The Great Ptarmigan Hunt

Since I began researching birding in Glacier National Park nearly a year ago, one of the birds that I most wanted to see was the White-tailed Ptarmigan.  I liked that Ptarmigans are unusual — rare, range -restricted, cute quail-like birds.  Ptarmigans live in harsh, alpine environments far above the tree line.  Getting up to their snow-covered habitat in late June, when we were going to the park, could be a challenge.   They have thickly feathered feet and even feathers around their nostrils to help them deal with the cold.  Every winter, they molt out of their speckled brown breeding plumage into a beautiful snow white plumage for camouflage against the snow.  These specialized adaptations have helped ptarmigans survive the cold, northern winters for millennia, but in a rapidly warming climate, they could be fatal.

When I was researching Glacier, I bought a bird finding guide called “Glacier is For the Birds” by ranger and biologist David Benson, who studies the effects of climate change on White-tailed Ptarmigans in the park.  The book was very useful in learning what birds we could expect to see on the different trails, and more generally, some basic ecology of the park.  While we were at Glacier, we had the opportunity to go on a bird walk with Dr. Benson.  We had already seen all the common birds in the area of the walk, but we went for the chance to pick his brain about ptarmigans and couple of other target birds.  He told us that the best place to see White-tailed Ptarmigans in the park was Logan Pass, but that this was a difficult time of year, since the Going-to-the-Sun Road (the only way to get to Logan Pass) was closed to all vehicles due to snow.  Also, the ptarmigans don’t have chicks or flock this early in the year, so if we saw one, it would likely be by itself.  He didn’t sound very encouraging. When we pressed him about our chances, he kind of raised his eyebrows and said,  “Well, you can try ….” He said to scan every patch of exposed rock downslope from the Hidden Lake Nature Trail, and if we didn’t find ptarmigans there, to walk up and scan the higher rocky patches.

Dr. Benson also pointed out that, unfortunately, there were less White-tailed Ptarmigans at Logan now than there used to be, probably because of declining moisture levels due to climate change.  At this point he thought there were only about 16 breeding adults left there, less than half the number that had been there 50 years ago.  Ptarmigans get stressed by temperatures over seventy degrees, and need snow or snowmelt to cool themselves down.  Less snow and earlier snowmelt makes it harder and harder for them to cool themselves down sufficiently.

Three days previously, we had attempted to find Ptarmigans at Piegan Pass, a high pass through the mountains separating the center of the park from Many Glacier where we were staying.  According to Dr. Benson’s book, a small number of Ptarmigans could be found along the barren, rocky top of the ridge line at the pass.  The five mile hike to Piegan Pass from Jackson Glacier Overlook where we left our car was almost deserted.  Flocks of Pine Siskins and Cassin’s Finches foraged on the clean white snow beneath the stunted forest of Sub-alpine Fir.  The mountain felt pristine and peaceful, exactly how I had always dreamed of mountainous coniferous forests.  I saw the blur of a wing out of the corner of my eye.  Turning I caught a Boreal Chickadee slipping into a fir.  Soon we were surrounded by Boreal and Mountain Chickadees, and Red-breasted Nuthatches.

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Boreal Chickadee (Poecile hudsonicus)

It wasn’t long before the poorly traveled trail completely disappeared into the snow.  We wandered towards the wall of mountain peaks up ahead, trying to find a footprint that might show where the trail went.  The first people we met were two cross-country skiers, apparently miffed that a family of hikers was attempting to get to the pass.  They told us that they wouldn’t recommend traveling the trail without “trekking boots” or skis.  They emphatically gestured to the snow covered treeless peaks and said the Piegan Pass trail crossed “dangerous snow fields.”  We hoped they were exaggerating.  As we continued to flounder about, trying to find the trail, we heard a loud, raucous noise from the dark sky above us.  Looking up, we saw two large, gray birds with black wings swooping between  tall spruce trees.  We felt cheered by the Clark’s Nutcrackers, another life bird to keep us going.

