Saturday, 20 May 2017

Spring Ptarmigan

The air has warmed up rapidly in Scotland over the first weeks of May and the winter snow is melting away. I have been on several hills during this time, studying ptarmigan Lagopus muta and although the cock birds can be quite vocal when displaying to and chasing neighbouring birds, when quiet, they can be very inconspicuous. There were six cocks in the area of the Cairngorms shown in the above photograph, all with a hen, one with two hens.

In spring, the cock and hen ptarmigan are coloured differently. The cock birds have grey backs and necks but retain their bright white winter feathers on their bellies. The hens moult into a mottled brown, yellow and russet colour. Both merge well into the rocky landscape and I only saw them because they were so active; the cocks disputing over territiry boundaries and guarding their hens from neghbouring cocks.

The hens' plumage merged extremely well with the dappled colouring of the heath plants; in this case mostly short wind-clipped heather. Soon they will rely on their colouring to hide on their nests in the heather which is too short to hide beneath.

The cocks' grey plumage blended well with the lichens that grow on the mounatin boulders. While the hens are incubating, they sit on nearby prominent look-out posts, usually a rock, so they too are perfectly coloured for their duty. And while the hens are incubating both sexes can be very inconspicuous indeed.