Pearls from the Sky

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One uplander's adventures with ptarmigan hunting


By E. Donnall Thomas Jr.

When we emerged from the mountains, we turned north toward the headwaters of the Mulchatna River, lost some altitude, and began to look for ptarmigan.

It’s late August, but the first blush of autumn has already left the tundra awash in brilliant crimson, orange and gold. To the east, the snow-capped volcanic peaks of the Aleutian Range support a cloudless blue sky upon their shoulders. On the Alaska Peninsula, clear days like this can take a first-time visitor’s breath away. They can still take mine away too, even though I first moved to Alaska nearly 40 years ago.

A trip to the Peninsula has always meant an expedition in every sense of the word. I’ve made the journey for many reasons—caribou and moose; salmon and trout; work as a bear-hunting guide. Today I’ve come with my wife Lori Kae and our friend Lori Louise (middle names are included for clarification), to pursue one of my favorite quarries of all. Hunting ptarmigan can involve little more than replacing the slugs in the camp bear gun with #8s and kicking up birds with your boots, but this time around we’ve flown in the dogs — my wirehair, Maggie, and Lori Louise’s pointers, Parker and Elvis — for a real bird hunt.

After securing Lori Louise’s floatplane on the shore of a nameless lake, we’ve climbed up through the brush and emerged on more open tundra than we could cover in a week. Now it’s time to let the dogs go to work. When we reach the first line of willows, Elvis is already on point, with the other two dogs backing. As we advance, a reedy alarm call rises on the breeze as a dozen birds erupt, white wings flashing against the vividly colored tundra behind them. Each Lori has dropped one by the time my gun reaches my shoulder, and I hold my fire so I can work Maggie on the retrieves.

Two is enough from one flock. Plenty of birds lie ahead, and I feel no need to hurry the shooting.
 

THREE PTARMIGAN SPECIES

Three fowl of the genus Lagopus occupy a circumpolar distribution across Eurasia and North America. All are present in Alaska: the white-tailed ptarmigan; the rock ptarmigan; and Alaska’s state bird, the willow ptarmigan. The last two occupy suitable habitat throughout the state. The white-tailed ptarmigan is limited to the southern part of Alaska and is the only one of the three whose range extends to the Lower-48.

Each species prefers different terrain, and they are seldom found together. The rock ptarmigan inhabits steep slopes with sparse ground cover. The white-tailed occupies alpine habitat above tree level in South-Central Alaska and the Panhandle. Look for willow ptarmigan at lower elevations, on open tundra laced with scrub.

The plumage of all species enables them to disappear against the background throughout the year as they change from mottled summer plumage to pure white once snow covers the ground. The three can be difficult to tell apart in winter, although the distinction is of little concern to anyone but collectors. Alaska hunting regulations treat them all the same.

Ptarmigan change their behavior with the seasons almost as dramatically as they change their appearance. Hunting begins in early August and runs until spring in most of Alaska’s 26 hunting units. In August and early September, ptarmigan remain in family groups numbering from six to 20 birds. Although often referred to as coveys, these groups seldom flush simultaneously like partridge or quail. Willing to trust their camouflage, they will hold tight even in sparse cover, resulting in close shots and wonderful opportunities for pointing dogs.

Once snow accumulates, ptarmigan gather in large, wary flocks prone to flushing wild. This principle is not inviolate, and I’ve had some fine shooting even when conditions demanded snowshoes. However, accepting the challenges of winter hunting in Alaska usually means seeing a lot more birds than shot opportunities.

February can be a pleasant month in Alaska, especially when a stable weather system has left the skies clear and calm. The temperature may be 20-below, but cold is often easier to deal with than the wind and rain that so often characterize fall hunting in the North. With days lengthening rapidly the urge to get outdoors after months of darkness becomes irresistible, and there’s no cure for cabin fever like a wilderness ptarmigan hunt on a sunny winter day.


