Photographing Rock Ptarmigans in winter

AlpenschneehuhnRock Ptarmigans (Lagopus muta) are always high on the wish lists of birders and photographers visiting Scandinavia in winter. Finding Ptarmigan is one thing, but knowing where to photograph them is another challenge. It took me several trips between March and May to see and photograph Ptarmigan. Definitely  are my favourite bird.

You have to go out to the north or up to the Alps to see a Ptarmigan in Europe. Rock Ptarmigans rarely venture down from the highest mountains, they do not come to feeding stations and there are no comfortable hides with flushing toilets to sit in and wait. You have to go and experience their habitat and their conditions in order to spend time with these fabulous birds. You must enter their domain. What is striking is how uncomfortable this can still be even on the best days in some winters.

Only rarely you might be lucky on a Ski parking lot in the Alps. After high winds and heavy snow in winter, Ptarmigan can be seen from the car park. They are very much hit and miss, however, and a good scope is normally required. Not to get bored, there are normally some White-winged Snowfinch (Montifringilla nivalis) hanging around these areas too.

My personal favorite site is the northern part of Norway. Even if you spend a considerable time, Ptarmigan can be frustratingly hard to find and approach. This is especially true when snow is deep. A special challenge are periods of strong and persistent winds. In his article Photographing Scottish Highland specialities: Ptarmigan in winter about the Cairn Gorms in Scotland Marcus Conway describes how in the wet and windy winter of 2013/14 Rock Ptarmigans formed ‘mega-flocks’ of 50 or more birds for much of the winter season. On days after heavy snowfall or strong winds, finding Ptarmigan can be extremely difficult. If the birds form concentrated flocks these can be impossible to locate over such a vast area. These flocks provide a special thrill – if you are lucky to find such a flock. But the chances of frustration are (propably) much higher because the birds can be concentrated in a small and sometimes inaccessible area.

Once you have found Ptarmigan you need to approach them carefully but ‘deliberately’, in much the same way one might approach Sanderling feeding on a shoreline. The most important thing in the approach is to stay below the subject. If you try and come from a higher slope or descend over a boulder, you will almost certainly flush the bird. If you find a Ptarmigan below your position it is best to walk to a contour lower than the target and then re-engage in pursuit once you are beneath the bird. I would not recommend crawling as this seems to agitate the Ptarmigan. However, lying down within range is fine.

Once within range I would generally take up a position and wait for something to happen. Ptarmigan can be docile and with a careful approach it can be possible to get very close. Indeed I have often got groups of three or four within an ideal range only for the Ptarmigan to move too close to focus! Once a Ptarmigan is on the move it is important to move quickly with them and try and get ahead of them. In winter they rarely take flight but prefer to walk or run. Trying to work out which way they are heading gives the best opportunity to capture images on snow fields or other desirable habitat.

The highlight of the Ptarmigan year, for me at least, comes in winter when they turn pure white. Ptarmigan plumage is closely related to changing day length so they will be white even in years with little or no snow.

If you think, you are in the right area, be alerted and patient at the same time. It is worth nothing that the species is very well camouflaged at all times of year and birds are often bold enough to let you walk within a few feet without moving. Luckily Ptarmigan are far from silent. Male Ptarmigan call frequently. On calmer days this is the first sign you are in the right area. Their retching call is reverberating around the boulders and carrying for hundreds of metres on a still day. While calling, males sit proudly on boulders, proclaiming their presence to nearby birds. Often, shortly after calling the male flies up and reveals his whereabouts, which can be very helpful. The females call too but it is much less frequent and less helpful in finding birds.

As with all flocking birds, it only takes one ‘twitchy’ individual to spook them all. Not only does this lead to disturbance, which is to be avoided, but it means getting near them again would be a wasted journey. Generally, once flushed the Ptarmigan are alert (the camouflage is blown?) and it is best to find another subject. If you do manage to find a flock of 20 or more birds and they ‘accept’ you, it will almost certainly become a lifelong memory as you watch them eat, sleep and just survive in this most harsh of environments.

Still days in late February are the best for interaction between males. This is also a great time for photography as there is lots of activity, should be plenty of snow and the males are generally too preoccupied by squabbling to care about people. In Norway only by May the birds are into their spring moult.

In typical years, March, April and May are probably the best months for guaranteed photo opportunities if you know where to look. The birds look great as they are in various stages of moult. They are scratching around and the males are still very active. The key to success at this time of year is to find an unattached male or to find a female. With nothing to protect, unattached males are often much bolder and are also continually on the lookout for other pairs. This can be great for action. You can be almost certain that if you can find a female she will tend to sit and allow an extremely close approach and then start to attract males over. Even if the male flies off he will return typically within five minutes. With lots of interaction between pairs this is also the best time of year to try and get flight shots.

In order to meet the growing demand for top images of the rarer species of Palearctic Bird-lens.com has specifically made trips to remote places like the coastal mountains of western Norway, in the winter to a secluded harbor in Denmark, or – right now – to the dunes of The Netherlands. This to do everything to ensure excellent photos of the Birds of the Western Palearctic. The yield of pictures also of rare Western Palearctic birds is very good. The beautiful picture that you see in blog is just a first impression of what you will find behind the tab “Picture Shop” very soon. Just give a notice if you need a picture of a bird before the new images are online.

 

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