On Thursday morning I met Cameron, Boris, and Yammy in Carcross for a day of searching for ptarmigan. Leaving Mom’s van in front of the Caribou Crossing Coffee shop, I hopped into Boris and Yammy’s 4X4 Land Crusher and we began our bouncy journey up the Montana Mountain path. The road for the first ways had been worked on and was fairly smooth, but further up the road started to crumble. There were large boulders scattered across the road in many areas, deep trenches that stretched across the road, and in one area the road had collapsed into a steep drop-off into a creek on each side. The road here was just barely wide enough to squeak across, and thankfully trees on one shoulder helped to stabilize one side.
No larger car or truck would have been able to get any further. After about an hour of hard-core 4X4ing we broke tree level and emerged into an expanse of mountain that resembled tundra. On a hill to the right, a majestic Caribou with an immense rack stood overlooking the autumn-coloured land. Below him, a cow and her calf approached.
We only moved on from that spot once the bull had disappeared down the other side of his hill. We met him again further on, and saw about eight more Caribou – all cows and their calves. We pulled over again for a closer view of the bull and for a bit of ptarmigan searching. It didn’t take long before we heard quiet clucking and growling sounds rising from the undergrowth off the road. As we searched, Yammy spotted a couple of ptarmigan fly down behind a willow on the shoulder of the road. It only took a minute for us to get to the willow, but there were no ptarmigan to be seen. A crackling of branches on the opposite side of the road to my right revealed an entire family of Willow Ptarmigan scuttling away from us through the grass and willows. Their rufous-coloured heads and necks blended right into the red of the leaves around them, but their white bellies and wings shone like a beacon at our point of view. All nine members of the family crowded underneath a single stunted spruce tree that appeared much too small to house them all; miraculously, it completely hid all but one. After a while they gathered enough courage to come out into the open – one by one – to run up a slope and disappear into the brush.
Continuing on up the road with occasional stops to identify sparrows, we saw three Snowshoe Hares, billions of Ground Squirrels, flocks of Lapland Longspurs, Horned Larks, Savannah Sparrows, White-crowned Sparrows, and shockingly, a flock of twenty Mountain Bluebirds travelling the mountain hills above tree level.
We pulled over to begin our hike at a point in the road that forms a Y intersection just past the old Stone Houses, in a valley formed between three peaks. One of the peaks I think was Montana Peak, the highest peak on the mountain. An old abandoned mine could be found just down the road from us. Not very specific, but I cannot find a nice detailed map of the mountain except for the biking trails. You can read a bit about the geography and history of the mountain here if you are interested.
Our goal for this area, Cameron said, was White-tailed Ptarmigan and maybe some Rock Ptarmigan. This spot is the spot he always goes to on Montana Mt. to find White-tailed Ptarmi. He told me that in contrast to their name, Rock Ptarmigan prefer open areas with very low vegetation and little rock exposure, except for the odd boulder which they like to perch on. Typically, the Rock Ptarmigan are the tallest thing on the slopes in that habitat. It is actually White-tailed Ptarmigan that prefer the really rocky slopes.
We heard a very strange call nearly as soon as we stepped out of the Land Crusher. It had the quality of a small raptor and shorebird call combined (I thought of a Merlin/Yellowlegs combo), consisting of a series of short, shrill, and piercing notes. Occasionally a longer grating note was made. We must have spent an hour trying to get closer and pin-point the source of the sound before Cameron finally spotted a White-tailed Ptarmigan calling. Then we saw some soar down the slopes. Soar is an accurate description, unlike with most of those game birds. Instead of flapping furiously with short glides in between, the White-tailed Ptarmigan seem only to need a few flaps to get air-borne enough to soar smoothly down the mountain side. On observation, their wings appear longer and almost sleeker-looking than the Willow Ptarmigan and various grouse species. When they turned their backs to us they seemed to lose their outline into the surrounding rock which was nearly the exact shade of grey as they were.
I went further down the slope to get a documentation shot of my lifer White-tailed Ptarmigan while Boris and Yammy had a bite to eat and Cameron went to relocate a flock of fifteen ptarmigan that had flown by. After a few poor shots my subject ran away and I went to rejoin Cameron. Boris and Yammy began a hike down into and across the valley to view a lake made by the melt of a small glacier above it, while Cameron and I began a hike up the nearest peak in search of more ptarmigan.
It wasn’t hard to look for them as the whole flock was doing those strange calls, but it was hilariously difficult to spot them and figure out exactly how far up the mountain they were. “They must be just over that next rise” we repeated as we passed rise after rise and went higher up the peak. Finally, some flew higher up, acting as white beacons for us. They were a bit skittish when we first approached, but tamed quickly after we sat down and stopped approaching.
Scrawny necks were stretching out from behind near rocks on all sides… we were definitely surrounded.
After they had a chance to watch us, they didn’t care what we did. We took photos, crawled up to within feet of them, got up and walked around, talked, and none of them blinked an eye at us. We had to watch our step because sleeping ptarmigan kept waking up practically under our feet in the shelter of the rocks.
Two ptarmigan in particular just sat and didn’t move even when we were close enough to easily reach out and touch them.
Meanwhile, some other ptarmigan – probably the males – continued to loudly call and fly to various perches. We thought this behaviour could have been attributed to spring-like weather conditions that day, encouraging the males to verbalize their harsh breeding calls. Cameron’s past experience had been that White-tailed Ptarmigan were generally meek and mild; not as verbal and active as these ones were. At one point in between the calls of the ptarmigan we heard what Cameron identified as a Pika, something I had never seen or heard before. We never did get a visual, but Boris and Yammy did down in the valley.
After we had spent an hour or two with the flock we had a look for Boris and Yammy from our high vantage point. When we didn’t spot them, we began walking on an angle down and towards the other side of the peak in case they were around the corner. We never did see them until we left the peak and walked down the road back to the Land Crusher. They were following a creek draining from the glacial lake back towards us. Sustenance was the next thing that took priority. After a good lunch and rest, we drove up the road towards the abandoned mine where we would spend our last hour on the mountain looking for Rock Ptarmigan – the third and final ptarmigan species we needed to make our field expedition complete.
We all hiked past the mine and up the hill it was under, scanning constantly with our binoculars, but no more ptarmigan revealed themselves. We noticed that on this area of the mountain, there were no berries on the bushes and no seeds that we could see. It looked as though it may have been too cold a summer up there for anything to reproduce, and it seemed unlikely that we would see anything there. We did hear a Marmot whistling from down at the bottom of the valley which was pretty cool – another mammal I had never seen or heard before. Our final sighting for the day was an adult Golden Eagle getting chased by three Ravens.
Our expedition came to an end as we drove back down the mountain and went to the Caribou Crossing Coffee shop where the owner, Heike, served us some delicious coffee and smoothies before we all parted ways. It was one of the best days I have had this year; a warm, gorgeous day in beautiful landscape with wonderful friends and awesome birds.
Thank you very much to Boris, Yammy, and Cameron for having me along!