Hmm… I wore white slacks something like these to my high school senior prom. I think they are better suited to this dapper male Willow Ptarmigan. While on a backcountry backpacking excursion in Denali National Park a few years ago, we had an opportunity to observe and photograph Willows in frame-filling portraits like this. The male’s “potato! potato! potato!” call woke us each morning in a breathtaking landscape we shared with carpets of wildflowers, rushing glacial rivers, Grizzlies, Dall’s Sheep, Caribou, Moose, Wolves and Wolverines. (Denali National Park, June 9, 2017)
In choosing photographs for this project, I try to use pictures taken of local birds and, to the extent possible, to use my own captures. At the same time, I strive to select at least one photo for the article that clearly depicts characteristic markings and coloration of that species. Sometimes that’s not possible. I have yet to get any photograph at all of the Gyrfalcons that occasionally cruise through our valley. Clear captures of a few other species I’ve positively ID’d have eluded me as well – Northern Harriers gliding in an unphotographable distance, a Saw-whet Owl who evaded being photographed through high winds and rainstorms and his own secretive habits during a brief visit to our village being among examples.
We startled ptarmigan from their nests several times while hiking through willow thickets in Denali. The best procedure is to give the nest a respectable berth and continue hiking, but on this occasion I took the opportunity to snap a quick photo – with a telephoto lens and not disturbing the vegetation surrounding the well-concealed eggs. The hen soon returned. Willows may lay as few as four or as many as 14 inch-and-a-half to two-inch eggs. (Denali National Park, June 7, 2017)
The Willow Ptarmigan presents a somewhat different challenge.
We’ve never seen one here at The Lake. Or anywhere near The Lake.
Nor heard one, though we are familiar with their calls.
Nor found their scat, though we know what that looks like and have searched likely places for it.
Willow Ptarmigan scat… in case you were wondering… (Denali National Park, June 14, 2017)
No one else has seen a clue of this species around here in recent years either, though everyone agrees that they were once abundant. “We used to sometimes find them in the swamp (marsh) right in the center of the village,” a guy my age told me. “Yeah, they used to be everywhere,” another friend observed. “Especially around Black River and Upper Lake.”
Not anymore. Whether they were locally shot out (they are famously unwary), overcome by disease or simply no longer find the habitat here suitable is uncertain. In recent years they have been absent, and there are enough eyes looking out for them that if any were around, it would be known.
They’re not guarding nests. They’re not tame. They haven’t been baited. They’re just Willow Ptarmigan being Willow Ptarmigan, and as Barbra could as easily be approaching with a 20 gauge shotgun as with a camera, they’re illustrating a susceptibility to being locally extirpated by hunters. They aren’t merely “dumb.” Ptarmigan have been known to exhibit playful behavior with each other and they’re well adapted to the harsh environments they thrive in. But perhaps they trust the camouflaging qualities of their plumage – which becomes white during wintertime – a little too much. (Point Hope, Alaska, September 2, 2013)
And then, just a few weeks ago one morning while Barbra and I were out exploring after a fresh carpet of snow had been lain down, there they were. Not the birds themselves, but tracks. Unmistakable. Miniature three-toed snowshoes gently pressed into the powdery snow. Ptarmigan. No cryptozoologist on the trail of Bigfoot could have felt their heart soar higher than did ours at the finding. We stood rock still and listened. We watched, our eyes peering as far up the trail as we could see and into every little pocket and open space along the way searching for movement, a dark eyeball, anything. We quietly followed the tracks, not even daring to whisper till they abruptly disappeared. We continued our hunt in ever broadening circles, eyes sharp for a bird we knew would be as white as the snow itself this time of year.
But maybe they’re coming back. Oh, happy day!*
The portent of good things to come – and a scene we’d like to find near The Lake: a Willow hen brooding her eggs. Members of the grouse family, Willows are the only grouse species in which the males regularly assist in raising the young. (Denali National Park, June 8, 2017)
Willow Ptarmigan Lagopus lagopus
Lagopus: Ancient Greek Lagos = hare + pous = foot: hare foot, for its heavily feathered feet which, as with hares, allows the ptarmigan to more easily walk on snow
lagopus: as per genus definition above
Status at Chignik Lake: Now rare, but as Willow Ptarmigan are seen elsewhere on the Alaska Peninsula, could repopulate in the future
David Narver, Birds of the Chignik River Drainage, summers 1960-63: Common around Chignik Lake; Abundant around Black Lake
Alaska Peninsula and Becharof National Wildlife Refuge Bird List, 2010:
Common in Spring, Summer & Fall; Uncommon in Winter
*From Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Part 2. Bardolph: “Oh Happy Day! I wouldn’t even trade a knighthood for my new, good fortune.”
© Photographs, images and text by Jack Donachy unless otherwise noted.
For a list of reference materials used in this project, see: Birds of Chignik Lake