The Lifer That Looks Like a Rock

We had missed the all-white-bird-in-an-all-whire-landscape on April 5 and I was back in July at 11,600 feet to find the master of camouflage, the white-tailed ptarmigan.

This bird encounter in Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado was to be one of my most memorable and perhaps my most personal.

We headed out on the Medicine Bow Bend trail under clear skies. The air was a bit thin for a sea leveler of the Coast Range like me but the air was not as thin as birding in the Andes at 13,000 feet looking for Andean condor.

We were in the Alpine Tundra of the high Rocky Mountains, above tree level where all flora had a stunted necessity because of the extreme conditions of high elevations coupled with a very short growing season.

We were ten minutes into our search along the trail when we heard the “ku-kurii” call somewhere upslope.

“Ptarmigan!” Carl said with joy mixed with relief.

All eyes scanned the slope, where a ptarmigan can very much resemble a small rock in an environment strewn with small rocks!

Near the top of the ridge, Carl spotted a male ptarmigan, that looked very much like a rock. We trekked upslope to get a closer look. As it turns out, white-tailed ptarmigan are not so wary of humans, despite the fact that they are hunted as a game bird, but not here in Rocky Mountain N. P.

The ptarmigan flew downslope, revealing it’s all white wings. We all got eyes on it and then it promptly disappeared. Carl headed upslope in a round about manner but he couldn’t find the master of disguises. I scampered up to Carl’s position and scanned downslope only to find that Carl had walked right past him. The ptarmigan was sitting right next to a rock, looking very much like a rock.

This male ptarmigan was banded on both of it’s feathered feet that bore the number 47.

The male white-tailed ptarmigan (on the left) and a rock on the right.

I pulled out my sketchbook and we where close enough for me to get a quick sketch in.

We laid low and got amazing looks at the male, #47 by it’s leg bands. He was not focused on us, although we were very much focused on him, but his attention was drawn downslope. Soon the call of another male just down slope told us that we where at the border of a bird dispute where two territories come together.

A male from downslope flew up to where our bird was perched. What followed was a short flighted chase. The male ptarmigans land and both birds faced each other and boxed with their white wings. After the short conflict, the invading male turned tail, and flew back downslope to his territory.

Here is a picture of Corvidsketcher sketching the featured sketch.
A male is his territory. Note the feathered feet, represented in the genius of the species Lagopus (feathered feet) and he’s sporting jewelry, two leg bands that identifies this male as “47”.


Loveland Pass, Colorado April 5, 2021, 11:12 AM

Loveland Pass is a legendary place to look for a sought after Colorado bird: white-tailed ptarmigan.

Logopus leucura is an all white bird that lives above treeline in an all white landscape. This twelve ounce bird is notoriously hard to find because it’s snow white camouflage hides it from possible predators and birders with equal aplomb.

At close to 12,000 feet above sea level, Loveland Pass is exposed, cold, and very windy. Most of the visitors we see quickly get out of their cars, take a few selfies in front of the elevation sign, and then hurry back to their cars and return down to milder climes.

To find this ptarmigan take patience, lots of patience. It also helps to have a scope. What we are looking for is the image profile of the bird. In other words we are looking for a twelve ounce patch of snow with a black beak and eye.

My guide and I scan the bright white slopes for that all white bird in an all white landscape. Is it any wonder that birders don’t suffer from snow blindness while trying to add this game bird to their lifelists?

My guide, Carl, scanning the landscape at Loveland Pass.

I sought shelter from the cold wind in the passengers seat of Carl’s truck, I also wanted to sketch the scene. I laid out the contours of the mountain in sepia brush pen and then added the twined contour of the dirty snow in the forground. I then added bits of exposed ground on the mountainside with expressive strokes. I then sketched in the sign in the foreground that said” PARKING PERMITTED” In the sketch I left the sign blank, little realizing the words I would be adding a few days later.

I placed my sketchbook on the dashboard and headed back out to continue the search. But before I that, I though a selfie was in order. . .

I took a shelfie showing me in all my layers and as I was lowering my phone to put it back into my pocket, I received a phone call. It was 11:12 AM Mountain Time, 10:12 Am Pacific Time.

The call was from my mother. This was a odd time for her to call.

I answered and she was sobbing uncontrollably.

She told me my younger brother, Greg, had died.

Loveland Pass is a beautiful place to lose a ptarmigan but is also a beautiful place to learn such horrible news of the loss of your only brother.