Rock ptarmigans (Lagopus muta) aren’t easy to spot: with their brownish grey plumage in summer and white feathers in winter they are practically invisible in high mountain environments. However, in autumn these birds often moult into their winter coats before the first snowfall. So now – while their white feathers are conspicuous – it is a very good time to try and see these elusive birds.
The call of a rock ptarmigan
That’s why I’ve set up my tent high above Chamonix in the midst of ptarmigan habitat. I’m surrounded by a barren rocky alpine landscape and I’m keeping my eyes peeled and my binoculars ready. One after the other alpine chough flies past, but there is no sign of any ptarmigans. When the sun finally sets behind the mountain and I’m getting ready to crawl into my tent, I suddenly hear a very clear call of a rock ptarmigan, followed by another call, and another. It’s hard to describe the sounds rock ptarmigans make, because it sounds nothing like a “normal bird song”. It’s more like a series of clicks, rasps and croaks. Although I don’t see any of the calling birds, it’s very excited to know that they are definitely around!
Birds with snowshoes
The next morning, as soon as I get out of my tent, the first thing I see is a big flock of about 25 ptarmigans flying from one big boulder to another. If the birds would still have their brownish grey summer plumage they would practically be invisible in between the rocks and alpine vegetation, but they are moulting already and their brand-new white feathers stand out clearly in the autumnal alpine landscape. And there are so many of them! I just can’t believe my luck. I couldn’t have wished for a better start of my day. But hopefully for the birds, the first snow will arrive soon, so they will be perfectly camouflaged again. And they are very well adapted to a life in the snow. Extra feathers on their feet, for example, don’t only keep their feet warm and insulated, but these extra feathers also increase the surface of their feet: it is as if a ptarmigan walks on snowshoes.
While looking at the white birds through my binoculars, they hang out and forage on the ground between the rocks and alpine vegetation. Eventually some of them fly away and others disappear behind some big boulders. Later in the day, while exploring the area, I find several ptarmigan feathers. What a wonderful little souvenirs of an incredible wildlife encounter!