I can’t really even remember my Lifer Willow Ptarmigan any more…I looked back in my journal from my Churchill trip in June 1987 for the details. It was a glimpse of a male along the railroad tracks near a remote Cree village in Manitoba as I rode the rickety rails of the “Muskeg Express”…a 36 hour one-way train ride from Winnipeg to Churchill. Not much of a look for such a gorgeous bird.

Because of this most unsatisfying sighting, the “chicken of the tundra” was high on my “Most Wanted” list. But several 16 hour days passed and I still had not spotted one. A photo group I ran into seemed to consider them commonplace. I was nervous. But finally, late in the day, late in my trip, along Twin Lakes Road, I finally found my first male…A gorgeous male in transitional plumage from winter’s white to summers reddish brown.

 

Willow Ptarmigan male in courtship plumage near Churchill Manitoba Canada

This male’s plumage is actually called the “courtship plumage” and it will soon change to breeding plumage…The male’s white back feathers will turn the same reddish brown as the head and chest. By late fall, they will be entirely white except for the black outer tail feathers.

[Canon 7D with Canon EF 100-400mm f4.5-5.6L IS II USM lens at 400mm; 1/160 at f5.6; ISO 400; +0.66 ev; handheld]

Willow Ptarmigan near Churchill Manitoba on summer tundra

One of my goals for my bird photography on this trip was to get images of different species with tundra wildflowers in the frame…and late in the trip I was finally successful with this ptarmigan. The flowers are Lapland Rosebay.

The Willow Ptarmigan is a circumpolar species and can also be found in Scandinavia and Siberia. It is known as “Willow Grouse” in Europe…A subspecies that lives in Great Britain is called “Red Grouse” and doesn’t turn white in winter.

Amazingly, there was an irruption of Willow Ptarmigan into Minnesota in the winter of 1933-34! Several showed up in the remote country of northwest Minnesota near Roseau, hundreds of miles from their normal winter range. The first record of this species for Minnesota was a bird shot on April 20, 1914 in Lake of the Woods County on the Canadian border. Another bird found its way south to this same county in 1964.


Willow Ptarmigan male in courtship plumage near Churchill Manitoba Canada

Willow Ptarmigan are about the same size as our Ruffed Grouse (and Spruce Grouse). Average length is 15 inches with a wingspan of about 2 feet. They weigh a little over a pound.

[Canon 7D with Canon EF 100-400mm f4.5-5.6L IS II USM lens at 271mm; 1/640 at f5.6; ISO 640; handheld]

The call of the Willow Ptarmigan is craaaazy! I love it! Listen for yourself.


Willow Ptarmigan male in courtship plumage near Churchill Manitoba Canada

[Canon 7D with Canon EF 100-400mm f4.5-5.6L IS II USM lens at 278mm; 1/320 at f5.6; ISO 640; handheld]


Willow Ptarmigan male in courtship plumage near Churchill Manitoba Canada

[Canon 7D with Canon EF 100-400mm f4.5-5.6L IS II USM lens at 124mm; 1/500 at f5; ISO 800; handheld]


Willow Ptarmigan male in courtship plumage near Churchill Manitoba Canada

“The Willow Ptarmigan is the only grouse in the world in which the male is regularly involved in parental care. Pairs remain together from the beginning of the breeding season until their chicks are independent.” from Cornell’s http://www.allaboutbirds.com

[Canon 7D with Canon EF 100-400mm f4.5-5.6L IS II USM lens at 400mm; 1/500 at f5.6; ISO 800; handheld]

Summer Willow Ptarmigan on tundra near Churchill Manitoba Canada

[Canon 7D with Canon EF 100-400mm f4.5-5.6L IS II USM lens at 400mm; 1/250 at f5.6; ISO 400; +0.66 ev; handheld]

 


Willow Ptarmigan male in courtship plumage near Churchill Manitoba Canada

 

[Canon 7D with Canon EF 100-400mm f4.5-5.6L IS II USM lens at 170mm; 1/640 at f5; ISO 800; handheld]


Willow Ptarmigan male in courtship plumage near Churchill Manitoba Canada

[Canon 7D with Canon EF 100-400mm f4.5-5.6L IS II USM lens at 170mm; 1/1250 at f5; ISO 800; handheld]


Willow Ptarmigan male in courtship plumage near Churchill Manitoba Canada

[Canon 7D with Canon EF 100-400mm f4.5-5.6L IS II USM lens at 164mm; 1/500 at f5; ISO 800; handheld]


Willow Ptarmigan near Churchill Manitoba Canada

This is one of the first photos I got of Willow Ptarmigan. I was hoping he would jump up on that rock behind him, but no luck. I sloooowly stalked this guy and he eventually walked through the Lapland Rosebay flowers patches.

