All Ptarmigan photos here are available as stock photos for commercial licensing or as fine art display pictures for home and office decor. The bulk of the pictures are of willow ptarmigan in a variety of seasons, and there are a few of rock ptarmigan. The willow ptarmigan is ubiquitous across Alaska and I have photographed them all over the state. The natural history information was taken from the Alaska Fish and Game Wildlife Notebook Series.
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Ptarmigan are members of the grouse family, weighing from 10 1/2 ounces to 1 1/2 pounds (0.3-0.7 kg). Their toes are uniquely feathered to give them walking stability in the deep snow and their body plumage turns completely white in winter giving them a cryptic, camouflaged appearance.
Ptarmigan Life history
In early spring, male ptarmigan become intolerant of other males and establish territories that they defend vigorously with aerial chases and a variety of gargling, croaking, and screaming noises. Sometimes the three species are found on a single mountain, and often two kinds breed close together. In such cases there is usually a clear altitudinal separation of the various kinds, with Willow Ptarmigan living closest to timberline, Rock Ptarmigan on middle slopes and low ridges, and White-tails high among rough rocky screes and boulder-strewn ridges close to glaciers or snowfields.
All ptarmigan nest on the ground soon after the snow melts. Hens usually lay six to ten eggs which are incubated for three weeks. Hatching takes place in late June and early July throughout Alaska.
The male Willow Ptarmigan stays with the family and doesn’t hesitate to defend the brood, but male White-tails and Rock Ptarmigan leave the care of chicks entirely to hens.
The chicks grow with amazing speed. They can get off the ground only 9 to 10 days after hatching and fly well when they get their first full set of flight feathers at 8 to 10 weeks of age.
Autumn is a time of restlessness. Flocks form and disperse and form again, and the birds move around into unfamiliar alpine areas. In October the wandering takes on a pattern; females tend to form their own flocks and drift lower down into brushy forest openings while cocks stay close to timberline. The extent of the fall movements varies from place to place, but migrations of 100 to 150 miles (160-240 km) one way probably are the longest undertaken by any ptarmigans in Alaska.
Ptarmigan are nomadic in winter, moving erratically from one sheltered slope or patch of food to another from November to March. The birds are quite sociable in winter and usually feed and roost in the snow close together.
In April and early May, flocks of ptarmigan numbering several thousand sometimes appear in purposeful movement back to their breeding grounds. These huge flocks, perhaps created by the funneling effect of river valleys and narrow mountain passes, rapidly disintegrate when the summering areas are reached, as each cock demands his share of elbow room in the vast stretches of white and brown tundra.
Text adapted from the Alaska Department of Fish & Game website.