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Fitness and Photography for Fun - A blog on staying fit by hiking and doing photography by David Mendosa

White-tailed Ptarmigan on Niwot Ridge

August 10th, 2015 · No Comments

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On Saturday I was fortunate to get with half a dozen feet of a pair of ptarmigan. I was a member of a group of six who had special permission to hike miles up Niwot Ridge above the Mountain Research Station of the University of Colorado, Boulder, on a tour of the Boulder County Audubon Society.

​The Scene of the Adventure's Start

The Scene of the Adventure's Start

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One of Colorado’s veteran birders, Bill Kaempfer, led the tour, which includes Sharon, two other women each named Linda, John Vanderpoel, who is a well-known birder who found 744 birds in his 2011 Big Year, which is one short of the record, and a photographer named Bob. Our tour leader had no difficulty getting permission for us to enter the restricted area since he is the university’s senior vice provost as well as professor of economics there.

The Male Ptarmigan

The Male Ptarmigan

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I was thrilled that Bill spotted the ptarmigan, which I couldn’t even see for at least a minute while Sharon tried to show them to me when they were straight in front of me and only have a dozen feet away. Ptarmigan are masters of disguise, and look almost exactly like the mottled rocks of their preferred habitat.

The Male Ptarmigan

How Many Ptarmigan Do You See?

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The tour announcement called it a “stroll.” But it was actually a hike up from the last locked gate above the Mountain Research Center and was a brutal one. Not only did we have to climb, but the track was almost completely rocky. The sun was completely obscured by clouds, and while the temperature was about 50 degrees, the 30 to 40 mile per hour wind brought the windchill factor close to freezing. As we approached 12,000 feet where the air has little oxygen, breathing became more difficult. And then as we had to cross a boulder field in order to reach ptarmigan habitat.

Fortunately, we got a ride part way up the track with Paul, the site manager of the National Ecological Observatory Network (NEON).

​The Female Among the Flowers

The Female Among the Flowers

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The White-tailed Ptarmigan is the smallest grouse in North America. Almost all of them live in Canada and Alaska and only a small proportion live in Colorado. It is the only bird in North America to reside permanently in the alpine zone.

Our hike took us nearly to the point of Niwot Ridge, which is at 12,284 feet. We were well above the NEON observatory at 11,380 feet. I estimate that we encountered the ptarmigan at between 11,800 and 12,000 feet. It was a tough hike but well worth the effort.


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