Upon emerging from the trees, we were surrounded by steep slopes of flaky red and brown rocks, and the occasional stunted fir that managed to survive the harsh conditions.  We could see the trail crossing the peaks in front of us – a thin, straight line, mid way up the steep slopes.  Once we had climbed up to the trail, we could see the whole valley below us, and in the distance, Siyeh Bend in the closed portion of Going-to-the-Sun Road.  Periodically, thick bands of icy snow crossed the path, from the exposed peaks down to the trees far below.   The only birds we saw were two Mountain Bluebirds huddling near the tree line.  As we crossed one of the snowfields, our shoes barely digging into the steep, slippery surface, a man carrying a large backpack came around the bend.  He was extremely exuberant and cheerful about the difficult hiking conditions, in stark contrast to the skiers we had met earlier.  He told me and my brother that the “funnest thing to do in the park” if we had snow pants and an ice axe, was to slide down the snowfields all the way to tree line and meet up with our parents at the bottom of the valley.

Continuing along the path, we stumbled and slid over three more ice sheets with the wind roaring up from the valley and pushing us against the mountain wall.  We almost made it to the pass, stopping periodically and scanning the hillside on either side of us for Ptarmigans.  We knew they might blend in perfectly with the surrounding rocks and didn’t want to miss one in plain sight.  Right before we got to the pass, a steeper ice sheet stopped us.  We were so close, but still just too far to clearly see the rocks there with our binoculars.  How infuriating!

The thought of traveling back over the exposed, icy snowfields with the wind whipping up the valley harder than ever and back down through the snow-covered forest sounded hellish.  Alas, we did not have snow-pants and an ice-axe to slide all the way down!  Still, when we peered down to the road with our binoculars it looked like if we bush-whacked straight down we would encounter a lot less snow.  Once we came out on the road at Siyeh Bend, we could walk back to our car.  We followed the trail back only until it wasn’t too steep to go straight down the mountain.  As we made our way down the rocky slope, my brother suddenly called from ahead that he saw a Gray-crownd Rosy-Finch.  I nearly broke my ankle trying to get to him before it flew away.  It was the first time I had ever seen a Rosy Finch, and I was extremely happy about it.  Several hours later, we emerged on the road, having had an adventure, but not having seen a Ptarmigan.

Earlier in the week, a ranger told us that we could hike four miles from the road closure up to Logan Pass along the Going-to-the-Sun road on weekends, but not on any other days (due to work crews on the roads).  Since we were flying home on Sunday, this meant that if we wanted to go to Logan Pass, Saturday was our last chance.  We got to the Jackson Glacier Parking lot before almost everybody else Saturday morning.

Starting out on foot, the road was wet with dew and early morning rain.  Suddenly, I heard something rustle in the brush to the side of the road.  I drew back as a mother Grizzly Bear and her cub walked across the road.  I was so intent on watching them that I forgot to reach for my camera until it was nearly too late.  I did manage one good shot of the cub as they disappeared into the trees on the other side of the road.

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Grizzly Bear Cub

We enjoyed the views of the many valleys, mountains, streams and glaciers as we walked.  The only people we saw were a few bikers.  The four miles went by surprisingly quickly, and we soon found ourselves at the Logan Pass Visitor Center, which was closed.  The mountain air was clean and sharp.  The 8 foot high Sub-alpine Firs that had been growing over the last half mile of the road finally stopped, giving way to pure, white snow.  A four foot snow pack covered the ground, running from the visitor center all the way up and over the giant mountains in the background.  Every so often, a small patch of rocky alpine vegetation poked out of the snow.  The White-tailed Ptarmigans live in these patches, apparently very rarely walking on the snow or in vegetation taller than themselves (thank goodness!).  We followed the rough location of the Hidden Lake Nature Trail by walking on top of the snow, which was frozen enough to hold us up.  With excitement mounting, we began to search the lower patches for Ptarmigans.  White-crowned Sparrows and Slate-Colored Fox Sparrows foraged in the melting snow on the edges of the rocky patches, along with American Pipits, Cassin’s Finches, and Gray-crowned Rosy Finches, which finally let me get them in good lighting for photos.

