I had been fantasizing about this day for well over a year, since before I even moved to the state in August of 2010. It is long and has a decent number of pictures. I hope you enjoy it but it’s mostly for my own recollection in the future and to hopefully entertain our overseas folks. It went something like this….
“Three sausage McMuffins and a hashbrown…”
“Make that two hashbrowns, you get the second one for only 50 cents!”
“…two hashbrowns,” was our final order.
I peeked into the bag and only one hashbrown lay in the brown sack. “Turn it around! Oh wait, they only have one on the ticket, let’s just go. No discount hashbrown for PG13 this morning. That would be the final disappointment of my day. We were on our way towards the home of North America’s smallest grouse, weighing in at less than a pound, the white-tailed ptarmigan. The white-tailed ptarmigan is an alpine specialist that has a diet consisting of various plant materials (and insects in the summertime) and a tendency to sit still WAY up high where most predators would never know they were even in the vicinity. My hunting partner (TW) had found a few earlier in the week and after lamenting to him that I still hadn’t targeted them and was hoping to beat the heavy snows, I had begged my way into a morning hunt that will stay etched in my psyche forever.
A truck was already parked at the trailhead and we had another directly behind us encouraging us up the rutted road. The first pickup had frost in the windshield so we figured we wouldn’t be competing against that user. A father and his 7-year old daughter stepped out from the vehicle that had been behind us. He remarked something to the tune of, “they have a dog, they automatically win.” It made me grin inside thinking that at least Gypsy looks like a gun dog, just hope she proves it. He had a little rifle and they were ready to hike while we checked our packs, sorted through shells, and debated what layers to keep. The father-daughter team had chosen their path which worked perfectly because we had intentions of exploring a separate drainage opposite from where they trekked. It was time to get vertical into the boulder fields and search for little white anomalies amongst the snow patches in the high country.
A light snow was falling as we hiked an easy trail, crossed a stream, and started up a tailings pile. We crested no more than 30 feet up the pile and we stopped to get our bearings on where we were headed and to let me catch my breath. I was told, “we didn’t need to come up here but I wanted to see if you could handle it.” Failure on my part. The dog was having a great time though and we started hopping rocks that had been blanketed by little black crowberries atop their mossy looking profile. Next we encountered a few blueberries dangling off of their contrasting red branches. I think the dog enjoyed them the most working through the patch and devouring them bush by bush. Upward and onward we went until we came to a large rock formation that hid a spot that had sheltered birds in the past. In order to keep the dog from moving ahead of us and possibly flushing birds out of range I made her stay. This command has been used effectively many times and the first attempt went as planned. We were at a false summit so I gave Gypsy the signal to move forward and she charged up the hill. I asked her to stay again as we moved to crest the next rise. The rest of the time she wouldn’t let us get more than 30 yards ahead of her before she would creep to within 10 and know she was in trouble. She stayed behind us which is what I wanted but I was not impressed. We were in bird mode though so I neglected the opportunity to make her mind.
More elevation, more rocks, no birds. The skiff of new snow wasn’t enough to cover the rocks and the existing snow patches were great for checking recent activity. A few places were full of the smallest grouse tracks I had ever seen. With pika chirping and the sun starting to clear the mountains I felt content with the day just being in the same country that has sustained the objects of my desire. TW did his best mountain goat impression and went straight up the scree as I sidehilled and followed tracks and investigated the area to satisfy my natural history curiosities. During our ride out I was prepped to watch the snow patches as that’s where they were found previously, in order to take full advantage of their white plumage in this still landscape still dominated by the grays and greens and browns. One set of tracks grabbed my attention because they started from underneath a boulder. I know these birds will snow roost but I wanted to know how they used these boulders and subsequent crevasses. This particular set of tracks seemed to point to a “cave” that at least 3 birds had used to roost for the evening and emerged again, probably this exact morning by the looks of the sign.
We weren’t having any luck spotting birds. I was moving slow and being thorough with intermittent sign and my buddy was covering ground and seeing lots of sign up high but no critters. He came down to where I was to save my arteries from being taxed with the effort and we started back across the boulders. My neoprene knee boots were not a great fit for the day’s expedition. The soles became hard in the cool air and snow which was a detriment to the already labored efforts of this Flatlander. I stayed in the lower boulders as he pushed high again in an effort to at least try to flush a bird for me to at least see one for the first time.
