I hadn’t visited the mountains in search of ptarmigan since the third week of March. Then, deep snows had settled into the high-country creek bottom, covering most of the willows the birds seek for food and cover. These were willow ptarmigan (as opposed to the rock or white-tailed varieties), and simply enough they would be found wherever their preferred food was available.
So, I returned last week and things had changed. I heard cackles at first light and knew the birds had returned. It’s breeding season for these subarctic grouse and they are drawn to the creek bottom early each spring to select mates, fight, and eventually nest. The males in particular – identified by prominent scarlet eye combs and brown necks – have a lot to crow about this time of year.
Some of the birds I encountered had red and purple stains on their necks and faces. This seemed strange until I looked at the surrounding mountains and saw up on the high ridges large patches of ground windblown bare of snow. The birds had been up there feeding on last fall’s leftover blueberries and lowbush cranberries. No wonder I hadn’t found them in March.
In any case, I was relieved to have caught up with them and spent a pleasant morning watching the ptarmigan go at their annual courting in a high-country rite of spring.