needle Peak hike in the Fraser Valley (only a few short hours drive), I jumped at the chance and made a day of it (map). My best birding buddy and I got up painfully early and drove hours to the valley in time to start the hike just after 8AM. We hurried up the mountain to ensure we’d be the first to the top and, after taking a very quick look around, decided we’d better grab some lunch.
We found some shelter from the strong wind behind a long, natural, granite barrier on the rocky summit and unpacked our lunches as a Lapland Longspur fed on heather no more than 5 feet from us! This gorgeous bird seemed content to go about its business and trusted us to do the same. All the photos we were snapping of our Lapland friend, the flocks of American Pipits and Horned Larks calling as they flew about, and a crystal clear view of snow-capped Mt. Baker in the distance made it quite a memorable lunch.
While I’ll never complain about seeing any birds—let alone Horned Lark and Lapland Longspur—they weren’t the reason we were here: it was time to find some ptarmigan! We started a two-man expanding spiral search pattern from the summit’s radio tower, walking slowly and hoping a ptarmigan or two would make itself visible: a tall order, to be sure. But we were only a little way into our second, wider revolution when my friend whispered loudly for me to stop. Lower down than me, but, looking back in my direction, he had seen motion less than 10 feet in front of me. There I was, looking about 20–30 feet ahead, diligently raking my eyes across the ground and completely missing these amazingly camouflaged birds. Yep, there were at least two White-tailed Ptarmigan looking back at me, with only heads visible from a rocky outcropping straight ahead.
As we carefully flanked the birds and the rocks for a better view, the ptarmigan remained statuesque—confident in their camouflage, I suppose. We approached slowly, counting 4 birds! Carefully observing their posture and habits as we approached, we ensured we weren’t making them uncomfortable. Ptarmigan are excellent at conserving energy and we didn’t want a misplaced foot or overzealous photo attempt to force them to waste any. One bird mostly kept its eye on us, while the others comfortably foraged in the heather.
We truly marvelled at these alpine “snow quail.” They walked like any “chicken,” but in a kind of deliberated slow motion that was almost comical. It was as though they were saying, “No really, I’m graceful. Just watch!”
Meanwhile subtle alterations in facial expression occasionally exposed the beautiful scarlet arcs immediately above their eyes: probably the most visible part of them in the sun. It’s no wonder so many people miss seeing ptarmigan, despite valiant searches: our cryptic, feather-toed friends were so stealthy, we could look the other way for a few seconds, then look back to find we’d somehow misplaced two or more of them from within 20 feet!
Having watched this group for a while and wanting to make sure they could relax, we looked around the immediate area. It didn’t take long before we stumbled upon another 5 White-tailed Ptarmigan, half hidden in heather, half shrouded under a shady outcropping. They had been almost right behind us, but it’s not like they announce their presence, though we could hear a faint, guttural “cluck” escape from time to time (this is just audible in the video above). This group was more active and ventured out onto a small flat area where we could appreciate it with Mt. Baker and the Cascades as its backdrop. Something about this smallest and most elusive of North America’s grouse and the most ostentatious mountain nearby made them each other’s perfect complement. Add to that a windy, nearly bare mountain summit, and a good friend and this would be a hard moment to beat!
We were very pleased to see a lot of other fantastic and unexpected birds on the return trip. On our way down, we observed a solo Brewer’s Sparrow right near the summit and figured he must be on his way through (you can see my full eBird list here). More excitement arrived when we paused at Hope Airport: an absolute MUST for a Fraser Valley trip during migration. We’d seen reports of several Lewis’s Woodpecker on a nearby farming plot and, when we arrived for a look, we met the very kind and welcoming farmer who was happy to tell us all about where they had been seen. We were very pleased to find one flycatching from an electricity pole and even found a Vesper Sparrow (not particularly rare, but uncommon) skulking at the base of a bush nearby.
Not being familiar with the area, and with lots of daylight remaining, we went for a quick walk on the road outside the airport. While mostly ear-birding and hearing the expected species, both of our ears perked up when we heard something not-so-recognizable, but vaguely familiar. It was a shorebird, but hard to localize. After a few more seconds, I pointed up into the sky and up the valley where I thought it might be coming from and Seb picked it up in his bins as it “dropped its flaps” and came in for a landing…RIGHT in front of us on the road was an Upland Sandpiper! WHAT!? I snapped a quick couple of photos before the bird decided a nearby field was more comfortable. We observed it for a while, reported it to other birders and left the bird as the sun started to drop. Looking at our eBird list makes it clear I’ll have to go back to Hope Airport!
Despite their range, the White-tailed Ptarmigan were the undisputed highlights and the point of our trip inland and into the mountains. The tremendous sense of accomplishment and completely enthralling time spent in the presence of these birds made it an obvious choice to kick off this blog (and a much longer post than usual).
Finally, I like to share a little from someone other than me, for the other nerds out there. Here’s Mark Cocker with something I bet you didn’t know about Ptarmigan from his fantastic book, Birds and People (2013):
“The most singular name for the [grouse] family is ‘ptarmigan’. It originates with the Gaelic tarmachan (itself from a root tarm: ‘murmur’) and meant something like ‘croaker’. The name evokes the weird creaking calls of rock ptarmigan but, adding a touch of neoclassical confusion in 1684, the Scottish naturalist Sir Robert Sibbald gave a silent ‘p’ to the new version to falsely suggest a Greek construction. This made it ptarmigan. What is particularly striking is how this chance error by a single individual has become embedded in modern ornithological nomenclature and accepted usually without us ever stopping to reflect how such an odd word came to pass” (Mark Cocker, Birds and People, 50).