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Gray-crowned Rosy-Finch (Leucosticte tephrocotis)

After thoroughly scanning the lower patches, we headed up the trail toward the towering peaks and large alpine slopes.  After having searched for over an hour and not having had any luck, I was beginning to get discouraged.  Climbing over the snow up the mountain was hard work.  The sun had come out, and it was getting hot, and since we were on snow, it was also getting extremely, glaringly, bright.  I decided that if we were going to search thoroughly, somebody should really go up above the rocks and check them from the top.  Climbing the mile or so it took to get there was probably the hardest hike in my life.  My boots dug into the slippery snow down to a good six inches and it got steep.  There would be an extremely steep segment and then it would level out again for awhile, before getting even steeper.  I was hiking over four feet of snow in a short-sleeve shirt.  As I got closer to the rocky patches, I could see the little dots that were my family far below me.  Looking out over the snow plain below me from 7,250 ft above sea level, I could see far beyond the Logan Pass visitor center and into the valley beyond it.

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Logan Pass Photo Credit: Galen Staengl

I began scanning every rocky patch for Ptarmigans and working my way back along the ridge toward the pass.  Soon, I had thoroughly seen every bit of four of the rock piles, so I started making my way toward the fifth, a small cliff like face further out in the sea of snow.  My dad, who had been scanning through our spotting scope, suddenly yelled, “I see one!” I began skidding down the mountain toward my family faster than I ever would have without such incentive.  When I got to the scope a few minutes later the Ptarmigan hadn’t moved (of course it hadn’t, it was sitting in a little indent in the cliff face and nonchalantly pecking at the dirt in front of it).  As I looked at the cute little bird, I felt that I could finally let our trip be a success. We had seen our three most important targets, Gray-crowned Rosy-Finch, Boreal Chickadee, and White-tailed Ptarmigan.  We had also seen many other beautiful new birds and endless gorgeous scenery.  I wasn’t able to get a very good photo at that distance, but my brother got some decent ones.

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White-tailed Ptarmigan (Lagopus leucura) Photo Credit: Theo Staengl

We watched the bird for a half-hour, and then headed back toward the road to get to Kalispell so we could get a good night’s sleep before our 5:30am flight home the next day.

The Biggest Week in American Birding 2017

Last year at the Biggest Week in American Birding in Northwest Ohio, I remember seeing warblers everywhere I looked from the Magee Marsh Wildlife Area boardwalk.  By the end of the festival, we had seen 31 species of warblers, including rarities such as Kirtland’s and Mourning Warblers.   Other migrants were also abundant: Whippoorwill, Black-billed Cuckoo, Curlew Sandpiper, Wilson’s Phalarope, and White-rumped Sandpiper to name a few.  Magee Marsh and other wildlife areas that line Lake Erie in that area serve as migrant traps, where many birds stop to rest and refuel before crossing the lake.  I was very excited to be going back.

As we drove to the festival, though, I started worrying.  Migration was late this year and we had to get back to Virginia to attend the Mount Rogers Naturalist Rally.  These plans meant that we couldn’t stay till the end of the week when the rarer warblers and flycatchers would be expected even under more typical migration timing.

Our first morning, we started early at Magee Marsh.  Unfortunately, compared to last year, the boardwalk was dead.  It seemed like there were more warblers back in Virginia.  We found 41 species of birds that morning and I was able to photograph this posing Black-throated Green Warbler.

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Black-throated Green Warbler

Feeling a little depressed at having birded the self proclaimed “Warbler Capital of the World” for an hour yet seeing only 6 warbler species, we headed to the nearby Metzger Marsh Wildlife Area.  As we pulled into the small, empty parking lot, we saw 4 Sandhill Cranes fly overhead, their strange rattling calls filling the sky.  We found a muddy trail on a narrow stretch of ground just barely elevated above the water on either side of it, leading off into the wide open marshlands.  As we walked onto this little dike, we heard several Sora.  We saw American Coots and Common Gallinules in the open sections of water.  Suddenly, something sprang into flight from some grass next to my brother’s feet.  As it flew, I registered the small size, little trailing feet, and tannish coloration of a Least Bittern.  It landed at the top of some marsh grass, and we had a few seconds to look at it before it slid down the stalk and disappeared.  This Least Bittern was only the third one I had ever seen.  Marsh Wrens sang along the trail, but sadly we were never able to see one.  Not bad marsh birding at all: Sora, Common Gallinule, Marsh Wren, Sandhill Cranes, and Least Bittern!

