Saturday, 30 April 2016

Spring ptarmigan

Snow-laden clouds lie heavily over the Cairngorms
It's Spring in Scotland and there have been some late snow falls in the hills. Yesterday, I was up counting Rock Ptarmigan Lagopus muta in a long-term study area up on the high summits. The wind was cold, the light was a little grey, ice stung my face, there was a tremendous feeling of being out in a truly wild place - alone in the high hills with the birds and mountain hares. I felt at home in my favourite habitat.

A cock ptarmigan looks out over his territory from a rocky vantage point

The ptarmigan were busy displaying over their territories. They made a wonderful sight as they strutted with their red combs held up high, and as they launched out down over the slopes in long parachute song flights. Their loud croaking calls rattled across the hillside, the only other sound being that of the wind rushing over the icy ground, whipping up spindrift. Then the next minute everything would stop and the air sparkled in sunshine.

Another cock ptarmigan floats down over the snowy hillside on a song flight

As I walked up the hill I left a small group of Sand Martins hawking low over the snow-free ground in the valley. They would have just arrived from, or rather been on passage north from their winter quarters, along with the single male Wheatear and several Meadow Pipits that I saw farther up the hill. There were a few Common Gulls flying around, they would be setting up their nesting territories down by some wet hollows in the peat. The only other local birds which spend the whole year in the area, like the ptarmigan, were the Red Grouse. Good numbers of cock grouse were calling to one another and chasing neighbours in defence of their territories. Meanwhile, the hen birds were busy feeding up to gather nutrients, all to make eggs soon. They seemed to ignore all the fuss made by the cock birds, keeping their heads down as they pecked away at the expanding buds of heather.

A bird descending slowly while calling

The ptarmigan live on the highest ground, up where there is not much vegetation and what there is, is short, prostrate in form on the wind-scoured slopes. The birds were mostly moulted out of their winter plumage and into their spring colours. Grey for the boys and mottled brown for the girls. The males are grey as they mostly sit beside grey lichen-covered rocks, the hens need to resemble the colours of the heath where they feed and nest. They will have to sit on their nests for about three weeks while they incubate the eggs alone. Seldom coming off the nest, lest the eggs become chilled and the embryos die.

A partially moulted hen ptarmigan keeps to the partially snow-free ground, well matched to both types of ground cover

I walked quietly past the birds and they stayed still, not moving any more than they needed to, all part of their strategy to rely on their camouflage to conceal them and to not move to save energy and warmth. I sat beside a pair and when settled down low at ground level, I was out of the wind, tucked into a hollow like the birds. They know to keep out of the wind to preserve body heat, and they have adopted all the best tricks for survival on the high tops. That's one reason I like them. Another is that we share a favourite habitat.

She holds herself in a tight round form, fluffed up and head tucked down into her shoulders - all to keep warm


  1. fantastic pictures, and how lucky to be able to see the grouse up there!

  2. Thanks Georgina, a great day and great birds