I knew White-tailed Ptarmigan was going to be a hard one. If you want to see all of the regularly occurring birds in the US and Canada in a single year, you know that some birds will be easy, and other birds will be like ptarmigan. White-tailed Ptarmigan are birds of the mountain West. They prefer alpine habitat above the treeline, mainly above 7000 feet in Washington state. While there are scattered records for ptarmigan from several locations around the state, there is only one place where they are seen more than just occasionally: Mt. Rainier. So last weekend, Kristi’s mom watched the kids while we spent the day at Sunrise on the eastern flank this enormous dormant volcano.
We got up well before dawn, and arrived at Sunrise by 7:30am. Earlier in the summer, several other birders had reported seeing ptarmigan near the end of the Mt. Fremont Lookout trail, a 6 mile hike with about 1000 feet of elevation gain. Not a walk in the park, but totally reasonable. We set off.
The views were spectacular. We spotted some common mountain birds, like Horned Larks and Mountain Chickadees.
Lower down, the wildflowers were in full bloom. I think the meadows reach their peak color in late August.
Frozen Lake was mostly unfrozen, with a medium patch of snow and ice still hugging the shore. As we ascended higher, we spotted some mountain goats in the distance.
They were grazing and frolicking in a meadow down below our trail. Although birds weren’t plentiful, the scenery was spectacular in every direction.
At last the lookout tower came into view. This tower was used as a wildfire lookout for several decades in the middle of the last century. Modern technology has rendered it obsolete in its role in fire detection, but you can still climb its steps and enjoy the view.
As we approached the tower, we scanned the hillsides for any signs of ptarmigan. It was amazingly quiet up there, and we listed for any telltale ptarmigan clucks or whistles that sometimes betray their presence. Half an hour passed, and checked the trail again going some distance in both directions from the tower. We stopped and had lunch, and snapped a few more pictures.
Then more looking, listening, waiting, and watching. Another half an hour passed, and then another. We saw a falcon, perhaps a Prairie Falcon, harassing some ravens, and flocks of rosy finches flit from rocks to snowfields and back. But no ptarmigan. Finally, we decided to head back to Sunrise for the trip home. Six miles, five hours, spectacular views, a great hike, and no ptarmigan.
I knew ptarmigan would be hard. They are extremely well camouflaged and often sit inconspicuously among the rocks and heather. The habitat up there doesn’t support huge numbers of them, and they move around from place to place in search of food. My success rate in seeing ptarmigan in the alpine zones of Washington is only about 25%. Unfortunately my window for viewing them seemed to be closing, as their high altitude habitat is only accessible during the summer months: mid-July through late-August is considered the best time to see them. Fall snows will be coming soon to Rainier, and I left without seeing the ptarmigan.