Nature on Trail: Ptarmigan
By Lauren Braden
Sometimes, a trail gives you more than a splashing waterfall or stunning vista. If you’re lucky, a trail can lead you right to a rare bird.
While some hikers cast their gaze down at their feet for trillium or tiger lilies, I’m usually looking up to the sky, binoculars in hand, looking for feathered creatures like owls, finches and warblers. Yeah, I’m a birder, and Washington boasts about 400 species of birds, making this a great state to live in for folks like me.
A few years back, I found myself on a quest to see, for the very first time, one of Washington’s most elusive birds—the white-tailed ptarmigan. If you regularly hike in Washington’s high country, you’ve probably seen one, perhaps dozens, of these chicken-like birds waddling around on rocky slopes. But for some reason, after many day hikes at Mount Rainier, a grueling backpack into the Enchantments, and days spent scouring the ground in the Pasayten Wilderness, I had yet to see this bird.
The smallest grouse in North America, the white-tailed ptarmigan is found in remote, rocky alpine areas at around 7,000 feet in Washington. Which is precisely why they are such a sought-after bird: ptarmigans do not inhabit many areas a birder can just drive to. Seeing the ptarmigan requires real effort. In my case, it meant a few summers full of high elevation day hikes and backpacking trips in alpine country of the Cascades before finally (and literally) stumbling upon a whole family of them one summer on Copper Ridge near Mount Baker.
Not only do ptarmigans inhabit remote areas, they are cryptically colored to blend in well with their surroundings, and often do not move when approached. To step on a ptarmigan during your first encounter is not beyond the realm of possibility. They are masters of camouflage; during the summer, they are mottled brown and black with white on the wings, belly and tail. In winter, the birds are a pure snowy white, except for a coal black bill and eyes. When perched motionless atop a granite slab, only the keenest observers will spot the bird.
Ptarmigan are permanent residents of the alpine areas they occupy. Although they do tend to move to lower elevations in winter where they can find vegetation to feed on, they almost always stay above snowline. They build their nests right on the ground, so if you see an adult ptarmigan in late spring or early summer, watch where you step—there may be a nest nearby!
If you have seen a white-tailed ptarmigan, please know that you are in a lucky minority and the envy of your birdwatching friends. When you see a ptarmigan for the first time, you will almost certainly emit some sort of cooing sound. They are beyond cute.
Where to See Them
With an observant eye, you may be able to spot white-tailed ptarmigan above 7,000 feet in the Cascades. If you’re not up for a backpack trip into alpine wilderness, there are some reliable day hikes for spotting this bird. Ptarmigan Ridge near Mount Baker is one of the more accessible places to spot one. Hike to Crater Mountain in the Pasayten. Harts Pass, the highest elevation you can drive to in Washington, is another good area. Both the Paradise and Sunrise areas at Mount Rainier are good ptarmigan-spotting locales.