The hike begins early in the morning, around 5:30 for we with creatures to meet and places three miles up the valley to be. I don’t know if snowshoes will be needed, but a mix of deep drifts and warm April days have conjured visions of post-holing to my thighs. I’ll attach the snowshoes to my pack with a bungee and have them handy.
I reach the appointed rendezvous site early, my long walk made easy because the trail this morning remains frozen hard. The time is now 6:30, but the light remains murky. A 6 o’clock (on the nose) sunrise didn’t happen here. Instead, the horizon was blocked by a ring of high, rocky peaks. For now, surrounded by all that high, weather-sculpted stone, I remain in relative darkness. At the same time, I am humbled. There’s a strong sense I’ve entered a massive cathedral and the Creator Himself is present.
Anyway, sunlight won’t spill through a notch-like pass to the east until sometime after 7 a.m. Which is fine. I’m where I need to be. And the willow ptarmigan whom I’ve come to photograph are stirring.
I sit for a while in the dim light watching the sun glow on the highest crags. Below me, in a willow flat on the valley floor, the mutters and cackles have begun. Willow ptarmigan by late April have paired up, males and females, and set up territories. The males cackle periodically the way domestic roosters crow, to welcome the morning and warn away would-be interlopers.
After I’ve cooled down from the hike, I stand up and walk slowly toward the nearest cackle. I take perhaps 20 steps before the first ptarmigan appears. It’s a male, no doubt the cackler himself, decked out in classic breeding colors including chocolate-brown head and neck highlighted by scarlet eye combs. The remainder of his suit is pure white.
I pull out my camera, dial up the ISO, and hazard a shot or two. It’s still a little dark. Suddenly, a snowball rolls out of a patch of shrubs to the left and comes alive. It’s a female willow ptarmigan. Her springtime dress is solid white, better to keep her unseen and safe from predators.
The reluctant sun makes its appearance even as I raise the camera. The male struts over and collects his mate. The two trot off, and so my day truly begins.
I begin walking up a creek channel, careful to avoid open leads, and encounter more ptarmigan, all in pairs. The cackles of possessive males, tiny feathered mountain kings, ring out everywhere. They sound a little like laughing Jokers in a Batman movie, but with slightly higher-pitched voices.
If you find a male willow ptarmigan this time of year, a female is certainly nearby. The males are loathe to let the females out of sight, and chase them everywhere.
At one point I follow a pair of birds up a steep hillside. A large south-facing patch of tundra was exposed by the sun and I’m startled by how starkly the birds stand out against the snowless ground. Apparently, no predators lurk nearby.
The birds don’t feed long in the snowless patch. I’m relieved when they hop back into the snow, the pure-white female blending in perfectly.
I spend a few hours in the high country, chasing tundra chickens like a man possessed. But as the sun warms and the trail grows punchy, the snow softening and grainy like coarse sugar, I know it’s time to pack up and hike out. Willow ptarmigan are clearly made for alpine tundra, but it’s no country for old men.