In Search of Ptarmigans on Piegan Pass

White-tailed PtarmiganAll across the alpine landscape of Glacier National Park, a high elevation grouse hides in plain site. After hiking all across Glacier I’d only seen a couple White-tailed Ptarmigans. Coincidentally, the couple that I’d seen were at Piegan Pass which was exactly where my buddy, Cory DeStein wanted to go.

Cory had hiked with me in the past to Swiftcurrent Lookout and he knew not only the the area to look, but where they like to hide. This knowledge had us on an adventure of discovery.

We left the trailhead on a bright sunny morning. I’d already seen a little black bear from my car which started the day out right. After a bit of hiking, I spotted a cow elk on the trail ahead of us. She sauntered out of view, only to surprise us later on. She was a bit tamer than I’d like, but allowed for nice photos. I noticed her ears were forward while we were behind her. Picking up on the cue, we looked ahead of her, eventually revealing a cow moose! That was a new combination for me.

Plowing ahead through the songbirds aplenty and meadows of flowers, we finally arrived at our expansive views with Piegan Mountain, Piegan Glacier and Piegan Pass all visible. After passing an American Pika and spotting a Prairie Falcon, we approached the pass. Some young Bighorn Sheep foraged on the grass while the humans sat on rocks with the Marmots and enjoyed the views.

Our destination was a bit beyond the pass itself as we were eyeing the snowfield that provided some of the melt-off that would be Cataract Creek. Ptarmigans like hanging around larger boulders close to these snowfields which act as an alpine air conditioner. Our first pass yielded no birds, but the Gray-crowned Rosyfinches kept us entertained as we dangled our legs over a cliff eating lunch with an incredible view into the Many Glacier valley. Below us, Cataract Creek cascaded and tumbled providing a mountain soundtrack and a Mountain Goat got up, stretched and started eating.. about 800 feet below us.

We turned around to get back to look for our elusive White-tailed Ptarmigans as we headed by the snowfields on the way to the pass, exploring a couple of new areas. I broke away from Cory to photograph and video some water and flowers. A couple of minutes later, he got my attention and flapped his arms. I hustled over to the female ptarmigan that he spotted and the one, no wait, two… hold on, three chicks! They definitely blended in well!

When you set out to look for a particular species of fauna, you don’t always get what you’re looking for, but this time we scored, with the added bonus of the other animals*.

* On the way out, we spotted a Mule Deer doe. This, coupled with the White-tailed doe I saw coming in crossed off all of Glacier’s ungulates for the day (moose, elk, mule deer, white-tailed deer, mountain goat, bighorn sheep)

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