We returned to the car and checked the Biggest Week twitter feed.  Someone had reported two Upland Sandpipers, a lifer for me, at Grimm Prairie at the Ottawa National Wildlife Refuge.  When we got there, we saw a line of birders with scopes standing in the parking lot staring into the empty field.  The birds hadn’t been seen for awhile and were probably behind a clump of grass.  We got our scope and scanned the field, but the heat haze was so thick that we couldn’t see much in the distance.  Deciding that we would bird the rest of Ottawa and keep our eyes on twitter in case the birds were re-found, we packed up and left.

Hundreds of swallows of 5 different species surrounded us as we started down the foot trail around the impoundments at Ottawa.  I saw a Bank Swallow among the much more prevalent Tree, Northern Rough Winged, and Barn Swallows and Purple Martins, but my brother, who had never seen one, missed it.  I was therefore distracted the rest of the afternoon by the necessity of scanning every swallow that came by to try to find another Bank for him.   We didn’t see another one.  Nevertheless, I did enjoy seeing Black Tern, Least Flycatcher and a Black-crowned Night Heron there.

Back at Grimm Prairie, we saw the Upland Sandpipers (if you can call the horrible, distant, distorted scope views we had ‘seeing’) although certainly not as well as I would have liked through the heat haze.

The next morning, we started by stopping at the intersection of Angola and Raab Roads, which had a Curlew Sandpiper last year.  This year we had 5 swallow species including Bank and Cliff on the wire by the road.  My brother was very happy about finally finding a Bank.

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Bank Swallows by Theo Staengl

We spent the rest of the morning birding the metro parks of Toledo.  At Oak Openings Metropark, we got Lark Sparrow, Red-headed Woodpecker, Least Flycatcher and Nashville Warbler.  At Pearson Metropark we saw almost nothing.  Later in the afternoon, we headed back to Magee to see if anything new had shown up.  There was more Warbler activity, with Blackburnian Warbler, Northern Waterthrush, Orange Crowned Warbler, and Cape May Warbler, but it still didn’t compare to last year.

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Blackburnian warbler

The next day (Wednesday), things were finally really starting to get better as far as migrant passerines were concerned.  We had 60 species of birds on the Magee Marsh boardwalk, with 19 species of warblers.  Prothonotary, Blue-winged and Hooded were some of the better ones we saw.

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Blue-headed Vireo

That afternoon, we went to Maumee Bay State Park, where birders had spotted a Clay-colored Sparrow.  As we waited for it to stick its head out of the grass, we watched Purple Martins gracefully wheeling overhead and landing on the artificial gourds that had been set out for them.  Just as we were getting ready to bird the Maumee boardwalk and come back for the Sparrow later, it flew out of the grass, circled its crowd of gathered admirers and landed in a leafless tree right in front of us.  It was the second time I have seen a Clay-colored Sparrow, but this time provided, by far, the better looks and photos.

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Clay-Colored Sparrow

We spent the  rest of the day slowly birding the Maumee boardwalk, enjoying the peaceful swamp forests.  Veerys seemed to hop on every other fallen log.  We  saw the well-known red morph Eastern Screech Owl that reliably roosts in a box next to the trail.  Ovenbirds, Nashville Warblers, and Yellow Warblers sang in the willows and cottonwoods.

We had to leave for Virginia by 10am Thursday morning, so we didn’t have much time to bird.  We decided to bird Magee Marsh for the whole time in hopes that migration would have picked up.  It was the best day so far, and at times it was almost as good as it had been last year.  One of the best things about Magee Marsh, second to the bird themselves, is that you can see warblers only feet from you at the edge of the boardwalk.  And even when they are not posing perfectly, they are never very high in the canopy like they are back home.  The birds’ proximity and diversity make this an exceptionally good location for warbler photography.  Here are some favorite photos that I took that last morning in Ohio:

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Chestnut-sided Warbler

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Nashville Warbler

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Nashville Warbler

We also got great looks at Bay-breasted Warbler that day, and so many other warblers.  By the end of the trip, our trip list was 130 species, and we had seen 22 species of warblers.  Not as good as last year, but we had a lot of fun, and saw plenty of birds.

