A couple of days ago I hiked up the Mt. Audubon Trail in western Boulder County with Ted Floyd and Walter Szeliga. The trail climbs through spruce-fir habitat, krummholz, and alpine tundra on its way up the 13,223 foot summit in the Indian Peaks Wilderness Area. It is one of the more reliable spots in Boulder County for White-tailed Ptarmigan, and it didn't disappoint on this trek.
Even when you know they are around, ptarmigan can be hard to find when they sit still and keep quiet. Eventually, though, Walter heard some soft clucking in a likely area and within a few dozen meters we had spotted a pair of chickens. In the summer, the males keep their white belly and tail while the females are all brown. You'll also notice the bright orange comb on the male. The female has a comb, too, but it isn't as big and she often totally conceals it.
If you take your time and relax, the birds will carry on their routine with you quite close by. I just move slowly, hunker down or sit on the ground a lot, and they don't get alarmed. Sometimes, if they are working in a particular direction, you can get a little ahead of them and sit down and they will walk right by you. As they feed they will often key in on a certain food item. These birds were focusing on the black tips of some kind of grass, and they would give each one a close, quizzical inspection before plucking it.
On the way down we crossed paths with two more groups of ptarmigan- both females with chicks. They can already fly at this size, but typically will just walk or run around. In the same area a few years ago, Ted & I saw a weasel stalking a family group. Instead of flying off, the mom just calmly led her chicks away from the talus where the weasel was popping in and out of the rocks like an attack submarine. She led the chicks to more open ground nearby where presumably it couldn't get the drop on them. I would have expected them to fly away at the first sight of the fierce little predator. Anyway, it was great to see them running around!
River of Birds in the Sky, Part 2
5 weeks ago