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.
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.
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 Life history
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.
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.
Rock Ptarmigan (Lagopus muta)
Text adapted from the Alaska Department of Fish & Game website.