Two Orioles and Two Owls

When I heard there was a Black Backed Oriole in Pennsylvania, I hoped we could make the trip since it would be such a great chance to see this rare species.   It’s a non-migratory species endemic to Mexico, so what was it doing in PA?   We went to the Black Backed Oriole, nicknamed “BB,” stakeout first, in hopes of getting our main target out of the way so we could relax and enjoy the rest of our trip. When we got to the right neighborhood, we saw two birders with a scope standing on the sidewalk looking across the street at a feeder. They hadn’t seen the bird yet so we stood with them and waited. After about twenty minutes “BB” came to the feeder briefly and sat in a cedar tree, where the dense evergreen branches mostly blocked it from view.

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We wanted better photos so we stayed, hoping that it would come to the feeder again. The owner of the house, Tom, came out to chat with us. He was the perfect example of what I wish all property owners near a rare bird would be like. He enjoyed all the attention and was interested in birds and birders.  He’s even made a face book page about “BB!”   He seemed to think of his role as the birder watcher. He told us to sign into the little booklet that he had because he was sending it to someone in Australia who was doing a study about the economic impact of birding.   Apparently people from thirty states, some Canadian provinces, and a couple of European countries have come to see this bird! Imagine how that might help a region’s economy! This is especially ironic because “BB” is probably not really an ABA countable, wild vagrant from Mexico, but rather an escaped cage bird.   So basically, someone could just let a super rarity out of a cage and many birders will come to see it and spend money on hotels, meals, etc.  Sadly, “BB” did not come back to the feeder for another hour, so we moved on, thinking that we would try to get better pictures in the morning before we left.

Our next stop was a nearby park with a Great Horned Owl nest that one of the birders visiting “BB” had told us about.  We found the large bird easily, sleeping inside a hole near the parking lot.

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Photo credit: Theo Staengl

We finished the day at Middle Creek Wildlife Management Area, which has been getting some good birds lately, like Eurasian Widgeon and Golden Eagle. The highlight for us, though, was the large number (over 1000) of Tundra Swans on the lake.  I hope everyone has the chance to experience huge flocks of any water bird making noise. Thousands of Sandhill Cranes, thousands of Snow Geese, or thousands of wintering swans make a truly gorgeous noise.  The Tundra Swans filled the space around us as they flew overhead and landed on the lake, constantly calling long, rattling, trumpeting noises that blended together to create one musical chorus.  To see or hear birds, or most wildlife, really, in such abundance is always special.

As dusk fell, a lone short-eared owl put on a show for us hunting over the fields in the waning light.

The next morning, it was snowing heavily and much colder. Our first target was a Bullock’s Oriole, a western species rarely seen east of the Mississippi.  We sat in our car and waited as we watched the Flickers and Juncos, among other birds, coming to the feeders.   Soon, the Bullock’s landed on the suet feeder.  It was an immature male, shining brightly against the dreary wet snow, with a bright yellow breast and black throat spot and eye line.

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Photo credit: Theo Staengl

Next we went back to Middle Creek WMA. This time, in addition to the large numbers of Tundra Swans, Black Ducks, Shovelers, and Canada Geese, there were also 12 Common Mergansers and thousands of Snow Geese on the main lake. The driving snow made it very difficult to scan the large body of water for more waterfowl, so we decided to drive around a little wildlife loop in hopes that the storm would stop. We quickly found three American Tree Sparrows in a flock of sparrows foraging on the roadside (the only not snow covered ground).  Even though Tree Sparrows are fairly common in Pennsylvania, we were excited to see them, as we rarely see them in Virginia.

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Other notable sightings on the wildlife loop were Killdeer, Wilson’s Snipe and Horned Larks. As the storm blew out, we drove back to the trail to the lake. The Tree Sparrows still foraged in the bushes by the road. A mixed flock descended out of the trees, both Carolina and Black-capped Chickadees calling and flying around everywhere. We flushed a small flock of Rusty Blackbirds, a year bird for me! At the lake, we saw some Green Winged Teal and three Ruddy Ducks.  Huge flocks of snow geese flew overhead, with both blue and white morph birds. My brother spotted a Palm Warbler hopping around in the snow. This crazy bird should have been in the deep south now, so this was quite a surprise! Palm Warblers have such a distinctive habit of pumping their tail up and down constantly that it is used as a field mark.

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When I totaled up my Pennsylvania life list I found it had 96 species. I do not know about you, but I really hate seeing numbers that are so close to a good solid 100 but not quite! Overall, we had an amazing trip and I am very glad to be back home now.