This year’s ptarmigan hike up Montana Mountain didn’t look too promising as our convoy of vehicles pulled into Carcross. Rain beat against the windshield, and the mountain was blanketed in heavy, gray, snow clouds. Though the way to our target birds looked grueling, we mustered up our courage, fueled up on caffeine from the coffee shop, added a few more clothing layers, and ploughed on ahead in Boris’s ‘Land Crusher’.
The weather only got worse as we ascended the mountain… as did the road. Word had it that the road had been grated right up to the top, but in reality, we found that new road only lasted to the main trail head a little ways up the slope. After that it deteriorated, having been badly ravaged by the heavy summer rainfalls, and torn to pieces by years of slow erosion. Old runoff creek beds had long ago eaten their way through the dirt, making travel extremely difficult. Parts of the road had sluffed away into deep drop-offs, making the road so narrow the truck could only just squeak through. It was too easy to imagine the vehicle, and all of us with it, tipping into that drop off – falling to a sudden death at the bottom of the mountain. If it were not for the incredible ‘Land Crusher’, we would never have made it to the top!
Rain had turned to wet snow by the time we reached our destination. For Boris, Cameron, and I, it was a familiar place; a harsh landscape that had acted as the setting for last years’ exciting White-tailed Ptarmigan encounters. For Adam, it was a barren-looking winterland that held the promise of a new lifer. We set off on foot into the vast, foggy, tundra, careful to watch our way and not get lost in the disorienting snowstorm. About ten meters from the truck, over the strengthening wind, we heard the first call.
A high-pitched shriek, the call of the White-tailed Ptarmigan resembles something like a falcon and a shorebird call melded together. It rose from the valley in between the mountain peaks, in the same area we had found them in last year. It didn’t take long to spot them, thankfully; though they were about 2/3 molted into their white plumage, they were all screaming – begging to be found. A flock of them huddled in the snow among the willows, seeking shelter with a seemingly non-nonchalant attitude.
The more we hung around, the more ptarmigan appeared – just like last year, when Cameron and I had them popping out from the rocks practically beneath our feet. The variation in plumage molt was fascinating to see; some were still nearly half gray, and others were nearly fully white. Watching them fly was unsettling. In the gray, flat light, and the falling snow, the bird’s white wings, tail, and head vanished against their background, with only the gray patches on their back revealing their path. Cameron pointed out how this would likely be extremely handy in losing pursuing predators – for a raptor, their target would transform from an obvious ‘sitting duck’ to a fast-moving gray spot, the bird suddenly appearing to be only a fraction of the size it had been when sitting still.
We did see something that may have been some kind of small falcon in that area as we explored, along with the tracks of a lonesome fox. Further back down the mountain a Northern Harrier and a Sharp-shinned Hawk showed up, along with a magnificent bull Caribou. Everywhere, plants were reaching from the snow, looking to be dying a slow and painful death, but actually happily sinking into the plant form of hibernation. Crow Berries stained the snow purple beneath our feet, and a few brightly coloured leaves still desperately clung to the twigs of the Dwarf Birch, crystallized in frost.
Eventually, we got cold enough from the wind-driven ice crystals that we opted for a retreat, and began making our way back down the mountain. We left the cruel face of winter behind, descending into the warm, lake valley below.
The day’s adventures did not end as we all parted ways that afternoon – Cameron and I joined up again in town for a trip to the Whitehorse Sewage Lagoons, to twitch the Sharp-tailed Sandpiper he and Boris had discovered the day before. He knew exactly where to look, and spotted it right away on a distant mud spit – known by few as ‘Sanderling Spit’. This shorebird was a lifer for me, one that the two of us had unsuccessfully searched for in the previous fall. They are very similar to Pectoral Sandpipers, and can be easy to miss unless you are looking for them specifically; however, this bird stood out as being bright orange in the middle of all the dull brown Pecs. The distinct, reddish cap, and the bright white supercilium (eyebrow) contrasted sharply, bringing out another obvious difference between the Sharp-tailed and Pectorals. Cameron soon spotted a second on the other side of the lagoon, a bird that was so dull it looked at first glance to be nothing special. He again pointed out to me the red cap and white supercilium, which are the most distinct identification feature for this species. The difference between the two birds in appearance was startling. A nice selection of other species were resting in the area as well, waiting for the weather to lift. About 30 Black-bellied Plovers, a Wilson’s Snipe, an Osprey, many Rusty Blackbirds, and a flock of American Pipits with a single Yellow-rumped Warbler tagging along, milled in the area.
By the time we finished birding, the light was waning and we were both pretty tired. It had been a long day of hard work out in the elements, which resulted in fantastic birds and epic stories with wonderful friends! Can’t wait to (hopefully) do it again next year 🙂