191 White beauty
Photo taken on 29 November 2016 and posted on Flickr on 4 December 2016.
It has just started snowing here in Calgary this morning, 4 December 2016 - again. There is a Snowfall Warning Alert in effect. The temperature is -4C (windchill -10C).
"Snowfall Warning. Issued at 10:24 Sunday 04 December 2016:
A heavy band of snow has developed from near Didsbury to north of Claresholm. This band has produced 8.5 cm of snow in the Sundre region thus far. Snowfall totals of 10 cm is expected to fall in much of the area and near-zero visibilities are expected at times. This band of heavy snow will continue to track southward throughout the morning and impact areas along the Alberta foothills. The snow is expected to taper off late this morning to early this afternoon."
Five days ago, on 29 November 2016, I was fortunate enough to have a third trip into the mountains to look for and photograph these wonderful White-tailed Ptarmigan. Friend, Shirley, had been out there before, but just missed seeing them. She asked if I wanted to go with her, and I jumped at the chance. I knew several other people who were planning to go, so felt a little more confident that we would probably be able to find these birds.
Find them, we did - but, oh, what we had to go through in order to see them! Unlike the other two times I had been, on 22nd and 23rd November, this time the birds were not near the main road area but, instead, were first spotted way across the valley, low down on the mountainside. A few years ago, I had done a short walk along this valley in deep, deep snow and vowed I would never be so foolish to do it again. You need snowshoes and, even then, the going is difficult. Of course, I don't have snowshoes, nor did a few of my friends.
When I heard that some people ahead of us had seen a few of the birds closer than the mountainside, I decided I would at least start 'walking' and see how far I got. The first short distance through the snow was flat, but then we had to climb upwards through knee deep snow. I almost had to give up, but thanks to friend, Tony, who basically dragged me up some of the most difficult parts, I was able to plough my way to where the closest Ptarmigan were. A few other helping hands, too, made this climb possible.
Several of the birds were in the sunshine for a while, either resting or taking a few short steps. So different compared to seeing and photographing them on a cloudy, gloomy day.
These birds tend to walk around in just a small area for a while, feeding on the Willow buds, and then the group lies down, some of them burrowing till just the head and neck are visible, or some will burrow till they disappear completely under the snow. Every now and then, you can hear the little sounds they make. After resting, they repeat the feeding process and then rest again. As you can imagine, from a distance, a turn of the head so that a bird is looking away from you, all that remains is something that looks like one of the many lumps of snow everywhere.
"The smallest grouse in North America, the White-tailed Ptarmigan inhabits alpine regions from Alaska to New Mexico. It has numerous adaptations to its severe habitat, including feathered toes, highly cryptic plumage, and an energy-conserving daily regime." From AllAboutBirds.
"The white-tailed ptarmigan (Lagopus leucura), also known as the snow quail, is the smallest bird in the grouse family. It is a permanent resident of high altitudes on or above the tree line and is native to Alaska and the mountainous parts of Canada and the western United States. It has also been introduced into the Sierra Nevada in California, the Wallowa Mountains in Oregon and the Uinta Mountains in Utah. Its plumage is cryptic and varies at different times of the year. In the summer it is speckled in gray, brown and white whereas in winter it is wholly white. At all times of year the wings, belly and tail are white. The white-tailed ptarmigan has a diet of buds, leaves, flowers and seeds. The nest is a simple depression in the ground in which up to eight eggs are laid. After hatching, the chicks soon leave the nest. At first they eat insects but later move on to an adult diet, their mother using vocalisations to help them find suitable plant food. The population seems to be stable and the IUCN lists this species as being of "Least Concern". From Wikipedia.
Eventually, it was time to head back down and along to the cars, repeating the difficult process of 'step and plunge' through the snow. It felt so good to finally reach the car!
Shirley and I had left the city and travelled south via Turner Valley, but came back to the city via Barrier Lake and Highway 1. While driving out to Highway 40 in the morning, we had stopped to watch a beautiful female Moose along the road from Turner Valley and then later, we stopped to watch a couple of Bighorn Sheep on Highway 40. Other than that, there was no sign of other wildlife.
From 1 December onward, the north and south winter gates are closed across Highway 40, so these birds will be left in peace for the rest of the winter, until 14 June 2017. All the wildlife in the area will be free of human presence while they have their young ones in the spring.
Thanks so much for a great day, Shirley! I'm so glad you were finally able to see a few of these beautiful Ptarmigan in their winter white. It was very unfortunate that one person was not able to do the difficult walk and so will have to wait till next fall to hopefully get a 'lifer'. Most people I know have/had never seen this species, especially when white, so I'm feeling extremely lucky! Of course, even if one doesn't find the Ptarmigan, the scenery alone is just breathtaking.
AlbertaCanadaRocky MountainsCanadian RockiesKananaskisnatureornithologyavianbirdbirdsWhitetailed PtarmiganLagopus leucurawhitein the snowsmallest grouse in North Americaside viewalpinefeathered toescamouflagesnowtreebranchesfallautumnoutdoor29 November 2016FZ200FZ2004annkelliottAnne Elliott© Anne Elliott 2016© All Rights ReservedAnne Elliott, from
Photos added on Flickr, 1 October - 31 December 2016