Just over a week ago, the temperatures in Anchorage were dipping below zero degrees F. This white-tailed ptarmigan tried to make the best of the cold weather by hunkering in a beam of sunlight.
Incidentally, white-tailed ptarmigan are North America’s smallest grouse. Adults top out at weights of around 12 ounces.
I was fortunate to encounter a lynx in the half light prior to dawn. Sadly, my camera was stuffed in my pack for the hike into the high country and by the time I pulled it out, the cat was gone. So, no actual lynx pictures, but I’ll never forget the way it wagged its black-tipped, bobbed tail before vanishing into the alpine hemlocks.
Ptarmigan were not plentiful this time, though last year on the same date willow ptarmigan – Alaska’s state bird – were abundant. The paucity of birds may have been related to the park being open this year to snowmachines (that’s Alaskan for snowmobiles). Fast, noisy engines hurtling through a narrow alpine valley is not conducive to wildlife viewing.
But, near the head of the valley where snowmachine activity thinned out, signs of ptarmigan began to appear.
Eventually, I heard the slightest sound of ice crystals collapsing and looked up near the trail to see a living snowball. It was the white-tailed ptarmigan, the only ptarmigan I would see that day. I was glad to see it, initially at first light and again on the trail home when I found it bathing in morning sunlight.
Only a week later, I would be watching newly arriving trumpeter swans and Canada geese arriving in the lowlands nearby. More on that later.