Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Willow Ptarmigan

September 8, Kennecott Glacier Area. On my hike up to the Bonanza Mine, I ran across two broods of willow ptarmigan. They were nearly grown, and in both cases, I was allowed to get amazingly close. I could have hit one with a rock, had I been so inclined (I was not), and I am no Cy Young. Even so, given the mist and fog, it was hard to get crisp photos. My guide from St. Elias Mountain Guides was flabbergasted that I was so interested in them, but he sees them all of the time, and it was my first sighting.
The broods I saw would have been led by the mother, as father grouse don't have a whole lot to do with the kids - although he will defend them against predators. The mom kept clucking to lead her brood away, although they were not in a hurry. I saw the first brood just a little while after seeing very fresh bear scat, loaded with soapberries, so hopefully they stayed alert. I would doubt a bear would be quick enough to catch a ptarmigan, although these guys seemed pretty slow. On the other hand, they had all survived this far.
These birds will turn white in the winter, and you can see that the process is starting. Technically, it was still summer by the the fact that the equinox had not yet arrived, but in reality, it was fall at that time, with winter fast approaching. They are largely vegetarians, but will eat insects when they are available. Here are some photos of this interesting animal.
I think this was the mother:
Three of her brood:
Mom leading her charges in the fog:
These photos were of the second group. They were a little more wary and right on the edge of a steep drop off, and did not come out in the open as much:

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