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Thursday, 24 February 2011 20:53

Tracking the winter Ptarmigans

Every experienced photographer and birder knows, that the best moments are those when you observe certain species in a place that has not been shown to you – photographing birds from commercial hide is option for many but it cannot really satisfy genuine naturalist. Finding such a place in the nature requires that hours and hours are spend strolling around in the new terrain, often without any photo taken and sometimes it is worth checking the place without heavy camera, just with the binoculars in your hands.

To be successful in such a quest one does not only need to be lucky but also has to read through a literature to learn about the behaviour of the animal (bird), its activity during the day and the year seasons, typical habitat as well as other hints as is the typical bird call, its tracks, favourite diet and yes – droppings :- ).

When I finally got the snowshoes last week I could not wait till the weekend to try them out on the trip to Gullfjell mountains that should host Rock Ptarmigan (Lagopus mutus). This bird with beautiful white winter plumage is regular inhabitant on the mountains slopes and tops and moreover the last weekend sunny weather promised great trip anyway. Besides Rock Ptarmigan (Lagopus mutus) Norway hosts another bird from the same family – the Willow Ptarmigan (Lagopus lagopus); this bird also inhabitates Gullfjell area but it resides lower in the valleys.

So it was last weekend when I set off the direction for Gullfjell mountains – to their tops as that is the place where Rock Ptarmigan should be found most often. In literature you can learn that this bird occurs in arctic and mountainous areas of Eurasia and North America, it resides in top parts of mountains and it feeds on birch and willow buds and catkins but it will also eats various seeds, leaves, flowers and berries. As the bird is also frequently hunted by people, a lot of information can be obtained from hunting websites – especially what is the best strategy to approach Rock Ptarmigan. Interestingly Rock Ptarmigan thrives on the mountain tops even during the winter seasons as long as it can find the scarce food lying beneath the snow cover. It has minimum of predators – especially the Golden Eagle here in Norway – and it can thus be quite tame when in contact with people. When the weather worsens the birds retreat to lower parts of the slope and feed on birch and willow buds – the birch groves are also places where the hunters are often looking for these birds. Other wise the birds prefer mountain tops and often they can be found on the lee side of the mountain or snow-banks sheltered from the strong wind blasts… equipped with this information I hit the road last Saturday morning…


Morning climb – the track used solely by animals, I was probably the first human of this winter…


As it often happens to me I did not manage quite right waking up and got on the foothill just before 9 am, almost one hour after the sunrise. The chilling valley with 15 degrees below zero changed to pleasant temperature as the sun heated up the mountain slopes and the climb up to the 400-meters elevation made me even sweat. The first test of the snowshoes went fine – without the ski sticks and with heavy 15-kg bag on my back it took me only one hour to get to the snowy top. The only tracks I could see in the snow were footprints of some beast – probably a fox.


Tracks of Ptarmigan around the blown spots on the top of the hill:


As always when venturing into a brand new area to watch some new species I never know what to expect, I’m full of expectations but at the same time I doubt I would be successful for the very first time – this tactics paid off last weekend again – the trip up to the mountain was beautiful but no birds seen around. The reward was amazing viewpoint from the windswept mountain top instead – chain of white-topped mountains eastwards, misty Atlantic ocean in the west and the largest inland island of Norway Osterøy in the North. But yet, there was one place that intrigued me – a grass protruding from the windblown rocky spot nearby with two rows of fork-like tracks – evidence that Ptarmigans must have been here quite recently searching for some food. The tracks leads back down on the hill and I follow them down to a place where it suddenly ands – the place where the birds have landed before they climbed up to the top.


Ptarmigan overnight spot in the snow-bank:


…and the detail of one pit with quite recent droppings…


I descend some 200 meters lower on the foothill. On the lee side of one snow-bank I find fresh tracks and three pits – obviously a place where Ptarmigans overnighted – one of the pit contains droppings clearly from a bird feeding on plants, another evidence that Ptarmigans frequent these areas, As I continue downwards on the slope the amount of grass increases as do the bird tracks. I still cannot spot any bird so I slowly turn my way towards the parking lot. I observe two tracks leading from the birch grove up to the hill – apparently the birds take advantage of relatively easy food available low on the slope but still tend to spend most of their time higher on the mountain slope. It was beautiful day. I’m looking at the other side of the valley where the main ridge of Gullfjell mountains rises and where Id like to go the other day…


View towards the Gullfjell mountains, Gullfjelltoppen on the left side, Austefjellet – the destination of Sundays trip on the right side


On Sunday I finally manage to wake up soon enough to be on the foothill well before sunrise. This time I’m climbing up in the shade of the mountains which really makes me feel the cold weather of this year winter – even the 5 layers I put on me does not seem to be enough to protect me from the cold. The reward of being so early is that I’m the first on the road – the place will get full of people soon as this is very popular track among people throughout the whole year. After climbing up some 300 m of elevation I turn right towards Austefjellet, the place I was photographing Golden Plovers last July.


Sunrise behind the mountain tops...


The slope of the mountain which is quite difficult to walk on in summer is now a compact plane of hardened snow that is so much easier to walk on with the snowshoes! The winter and cold wind rules on the top of the Austefjellet mountain and there is not many places where the birds could eventually find some food –the chance to observe some Ptarmigans here drops to a minimum. As the day before I enjoy the amazing lookout before I start descending on the other side of the hill towards the parking lot. Some 300 meters elevation lower I come across larger extents of wind-swept slope with grass – in between two such areas I count about 30 or so tracks that the Ptarmigans have left here some days or weeks ago. The short trails in between individual footprints are remnants of the feathers that the Ptarmigans have on their legs; sometimes I can see a strange pattern on the track marking the place where the bird waved its wings to help keeping its balance on the slope. I wish I was on this place when the birds were here, it must have been a spectacular event – watching the birds walking around and pecking out little goodies hidden beneath the frozen snow…well, hopefully one day next time I will be more lucky :- )


Ptarmigan highway on the slope of Austefjellet


Do you want to know more about the nature? Have a look at this link that contains a number of tracks and signs and that should help you to recognize what animal has left it there…





Last Updated on Friday, 25 February 2011 09:20
Comments (47)
  • Jirsa  - Pěkný článek

    Pěkně napsané, s úvodem naprostý souhlas. Držím palce ať je příště uvidíš a aj třeba nafotíš!

  • Jirka

    Diky Rado, uz jsem je i dvakrat zahledl, bohuzel vzdy zezadu, znda se zadari napriste nebo dalsi rok, kdy bych jim chtel zasypat zrni...

  • Martin  - :-)

    Ahoj Jirko, koukám, že si najdeš prostor na výpravy i jako otec (on Tvůj čas coby otce přijde stejně spíš o něco později ;-)
    Pěkně jsem si početl a už se těšíme na fotky bělokura ! Ne že to vzdáš !

  • Jirka

    Ahoj Martine,
    Mala je zatim mala :-) takze mam zatim dost casu pro sebe, uvidim, jak to pujde az bude vetsi abude vyzadovat vic pece z me strany. Neboj nevzdam to i kdyz je to dost obtizne...

  • Libor Jabůrek  - Pěkné

    Pěkné, originální, fajn příspěvek. Měj se Jirko

  • Jirka

    Diky Libore, teprve se ucim...

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