FLY-IN FOR BIRDS

After checking the weather one such morning, a friend and I decided to load our dogs into our Super Cub airplane and go find some birds. Sky, my male yellow Lab, was a veteran air traveler by then, and he rode calmly in the back seat as the icy waters of Cook Inlet slid by beneath the wings. Recent snow had buried the Alaska Range in fresh powder. As we flew through Lake Clark Pass, the glaciers looked spectacular in the morning light. When we emerged from the mountains, we turned north toward the headwaters of the Mulchatna River, lost some altitude, and began to look for ptarmigan.

Dressed in winter white, ptarmigan are hard to see, but tracks in fresh powder can be easy to spot even from the air. It didn’t take us long to find some next to a frozen pond where we could land on skis. We covered the engine cowlings then climbed to the top of the berm surrounding the pond and realized we were going to need snowshoes, which we had along. Frolicking in the snow, our dogs were obviously enjoying themselves following those long, dark months indoors. After slogging along for a mile, we were wondering what had happened to the birds that left the tracks when a commotion arose from the brush ahead of us. Soon, the air began to fill with wings.

The birds had flushed wild even though the dogs were by our sides. The first rise consisted of a dozen willow ptarmigan, but they were just the tip of a large iceberg. We stood still and watched as clouds of ptarmigan continued to explode from the willows — first by the dozens, then by the hundreds. It looked as if a long string of pearls had broken and scattered across the sky. We never fired a shot.

As we crossed the ridge and worked our way up another line of brush back to the pond the dogs nosed up a few cooperative birds in singles and pairs, but my enduring memories of that day have little to do with the ptarmigan that wound up in our game vests. I will never forget the sight of those clouds of white birds rising into the sky.
 

WHERE TO GO

As usual in Alaska, the best hunting involves getting away from the state’s limited road system. However, good ptarmigan hunting doesn’t necessarily require a bush flight. Anyone willing to do some hiking can find willow ptarmigan in suitable tundra habitat off the Parks, Glenn or Richardson Highways between Anchorage, Fairbanks and Tok. The Kenai Peninsula and southern Kodiak Island are both under-rated willow ptarmigan destinations. The other two species will require a little more looking and climbing, but they are still within reach of road-based hunters in many parts of the state.

Personally, I’ve always preferred to hunt ptarmigan in the backcountry, not because there are more birds there, but because wilderness feels like such an important part of the experience. The biggest logistical problem usually involves getting bird dogs to the remote places you want to hunt, but that can be done, as I have proven many times. Often, the “bird dog” may be an all-purpose Lab invited along primarily to fetch waterfowl and alert the camp to bears visiting at night. But when you can pull it off, the combination of good pointing dogs and good ptarmigan habitat can lead to some of the most exciting wing-shooting I know, as that Peninsula expedition with the two Loris reminded me.

We couldn’t have created better bird hunting weather that day: warm enough for light clothing, but cool enough for good scenting; calm enough to leave the birds settled down, but breezy enough to keep the bugs at bay. After Maggie delivered the second downed bird from the initial rise, we set off toward a low ridgeline where I thought drier ground might hold more birds and offer easier walking. The cover was vast and open, and watching the three dogs work would have justified the excursion even if we never fired another shot.

Maggie, Parker and Elvis weren’t about to let it come to that. Halfway through the gentle climb to the crest of the ridge, I noticed Maggie frozen solid on the downwind side of a dense willow patch and signaled the two Loris in that direction. Once again, the other two thirds of the canine team displayed their manners by honoring, and when I waded into the brush, the cover began to belch ptarmigan. It was the time of year when ptarmigan are just starting the transition to white winter plumage. That process begins with the wings, which shone like beacons as the birds rose in conveniently staggered groups of twos and threes. This flock was larger than the first by at least a dozen birds, and when a pair took off behind me I no longer felt any need for restraint.

Note
The famous red grouse of the British Isles is a subspecies of willow ptarmigan. I doubt I’ll ever shoot driven birds from blinds on Scottish moors. Those who do would term Alaska-style ptarmigan hunting “rough shooting,” and they have a point. But for those who consider challenge an important element of wing-shooting, there’s no quarry like ptarmigan — a bird whose wilderness habitat contributes as much to the satisfaction of a day afield as the shotguns, the dogs and the shooting.
 

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