Ptarmigan of the Tundra

A day like no other starts as many have this winter. Laying out layer upon layer of clothes which Jack investigates, packing it all in the car, promising Kirsten I’ll stay safe and then driving for an hour to a different world. A white wilderness.

For the first time my dad accompanies me. Keen for a challenge, our aim is to scale the Munro Carn Aosda hoping to see the elusive snow grouse among the scree fields surrounding its peak and the view across the Cairngorm range.

Today is my sixth and possibly final attempt among the snow searching for the hardiest of birds. Throughout I have encountered mountain hares, snow buntings, whiteout conditions, fierce winds and temperatures as low as -15C but never Lagopus mutus. As ever I’m hopeful.

Optimism soon vanishes as the area is shrouded in cloud upon arrival. Unable to see five metres in front of us never mind miles the realisation dawns that we can’t safely scale our Munro. Instead, keen to make the most of our day, we go off in search of mountain hares closer to the car and at a lower elevation.

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We see one, maybe two hares at the edge of our visibility before they disappear back into the intensifying haze and before long we stop to consider heading back down for our own safety as the steadily increasing snowfall reduces our visibility even further.

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Snacks and contemplation.

Slowly descending we ponder what to do. Sit it out and hope it clears or head home and avoid the risk of being stuck up here?

We decide to take a small risk, picking up bird seed from the car, we make our way through the cloud shrouded car park to the edge where snow buntings frequent.

Approaching the edge we see another soul has had the same idea and there as many as 30 buntings bouncing about in front of his lens. I signal him and he signals back and we creep closer. Just as we get in a good position another photographer in a car decides to start their engine, the birds scatter and land on a rock nearby where the huddle up and sleep. Today is not going to plan.

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During the summer breeding season male snow buntings will fight over territory but in winter they flock together to migrate and forage.

Half an hour passes. The lack of bunting activity is eased by the clearing of the skies and a glimmer of sunlight. With our surroundings now devoid of mist for the first time the peaks of the Caingorms Tundra topped Munro’s come back into view, refocusing our minds on the reason for our visit and we prepare ourselves for an uphill ascension.

Walking along the verge of the road towards our starting point our heads are only lifted from watching our legs plunge into knee deep snow by a wattle on the wintry slope  above. As my eyes quickly try to locate the source of the throaty gargle I nonchalantly start,

‘That will be a red grouse dad, ptarmigan don’t come this far do…..’

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I briefly consider retracting my empirically wrong unfinished statement but my eye’s  are drawn to more movement.

‘One.. two….three….. ‘

I murmur all the up to eleven as sheer surprise, turns to excitement which turns to panic with the uncertainty of how long this rare sighting might last.

Making ourselves inhuman as possible we crouch, taking off our bags and removing our cameras before crawling slightly closer, positioning ourselves comfortably in the snow wary of causing disturbance. Hoping to do the moment justice.

We watch as the covey pick at one patch of exposed, lifeless, almost black, heather poking through the snowy surface before waddling to another. All the time getting closer and closer.

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Ptarmigan are known to eat berries, leaves, buds, seeds and flowers but in the depths of winter the birds in the Scottish Highlands rely on exposed heather to  make up the bulk of their diet.

As they waddle towards us the beauty of these birds becomes evident.

The males bare a beautiful black band connecting their eyes to their beaks with flecks of brown at the tip of their feathers as their winter coat begins to moult for the Spring ahead.

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One male still wears his winter coat, an unbroken white plumage, and displays the classic red wattle above the eye. He is by far the most aggressive of the group, harassing other males when they come to close.

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The females are nearly pure white, only their black eyes, tail and beak stand out from the snow as they pass.

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The group continue to meander across the landscape as we snap away. Right in front of us a patch of unbroken pristine snow lies and as each bird enters it they almost disappear so effective is their camouflage.

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Being true alpine specialists they typically choose to roost and scavenge in stony, steep inaccessible areas to avoid predators where their adaptions give them an advantage but the extreme conditions of the morning must have forced them down the hill to the heather moorland where we now sit.

Any wariness the birds have might have had has long since vanished and a couple descend the slope and waddle straight towards.

The female stops close by and plunges her beak into the snow, carving out a clump of heather which she belligerently feeds on.

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The male storms right past us showing off his feet; well adapted to the climate.

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Ptarmigan have thick feathers on their feet, that spread when their foot is planted increasing the area their body weight is distributed over, allowing them to walk atop the softest of snow. Much in the same way a snow shoe works.

We are now surrounded by Ptarmigan which allows us to be picky only photographing the birds amidst the purest surroundings, creating the minimalist images I’d hoped for before each trip.

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More than an hour passes and our memory cards are bursting with images. So to are the birds stomachs it seems as they have finished feeding and begin to settle down, huddling tightly together, preening at their white plumage.

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A covey of Ptarmigan.

 

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One by one, having had a good clean, they nod off.

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We wait a short while but the timing feels right to move on and leave them to dream in peace.

We gently slide off the slope careful not to cause any unnecessary disturbance and leave them snuggled in the snow together.

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The skies are now a bright blue and with plenty of daylight left we decide to soldier on and scale our Munro with tired legs.

Forty to fifty minutes later we struggle to the top, exhausted but elated, and take in the wonderful view across the range as well as the obligatory selfie for evidence.

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What a day.

Thanks for reading.

Elliot.

 

 

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