White-tailed Ptarmigans have been on my bucket list for a few years now. My interest has been often piqued when naturalist and photographer friends would post – or tell me – about sightings of these denizens of our alpine meadows.
Last year, on the day before Highway 40 in Kananaskis Country closed for the winter, I joined my good friends Kathryn and Claudia on a trip to the Highwood Meadows parking lot in an attempt to get a glimpse of these elusive snow birds. We didn’t realize that the snow would be waist deep (oops) so we had to stick to the well-packed snowshoe trails in the area. We saw plenty of tracks and sign, but did not get even one glimpse of a bird.
This year, we thought we’d start our quest a bit earlier, so Claudia and I decided to check the area on Friday November 25. We strapped on snowshoes and set out in the snow and howling winds across the flats, keeping our eyes peeled for any ptarmigan sign. The wind and snow obliterated any tracks that might have been left that day, and the few other brave birders out scouring the landscape mentioned that the birds had been seen the day before, but had been flushed several times by some over-zealous photographers. We finally gave up when darkness settled over the mountains.
The next day, joined by Kathryn and getting an earlier start, we tried again. Thankfully, the wind was not as gusty and the sun even tried to shine a few times. We set off on the same paths we’d followed the day before, then soon decided to fan out and continue down the valley on both sides of the creek.
What a thrill it was to finally see our first bird of the day, tucked in for a nap in the qaminiq (bowl) of a small spruce tree. Using our long lenses, we snapped a few pictures and then left it to snooze. Claudia, with her keen sense of hearing, then announced that she heard more birds on the other side of the creek, just below some big boulders. Kathryn and I hurried over to join her, and for the next hour, we were treated to an intimate glimpse into the lives of these amazing birds.
We kept a respectful distance at all times, moving slowly and then sitting quietly in the snow. The birds soon determined that we posed little threat, as they actually flew to the bushes beside us and started feeding. How remarkable it was to watch their behaviour! I had no idea that they would crash land in the snow and then either sit and peek out at the world around them, or disappear altogether under the snowpack. At one point, we were photographing four birds that were feeding right in front of us. Within seconds, all four of them completely disappeared. A few minutes later, one reappeared up the slope.
As we photographed and watched them, we enjoyed listening to their chatter, and were delighted to watch them go about their daily tasks—stretching, dozing, nibbling at the buds of small bushes, sunbathing, flying on occasion from spot to spot, relaxing and wading through the fluffy snow with their huge, feather-covered snowshoe-feet.
After about an hour, we decided that it was best to leave. We thanked the birds for sharing a part of their day with us and bid them adieu before setting back to the parking lot. Fittingly, a howling wind came up and escorted us back to our vehicles. We headed for home feeling very, very blessed.