This Birding Life is a new monthly column by NANPA Member Budd Titlow.
WHITE-TAILED PTARMIGAN: Making the Snow Come Alive!
Images and Story by Budd Titlow
I’ll never forget the day the snow came alive beneath my feet.
It was a Sunday morning in February just after sunrise and I was heading up into the mountains for a day of cross-country skiing. The previous day’s blizzard had dumped more than a foot of snow on Colorado’s high country. But the morning air was surprisingly pleasant—almost balmy—considering it was midwinter and the nearby sign read: Guanella Pass Summit—Elevation 11,699 Feet.
I left the parking lot and started schussing toward a rock-lined ridge about a mile away. The blinding white glare made it difficult to look anywhere but straight down. The wind-whipped ripples of fresh snow squeaked cleanly as I poled along. A few hundred yards in, I paused to check my compass heading.
Suddenly there was a dance of movement all around my skis. Clumps of snow darted away from me in every direction. I knew it wasn’t an avalanche—the ground was barely sloping and, besides, these snow clumps all had orange eyelids, black beaks, and feathered feet.
Even in the harsh glare of the brilliant sun, the frenzy of white was no illusion. Within seconds, bright white, chicken-like birds were skittering everywhere across the snowfield in front of me. After I gathered my wits and realized that I was not about to fall into some deep crevasse or be eaten alive by prehistoric snow monsters, I understood that I had just invaded the snow-laden world of the white-tailed ptarmigan. It was difficult to say who was the more surprised, the birds or me.
Wild animals in Colorado have developed a variety of methods for coping with the rigors of a high-country winter. Many birds just avoid the cold altogether by migrating southward. But the white-tailed ptarmigan sticks around, surviving through some amazing adaptations. By the time the snow starts to pile up above timberline, the ptarmigan’s feathers have morphed from mottled brown to pure white, making these football-sized birds practically invisible to predators during the long Colorado winters. Feeding on twigs and buds of dwarf willows that poke above the wind-blown snowline, ptarmigan have fully feathered feet that keep them warm and allow them to walk on top of snowdrifts.
Ptarmigan also keep warm by digging deep into fresh snowdrifts until they are totally covered by the white powder. Which—as I experienced—makes it possible to be standing smack in the middle of a large flock without even knowing the birds are there. Strangely, these birds have a curious habit of belying their excellent natural camouflage when something stops moving. It’s as if they don’t believe their cryptic coloration actually works. So my compass-check was a lucky one, yielding the unforgettable experience of seeing the snow burst into life right before my eyes.
A Professional Wetland Scientist (Emeritus) and Wildlife Biologist, Budd Titlow is also an international/national award-winning nature photographer and a widely-published writer/author. Throughout his career, Budd has shared his love of photography and nature by presenting seminars, workshops, and field trips Nationwide. He has also authored four books: BIRD BRAINS – Inside the Strange Minds of Our Fine Feathered Friends (ISBN 978-0-7627-8755-5), SEASHELLS – Jewels from the Ocean (ISBN 978-0-7603-2593-3), ROCKY MOUNTAIN NATIONAL PARK- Beyond Trail Ridge (ISBN 0-942394-22-4), and ENVIRONMENTAL SUPERHEROES: Now Climate Change Needs A New One (In Press). Budd’s work is featured on his web site (www.buddtitlow.com).