Monthly Archives: September 2012

Ptrying for Ptarmigan, Ptake Ptwo

Three days after my unsuccessful trip to Mt. Rainier to see White-tailed Ptarmigan, I noticed that someone posted on Tweeters (the Washington birding listserv) that she had seen ptarmigan along the same Mt. Fremont trail a few days after I was there.  It was obvious that the birds were still around, even though I missed them over Labor Day weekend.  As I mentioned in my previous post, the time for seeing these birds at all during my big year was growing seriously short.  I decided to try for them one more time, so yesterday I trekked 90 miles back to Sunrise for Round Two.

The day was again spectacularly beautiful.  I was surprised at how much snow had melted from around Frozen Lake in only six days.

I was also treated to great views of American Pika (not to be confused with Pica, that strange disorder in which people eat dirt, chalk, and rocks).  Pika are lagomorphs, which is to say that they are closely related to rabbits and hares.

This little guy was alternately collecting herbaceous goodies and storing them in his burrow, and sitting on a rock and chirping at me.

I also saw more goats on my trek up Mt. Fremont.  There are two herds which have been roaming the landscape near Sunrise this summer.

As I approached the Mt. Fremont lookout, I turned up the sensitivity on my ptarmigan scanner.  An hour passed, and no ptarmigan.  As I was beginning to lose hope of seeing this species, I thought that maybe I saw a ptarmigan-shaped rock down the ridge just past a little bend in the trail.  Was that really a ptarmigan, or just a rock?  It wasn’t moving.  I needed to get closer to tell for sure.

I stumbled down the trail, trying to keep an eye on that ptarmigan-shaped rock.  I was so intent on watching this rock that I didn’t immediately notice what was around that little bend in the trail.

“Goat!” I yelped, as I rounded the corner and came nearly face-to-face with a fully grown Mountain Goat.  While these fuzzy alpine denizens seem cute and cuddly, a mountain goat killed a man a couple years ago in Olympic National Park.  They can be aggressive and dangerous when provoked.  It’s best to keep one’s distance from them even when they are calm, to avoid habituating them to humans.  I saw that there were in fact quite a number of goats loafing here, including some kids born this spring.  I had found part of the second herd.

I gently eased my way back around the corner.  The goats went back to their snoozing.  But what about that ptarmigan?  I scanned the area, and saw this:

Can you spot the ptarmigan in the photo above?  It’s dang hard to see!  Eventually, it stood up for a moment, and I got good looks at an adult female White-tailed Ptarmigan.  They are usually quite tame, but I couldn’t get any closer because the goats were between me and the ptarmigan.  Here’s my best long-range photo, zoomed and cropped:

After 20 minutes of watching her, I headed for home.  The moon was rising over the ridge as I descended.  It was a good day.

 

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Mt Rainier Ptarmigan Adventure!

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.

 

 

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