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Ptarmigan in the Clouds

By Taylor Wildlife, Jul 9 2018 01:00PM

Imagine living up in the clouds, in a windswept environment, with little to hide behind other than rock and scree. That's the home of the Scottish specialty, ptarmigan (Lagopus muta), a bird which has recently eluded me on previous visits to the highlands. Many people take the easy option when it comes to ticking this species off their bird list, taking a ski lift in the Cairngorms to watch ptarmigan whilst tucking into a bacon sandwich and a hot mug of coffee - or you could get up close and personal with them in a wild and picturesque landscape.



I took the latter option and battled through thick mist and fog, pushed my body to its limits and traversed several steep slopes. My first ptarmigan experience was a somewhat ghostly one, as I waited for the morning clouds to lift so that I could begin the days surveying. I was at a standstill in fairly poor visibility at around 750 m elevation.



Although we don't survey in fog, navigation skills are very important.
Although we don't survey in fog, navigation skills are very important.

Out of nowhere I heard a distinct croaking sound; I knew I was in ptarmigan territoy but needed that first visual glimpse to convince myself that my mind wasn't playing tricks. As the minutes went by, the cloud taunted me with clear spells allowing for seconds of binocular scans before blanketing the landscape once again in white. After an hour of waiting, unable to survey, I was about to cut my losses and head down having achieved very little in the way of work that day with an immense feeling of dissatisfaction, before glimmers of sunchine started to lift the cloud.


With good visibility, it was now time to start surveying. As I continued up the hill, low and behold that bird of the mountaintop stood tall and proud on a rocky outcrop calling away in his magnificent disguise of grey and white plumage. He took flight, showing wings as white as the snowdrift he'd just flown from. Success at last!




A fantastic sight - ptarmigan in the uplands. Photo by Chris Piner
A fantastic sight - ptarmigan in the uplands. Photo by Chris Piner

That day, persistence paid dividends. Twho subsequent encounters with Ptarmigan proved less frustrating, but retained the same excitement - a common theme when observing nature.


CP



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