Ptarmigan and Cloudberries: A Walk on Alaska’s Arctic Tundra

willow ptarmigan pair n

Looking almost like exquisite mounts in a museum diorama, these Willow ptarmigan (Lagopus lagopus) proved to be quite approachable. While hiking on the tundra near Point Hope in September we came across two coveys totaling about 20 birds.

cloudberries early frost

Nipped with frost, these cloudberries tasted like sorbet and were no doubt what had drawn the ptarmigan.

willow ptarmigan jack shooting n

Barbra cautiously approached the birds as I lay on my stomach, inching through the boggy terrain, shooting, hoping a few shots might come out.

willow ptarmigan solitary n

The plumage of these fall birds is in transition from the mottled browns and reds of summer to the snow white of winter. These are the same species as the red grouse of Scotland.

willow ptarmigan barbra approaching n

Barbra crouches and stalks closer to the birds. Note the densely feathered legs. The Latin lagopus translates to “hare foot” for the resemblance of ptarmigans’ feather-covered legs and feet to those of snowshoe hares. 

caribou antler fall tundra n

There’s always evidence of a rich ecosystem on the Arctic tundra. Caribou antlers, bird nests, animal burrows and an amazing array of plants are part of our walks.

brown bear track tundra beach n

Brown bears (grizzlies) are common visitors to the beaches and tundra near Point Hope. We found a set of fresh tracks along the shores of an inlet off the Chukchi Sea not far from where we encountered the ptarmigan. Red foxes, Arctic foxes, Arctic ground squirrels, weasels and caribou are frequently seen mammals. Wolves and musk oxen are less common, but also figure in the mix. In the foothills and mountains east of Point Hope there are wolverines and at higher elevations, Dall sheep. Rarely, moose are seen in the scrub willows along the nearby Kukpuk River, and during the winter months polar bears show up both on the sea ice and on land. 

snow geese lifting off n

During the fall migration, snow geese are fairly common. (Above and below)

snow geese lifting off close n

Brandt, Canada geese, and a wide variety of ducks and shore birds are also common.

willow ptarmigan in flight n

When the ptarmigan finally had enough of us, they glided off a few yards, regrouped and resumed feeding. At that point we turned for home. 

cloudberries frozen in hand n

A handful of frozen sweetness for the road. 

cranes flying into the hills n

A pair of sandhill cranes lifts off above the last of the cotton grass on the tundra near Point Hope.

27 thoughts on “Ptarmigan and Cloudberries: A Walk on Alaska’s Arctic Tundra

  1. Enjoyed these pictures; can almost feel the nip of cool air. Fall is approaching here with beautiful colors beginning to paint the trees. I saw a “V” of Canadian geese recently off in the distance. Still, the days are warm enough for short-sleeves but mornings require a light sweater as I head off to work. My oldest daughter recently moved to the Boston area . She will experience her first winter with snow this year. Quite a change from Sacramento! Wishing you both a great school year! Lady Michael

    • We have such vivid memories of liquid ambers and grape leaves turning fall colors, and we could always count on flocks of cedar waxwings visiting our E Street home. Boston will be quite a change for your daughter… What a wonderful city! Weather here has been mild – snow flurries, yes, but temperatures are still in the 30’s – warm for this time of year. Enjoy glass of wine for us!

  2. I love the photos and the commentaries as well. I always feel like you are taking us with you on your travels. In my mind’s eye I could see your smile Barbara. In the 30s, warm…love it. Thanks for the continued sharing; it is inspiring. One day I will make it there. My dad loved Alaska. He spent time there as a young man and talked about it all of rest of his life. Take care, you two.

    • Hi Robyn! Really good to hear from you, and so glad you’re still following along! Snowy and stormy today… if it clears, we’ll go out and look for a pair of gyre falcons that are reported to be in the area. You know you have a standing invitation to come up to Point Hope or Seward anytime! Extra beds and hot meals await!

  3. Thank you, I guess Jack, for posting your message on my blog.
    You live in Alaska, don’t you.
    How wonderful it is.
    Alaska is one of the places I want to visit entire in my life.
    I guess the place you live is beautiful.

    I saw your photo in “about” page.
    You two look so happy and the smiles of yours are very nice.

    At any rate, I will visit this blog.

    Thank you.

  4. Wow! those birds are so beautiful as is the foot print although I wouldn’t want to be any where near a Grizzly… great pics as always!

    • Our friend had one On His Porch(!) the other morning. He opened his door to go to school, and saw this large, hairy “thing.” He said it took him a few seconds to reconcile what he was looking at, it was so surprising. The grizzly must’ve been equally baffled, but after a couple of seconds it ambled off the porch. Our friend got in his vehicle and chased it out of town.

  5. Pingback: Wildlife Blog

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