Friday, August 4, 2017


I had some time after a recent work trip to Colorado, and I used it to take on my arch enemy: the White-tailed Ptarmigan.

I lived in Colorado from the end of 05 to the end of 06, but never saw a ptarmigan. I took subsequent trips to the famous Medicine Bow Curve in Rocky Mountain NP at least once (eBird says once but I'm pretty sure it was twice), but didn't see a ptarmigan. I was going to see one this time.

I started with an early morning dash up Mt. Evans, just west of Denver. I got top the top -- an insane 14,130 feet -- just before sunrise. It was spectacular. There were two families of Mountain Goats just hanging out and a handful of Bighorn Sheep, each with cute youngsters that I would have tried to pet if not for the threat of taking an angry mother's horn in my spleen.

There were little American Pika, too, and fat Yellow-bellied Marmots sashaying around with their tails in the air.

And there was a beautiful Brown-capped Rosy Finch, one of the toughest-to-find birds in the U.S., I'd say, and one I had not seen since 2006, and then it was at a feeder (at famous Big Year birder Al Levantin's house, I should add). To see one in the wild was amazing. I wish I got better photos.

What there weren't were White-tailed Ptarmigan. Nothing. I hung out and looked, then I left. But I wasn't done.

Rocky Mountain NP was only like an hour and a half away, and was a "guaranteed" place to get ptarmigan. The eBird hotspot there was bright red. Screw it, it's a life bird.

I pulled over at Medicine Bow Curve and started walking out along the trail. The frigging trouble with ptarmigan is that they're very well goddamn camouflaged. As you know, ptarmigans have a range of feather patterns throughout the year: nearly all white in winter to blend in with the snow, and mottled gray and brown in the summer to mix with the rocky alpine tundra.

"Okay, so, I'm looking for a big brown chicken, how hard can this be?" You tell yourself. Trouble is, you get out above treeline and look around and as far as you can see is just brown chicken-sized boulders. For miles in every direction. Looking for a ptarmigan isn't like looking for a needle in a haystack, it's like looking for a hay-colored needle in a pile of hay that's been strewn across a giant mountaintop.

So, I didn't find any goddamn ptarmigan at Rocky Mountain NP either.

I was letting folks on Twitter know about my failures, and it took about two seconds before I was getting boom-roasted by the ABA:


What am I, deterred? No, I am undeterred. More than that, I'm frigging pissed off. I resolved to see a ptarmigan even if I had to set that mountaintop on fire and smell for singed feathers.

But first I went to Nebraska!

I'd never been to eastern Colorado or birded in Nebraska, so I cruised on through the Pawnee National Grassland and into the Great Plains. It was cool. Highlights: Swift Fox and McCown's Longspur at Pawnee; seeing Chimney and White-throated Swifts together with a ton of swallows at Scotts Bluff National Monument; Chimney Rock, that icon from the Oregon Trail computer game; and close-up juvie Red Crossbills at Wildcat Hill State Natural Area in Nebraska. Here are a few pics.

Burrowing Owl was chilling all nice up until I dug my camera out

Grasshopper Sparrow with a grasshopper HOW GAUCHE

stunning Swift Fox

crossed bil, as advertised

Enough of that nonsense. I was on a mission. 

DC birder Paul Pisano happened to be out in Denver at the same time, and we made plans to meet at another ptarmigan spot, Loveland Pass, early on Saturday morning before we both needed to be back at the airport. Heavy rains on the sunrise drive uphill were not encouraging.

We got up top and started hiking around, but it was just more of the same. Endless, stunning vistas filled with a million ptarmigan-looking non-ptarmigans. We hiked and hiked. We split up to cover more ground. Were these birds going to just be out in the open? Were they going to be, like, hanging out in the middle of the rock scree? We didn't know, so kept looking.

I crested the ridge and peered over the other slope. It wasn't as windy on this side, I thought to myself, and maybe better for birds? Then, something moved in front of me, and WHAMMO it was all over. A lovely female White-tailed Ptarmigan was strolling around in front of me, tailed by five little chicks. Success! Joy!

I ran to get Paul and we both watched the birds for a few minutes, and send celebratory texts. I should have taken more photos. The ones I got were pretty dark because I'm a bad photographer and it was raining, then the birds moved out of sight.

there's a chic in the foreground of this shot
A great time was had by all, but mostly by me. Colorado is a hell of a state, and White-tailed Ptarmigan is a hell of a bird. I hope to never have to chase one again.


Patch Davis said...

Nick-so glad you got your friggin bird! And with young? Amazing! I am the queen of never seen it, even if everybody else gets it. If you want something great to show up, just send me to the (choose one:) bathroom, other side of the hill, back to the car, etc., or just wait for me to turn my back. I have come to be at peace with my lot in life. Congratulations!

Unknown said...

I tried for a Dusky Grouse and could not find it to save my life in northern New Mexico. I never saw it but tried multiple times at places where it had just been reported. This bird is now my nemesis bird

NickL said...

Patch -- Believe me, head up to Mt. Evans for sunrise and you won't be able to miss those creatures. They were just hanging out up here for hours without a care.

Joel -- Yes. Good. Feel the hate brewing within you! NEMESIS!

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