October 2, 2013

White-Tailed Ptarmigans Showcase the Changing Seasons

The resident camouflage experts here in the park are hardy grouse-like birds called white-tailed ptarmigans.  They are amongst our toughest critters, as year round, they live at high elevations, usually above tree-line.  In summer, they sport mottled feathers, and blend in with the rocks and lichens of the alpine tundra.  In winter, they are as white as snow, right down to feathers growing out of their feet!

Feathered feet of a ptarmigan in winter plumage.
We've been keeping an eye open for ptarmigan all summer – with no luck – but in the last two weeks, we've seen three large families.  They are a magical sight, as they are in “transformation” mode: new white feathers are coming in, and the darker feathers are moulting out.

September 19: winter and summer plumage in one package.
Their timing is perfect, as the first snows have been falling in the high country, and the landscape is now a cross between rocky and white, just like the birds.

Speaking of timing, our summer hiking season ended  a couple of days ago, and by the photo below, you can see that there wasn't much “summer” left here in the Lake Louise area.  At Consolation Lake on September 30, seven guests earned their ptarmigan merit badges that day – even without the camouflage – for toughing out fresh snow, strong winds, and a 0º Celsius high!

September 30: Ptarmigan merit badge recipients at Consolation Lake.