Ptarmigan

White-tailed Ptarmigan. (Photo by the VanDerlugt Family)





On Dec. 19 I headed up into the Chugach Front Range looking for ptarmigan, hoping I might add some number of them to Anchorage’s annual Christmas Bird Count. For the third straight time I was foiled in that attempt. 

Not only did I fail to find any of the three species of ptarmigan that inhabit Anchorage’s count area, I hardly encountered any birds at all. My meager total for the 2020 designated count day: two boreal chickadees, three common redpolls, one raven, and, the highlight of my day, a single American dipper hunting insect larvae in the South Fork of Campbell Creek. All of that in five hours of rambling—and sometimes trudging—through the foothills of Chugach State Park, while covering some 7 to 7½ miles.

Not even one black-capped chickadee. How could that be?

It was a pretty poor showing, but not entirely unexpected given the day’s heavy snowfall and low visibility. Pat Pourchot, the leader of my area (one of five within the local count circle), would later confirm, “Most parties reported slow birding with few species and numbers. The most productive birding seemed to be in and around neighborhoods and feeders, not the woods.” Or the mountains.

Although 185 people participated in Anchorage’s Dec. 19 count—an impressive number given the weather—collectively we found only 39 species of birds, well below the average of recent years. And though we counted 24,489 individual birds, nearly 16,000 of those were bohemian waxwings, the third highest Anchorage tally ever for that species. Clearly the weather didn’t keep them in hiding.

While I once again failed in my mission, the Vanderlugt family found 11 white-tailed ptarmigan on the upper slopes of Near Point, a new Anchorage CBC record. They also got some excellent images of the birds, which seemed to be showing off their snow-white bodies (only their eyes and beak small points of black among the white). 

The Anchorage Audubon Society’s “commander in chief” (aka president) Mr. Whitekeys—a serious birder besides being an Alaskan comedian of renown—considered those white tails one of two count-day “stars,” the other being a “spectacular” northern flicker observed at a feeder station. (For those who don’t know the bird, the flicker is a striking member of the woodpecker family and among the more uncommon species to inhabit the Anchorage area.)

Other notable count day results: participants found all-time highs of three species besides the white-tailed ptarmigan: four saw-whet owls, three golden-crowned sparrows, and two Lincoln’s sparrows. They also tallied the second-highest count ever of hairy woodpeckers (66) and third highest of downy woodpeckers (104). I’ll note that woodpeckers are thriving right now, in response to the spruce bark beetle outbreak. 

Anchorage’s count week—defined as the three days on either side of count day—also delivered some noteworthy finds, including willow and rock ptarmigan (the latter seen only twice before on Christmas counts); cedar waxwings (observed only once before locally); a red crossbill and yellow-rumped warbler (seen four times previously); and a boreal owl (found five times previously).

A full report on Anchorage’s CBC should eventually be posted on the Anchorage Audubon Society’s website, www.anchorageaudubon.org. Those unwilling to wait for the website posting (2019 CBC results are not yet provided, suggesting it may be awhile) may contact the group at info@anchorageaudubon.org.

Though I didn’t share the company of many birds, count day proved an adventure, especially when I ascended into alpine habitat. Given a couple of options by Pat Pourchot, my aforementioned area leader, I decided to head up the lower flanks of Wolverine Peak. Accompanied by my mixed collie, Denali (who always seems ready for a challenge), I left the Prospect Heights trailhead shortly after 10 a.m. in dusky light. It wouldn’t get much brighter the entire day.

Only a couple of inches of fresh powder covered the hard-packed trail when we set out, so the walking was easy as we moved through the quiet and still forest, the heavy snowfall dampening any sounds. The woods were beautiful with the snow-shrouded trees and deep silence, so I couldn’t be too disappointed by the absence of birds.

Trail conditions gradually deteriorated when we left the main trail and turned toward Wolverine Peak. Though the mountain is popular with hikers and hill runners, it quickly became clear that few, if any, had taken that route since a big snow earlier in the week. 

The higher we went, the punchier the trail became. Beyond a landmark known as “Turnaround Rock,” I began to posthole here and there while trying to find the best path forward. And the wind began to pick up ominously. But I was working hard enough (and temperatures were mild enough) that I removed my hat and mittens and upper wind shell to keep from sweating heavily.

Still, I was determined to proceed. I wanted to reach the big human-built mound of rocks that I’ve named the “Tundra Cairn” but is perhaps more commonly called “The Rock Pile.” It’s located near the perimeter of Anchorage’s CBC area and where the Wolverine Peak trail breaks into the open while following a rocky shoulder along the edge of a large alpine bowl.

My ambitions were thwarted by high winds and a long section of snow-drifted trail. Beneath the fresh powder, in this area up to a foot or two deep, was a slick layer of hard-packed snow. Even with my ice grippers, I kept sliding downhill. 

Unable to follow the trail—or even tell where it was—I angled uphill toward a large boulder. There, Denali waited, her dark fur largely covered in wet snow. She looked at me as if to say, “No more, please.”

“Okay, that’s enough,” I agreed, even though we were within five to ten minutes of The Rock Pile—under less harrowing conditions. I had become rather miserable and knew I’d soon become chilled while pelted by wind-driven snow and pounded by a roaring gale. And the chances of seeing a ptarmigan, or any other bird, in the blizzard-like conditions seemed nil.

“Let’s go down,” I suggested. And so we did.

Reaching a stand of large hemlocks, we stopped to snack and I added a couple layers of clothes. Below the hemlocks, back in more protected subalpine habitat, the wind eased and we could follow our own trail through the powder, making things easier. 

Continuing our descent, we were happily surprised to meet Jan and her dog, Guido. They’d gotten a late start but Jan decided to track us down and maybe spot some birds along the way. We spent another couple of hours hiking through the hills, but couldn’t find a single bird—until we came upon the dipper.

That one bird washed away any lingering frustrations or disappointment I might still have been carrying. I first noticed the slate-gray bird standing on a snow bank along the creek, its body bobbing up and down as dippers tend to do. From there it fluttered to the opposite shore, stepped into the shallows, and began dunking its head into the frigid waters, looking for insect larvae. Now how marvelous was that, to find a dipper nonchalantly hunting for a meal on this stormy day, when nearly all the other forest birds had gone into hiding?

Sure, I wish like heck that I’d found some ptarmigan. But that lone dipper made my count day a success and I thanked the bird for revealing itself.

The feeder on Jan’s property added to my late afternoon satisfaction. Drawn by sunflower seeds and peanut butter, birds flocked to her yard (relatively speaking): 15 pine grosbeaks, a few more boreal chickadees and, best of all to me, five black caps, calling brightly in the dimming light. 

 

Anchorage nature writer Bill Sherwonit is a widely published essayist and the author of more than a dozen books, including “Living with Wildness: An Alaskan Odyssey” and “Animal Stories: Encounters with Alaska’s Wildlife.” Readers wishing to send comments or questions directly to Bill may do so at akgriz@hotmail.com.

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