[Canon 7D with Canon EF 100-400mm f4.5-5.6L IS II USM lens at 400mm; 1/160 at f11; ISO 400; handheld]


Willow Ptarmigan near Churchill Manitoba Canada

Like its cousin the Spruce Grouse, the Willow Ptarmigan sports sexy red “eyebrows,” which it can erect.

[Sony A6500 with Metabones adapter and Canon 400mm f5.6 lens; 1/320 sec at f6.3; ISO 200; handheld, laying on the ground]


Willow Ptarmigan male in near breeding plumage near Churchill Manitoba Canada

Here is another male I found along Twin Lakes Road…Note that this one’s plumage is more advanced towards breeding plumage than the male in the previous photos. His back feathers are turning from white to red.

[Sony A6500 with Metabones adapter and Canon 400mm f5.6 lens; 1/640 sec at f6.3; ISO 200; handheld, laying on the ground]


Willow Ptarmigan near Churchill Manitoba Canada

Often times, laying dead flat on the ground (road, beach, lawn) can give you the best angle on a subject…It puts you actually a bit below eye-level which is ideal for intimate and engaging portraits.

[Sony A6500 with Metabones adapter and Canon 400mm f5.6 lens; 1/640 sec at f6.3; ISO 200; handheld, laying on the ground]


Willow Ptarmigan near Churchill Manitoba Canada

[Sony A6500 with Metabones adapter and Canon 400mm f5.6 lens; 1/500 sec at f6.3; ISO 200; handheld, laying on the ground]


Willow and Willow Ptarmigan near Churchill Manitoba Canada

As their name implies, willow is the primary food of this grouse species. One source says that Arctic Willow catkins and buds are the primary food. Will also eat berries…and twigs and spruce/pine needles in winter

[Canon 7D with Canon EF 100-400mm f4.5-5.6L IS II USM lens at 234mm; 1/500 at f5.6; ISO 800; +0.66 ev; handheld]


Willow Ptarmigan near Churchill Manitoba Canada

I really wanted to get some “bird in the landscape” photos on this trip. I did get a few, and I do like this one but I wish the bird stood out a bit more from the surrounding greenery.

[Canon 7D with Canon EF 100-400mm f4.5-5.6L IS II USM lens at 234mm; 1/640 at f5.6; ISO 800; +0.66 ev; handheld]


Willow Ptarmigan near Churchill Manitoba Canada

[Canon 7D with Canon EF 100-400mm f4.5-5.6L IS II USM lens at 400mm; 1/640 at f5.6; ISO 320; handheld]


Willow Ptarmigan near Churchill Manitoba Canada

The female is understandable more cryptically colored than the male. She needs to be very inconspicuous when on the ground nest. She really blends in to her surroundings. In fact, I would not have seen her at all if not for the antics of the male that alerted me that he was trying to impress someone.

[Canon 7D with Canon EF 100-400mm f4.5-5.6L IS II USM lens at 400mm; 1/320 at f5.6; ISO 320; +0.66 ev; handheld; laying on ground]


Willow Ptarmigan near Churchill Manitoba Canada

Red “eyebrows” can be erected when in courtship mode.

[Canon 7D with Canon EF 100-400mm f4.5-5.6L IS II USM lens at 400mm; 1/500 at f5.6; ISO 320; +0.66 ev; handheld; laying on ground]

 


Willow Ptarmigan near Churchill Manitoba Canada

I saw several ptarmigan along this stretch of Twin Lakes Road.

[Canon 7D with Canon EF 100-400mm f4.5-5.6L IS II USM lens at 255mm; 1/1250 at f5; ISO 320; +0.66 ev; handheld]


Willow Ptarmigan near Churchill Manitoba Canada

[Canon 7D with Canon EF 100-400mm f4.5-5.6L IS II USM lens at 400mm; 1/1600 at f5.6; ISO 320; +0.66 ev; handheld; laying on ground]
A calling male Willow Ptarmigan (see video above to hear their hilarious call).

Advertisements