Ptarmigan photos

Ptarmigan are members of the grouse family. 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. All ptarmigan photos below and in the links and galleries can be licensed as stock photos for commercial use or purchased as fine art prints for your home or office.

Ptarmigan species

Alaska has three species of ptarmigan: willow ptarmigan, rock ptarmigan, and white-tailed ptarmigan. They can be found across Alaska’s tundra and mountain landscape. The three species are often separated by altitude, 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.

Ptarmigan range in Alaska. (from ADF&G)

Willow Ptarmigan (Lagopus lagopus)

The willow ptarmigan is ubiquitous across Alaska and I have photographed them all over the state. They are a peculiar bird and males have a gregarious call. The bulk of my ptarmigan photos are of willow ptarmigan, taken in all seasons. They appear widely across Alaska’s tundra.

ptarmigan photos: Male willow ptarmigan in spring plumage, Denali National Park, Alaska. (Patrick J. Endres / AlaskaPhotoGraphics.com)

Male willow ptarmigan in spring plumage, Denali National Park, Alaska. (Patrick J. Endres / AlaskaPhotoGraphics.com)

Ptarmigan Life history

Spring

In April and early May, flocks of ptarmigan numbering several thousand sometimes appear moving 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.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. 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.

ptarmigan photos: Male willow ptarmigan in spring plumage, Denali National Park, Alaska. (Patrick J. Endres / AlaskaPhotoGraphics.com)

Male willow ptarmigan in spring plumage, Denali National Park, Alaska. (Patrick J. Endres / AlaskaPhotoGraphics.com)


ptarmigan photos: Male Willow Ptarmigan perches in the branch of a willow tree in spring, Denali National Park, Alaska (Patrick J. Endres / AlaskaPhotoGraphics.com)

Male Willow Ptarmigan perches in the branch of a willow tree in spring, Denali National Park, Alaska (Patrick J. Endres / AlaskaPhotoGraphics.com)


ptarmigan photos: Female willow ptarmigan camouflaged in the brown summer tundra of Alaska's arctic north slope. (Patrick J. Endres / AlaskaPhotoGraphics.com)

Female willow ptarmigan camouflaged in the brown summer tundra of Alaska’s arctic north slope. (Patrick J. Endres / AlaskaPhotoGraphics.com)

Summer

ptarmigan photos: Willow ptarmigan, Utukok Uplands, National Petroleum Reserve Alaska, Arctic, Alaska. (Patrick J. Endres / AlaskaPhotoGraphics.com)

Willow ptarmigan, Utukok Uplands, National Petroleum Reserve Alaska, Arctic, Alaska. (Patrick J. Endres / AlaskaPhotoGraphics.com)


ptarmigan photos: Female ptarmigan with chick on summer tundra, Denali National Park, Alaska (Patrick J. Endres / AlaskaPhotoGraphics.com)

Female ptarmigan with a chick on summer tundra. The male Willow Ptarmigan stays with the family and doesn’t hesitate to defend the brood, Denali National Park, Alaska (Patrick J. Endres / AlaskaPhotoGraphics.com)


ptarmigan photos: Denali National Park, Alaska. (Patrick J Endres / AlaskaPhotoGraphics.com)

Willow ptarmigan 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. Denali National Park, Alaska. (Patrick J Endres / AlaskaPhotoGraphics.com)


ptarmigan photos: Male Willow Ptarmigan, summer tundra, Denali National Park, Alaska (Patrick J. Endres / AlaskaPhotoGraphics.com)

Male Willow Ptarmigan have a distinct red comb above the eye, Denali National Park, Alaska (Patrick J. Endres / AlaskaPhotoGraphics.com)

Autumn

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 photos: Willow Ptarmigan, autumn, Denali National Park, Alaska (Patrick J. Endres / AlaskaPhotoGraphics.com)

Willow Ptarmigan, autumn, Denali National Park, Alaska (Patrick J. Endres / AlaskaPhotoGraphics.com)


willow ptarmigan, Arctic north slope. (Patrick J Endres / AlaskaPhotoGraphics.com)

Arctic North slope. (Patrick J Endres / AlaskaPhotoGraphics.com)


ptarmigan photos: Flock of willow ptarmigan in flight on the arctic north slope, Alaska. (Patrick J. Endres / AlaskaPhotoGraphics.com)

A flock of willow ptarmigan in flight on the arctic north slope, Alaska. (Patrick J. Endres / AlaskaPhotoGraphics.com)


Willow ptarmigan in a transition stage to winter plumage is well camouflaged among willow branches, Brooks Range, Arctic, Alaska. (Patrick J. Endres / AlaskaPhotoGraphics.com)

Willow ptarmigan in a transition stage to winter plumage is well camouflaged among willow branches, Brooks Range, Arctic, Alaska. (Patrick J. Endres / AlaskaPhotoGraphics.com)

Winter

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.

Willow ptarmigan rests in the fresh snow, Fairbanks, Alaska. (Patrick J. Endres / AlaskaPhotoGraphics.com)

Willow ptarmigan rests in the fresh snow, Fairbanks, Alaska. (Patrick J. Endres / AlaskaPhotoGraphics.com)


Willow ptarmigan on the snowy tundra of the Alaska arctic. (Patrick J Endres / AlaskaPhotoGraphics.com)

Willow ptarmigan on the snowy tundra of the Alaska Arctic. (Patrick J Endres / AlaskaPhotoGraphics.com)


Willow ptarmigan on the snowy tundra of the Alaska arctic. (Patrick J Endres / AlaskaPhotoGraphics.com)

Willow ptarmigan on the snowy tundra of the Alaska Arctic. (Patrick J Endres / AlaskaPhotoGraphics.com)

Rock Ptarmigan (Lagopus muta)

Rock ptarmigan male on tundra, Gates of the Arctic National Park, Alaska. (Patrick J. Endres / AlaskaPhotoGraphics.com)

Rock ptarmigan male on the tundra, Gates of the Arctic National Park, Alaska. (Patrick J. Endres / AlaskaPhotoGraphics.com)


Rock ptarmigan, Utukok uplands, National Petroleum Reserve Alaska, Arctic, Alaska. (Patrick J. Endres / AlaskaPhotoGraphics.com)

Rock Ptarmigan, Utukok uplands, National Petroleum Reserve Alaska, Arctic, Alaska. (Patrick J. Endres / AlaskaPhotoGraphics.com)


Male rock ptarmigan on the tundra in Alaska's Arctic North Slope. (Patrick J. Endres / AlaskaPhotoGraphics.com)

Male rock ptarmigan on the spring tundra in Alaska’s Arctic North Slope. (Patrick J. Endres / AlaskaPhotoGraphics.com)


Amaknak Island, Mt. Ballyhoo, Dutch Harbor, Aleutian Islands, Alaska (Patrick J Endres / AlaskaPhotoGraphics.com)

Rock Ptarmigan, Amaknak Island, Mt. Ballyhoo, Dutch Harbor, Aleutian Islands, Alaska (Patrick J Endres / AlaskaPhotoGraphics.com)

Text adapted from the Alaska Department of Fish & Game website.

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Ptarmigan photos slideshow