No dice and we headed back down the mountain. I wore urban camo pants this day and was a laughing stock because of the purple tones I had added due to falling in the berries on my way back down. Amidst this ribbing and a snack we heard a commotion from the peak above us and all of the sudden birds started to talk and move and glide into the fields we had vacated 100s of feet and 10 minutes ago! We both grabbed for our binoculars and watched as some birds flew were we started and others settled into our last location while yet others stayed up high near the peak. They were certainly white-tailed ptarmigan, all of them. I can still see the bird flying left to right through the sunlight and the whole thing was aglow, including the tail. Ptarmigan are a different white than the white of the snow and after seeing a few on the move we were able to find even more perched up high that I’m almost certain weren’t there earlier. Bird hunting with binoculars was new to me but they were worth their weight for the fantastic views of these specialized and local birds. It also saved us a bunch of walking after what we thought could be birds but had always been snow patches, until now.
We were going after them so back up the hill we went. I tried but I’m not as fit as I thought I was and I lurched up the mountain well behind my esteemed guide. We were on our way to crest the same formation we had problems with the dog earlier when a single bird was spotted to our left. It flushed and he fired and down went our first bird. The dog was paying attention now and was able to traverse the sketchy terrain and bring the bird back to the successful hunter’s hand. I was proud but we also had work to do as another whitetail had emerged on top of a separate boulder nearer to me. It was literally sitting there about 20 yards from me and I wanted to get closer but the footing was terrible and I didn’t want to botch my first opportunity at a whitetail because I had poor footing trying to get closer. Not only are my legs weaker than I thought but so is my throwing arm. I threw a rock at it to encourage a flush but it fell without incident a couple feet from the loafing bird. My dog and buddy were downhill and behind me so instead of trying to move closer I just moved higher where I could get around the obstacles in front of me and make a better play on the bird. Finally I got to where I was more than comfortable shooting from and called the dog to initiate the flush. She was looking all over but we don’t really have any hand signals down so my flailing was probably entertaining but certainly not effective. Gypsy had to have been 10 feet away from the bird but since it was above her and sitting still and she had her nose to the ground or looking at me she didn’t see it. Finally, she must have grown bored with my commands and she happened to look up and see it, now standing, not that far in front of her face. Since they had just descended, I’ll blame the lack of a trail for her to follow and an undeveloped scent cone on her inability to locate it earlier. All this activity was too much and the bird flushed almost straight away. Shoulder, swing, boom. The bird tumbled and I was silent and reveling in the moment while TW gave out a holler from below to celebrate our effort and appreciation for the moment. The dog was hot on the trail and as she got close the tiny grouse tried to escape. Downhill and in a flurry it was in survival mode with the canine nipping at its tail. I was yelling for the dog to fetch and she really was giving her all but scrambling downhill in a boulder field proved too much for her and the bird used it’s evolutionary instinct to find a gap in some rocks and dive into it. TW was the first one to the hole where the dog stood whimpering and after trying to reach in and grab it, the bird only went further into the darkness. It would take a huge effort to dig it out and the shock molt of the escaping bird left a very evident feather trail of where it went so we decided to let the bird expire or possibly come back towards the surface while we climbed higher to pursue the rest of the flock.
As the caboose, I was trailing and resting here and there while we tried to get above the few that we watched glide across into where we first searched this morning. On our way up to where we could bridge across a nasty section I looked to our right and saw a single bird standing on the edge of the cliff face. I guess because I’m the new guy, I was given the chance to take the bird. While I crept closer I constantly minded my footing and was hoping the dog wouldn’t see the bird and go barreling off the edge. As I slowly made my way approach, another bird emerged out of nowhere right next to the first. “Shoot em!” was the rally cry but I wanted to take them on the wing. We argued back and forth a couple times but I finally switched sides when he mentioned a sure recovery. I shot what was the second bird to show itself as it stood there on the cliff face. I saw it fold and roll over the edge and then tracked the other bird and shot as it glided across the drainage. It was hit in the near wing and on its way down. My buddy also tried to take that one but it hit the boulders on the move. I must have shot a third time as it was trying to land because I went to fire when it landed and there were no shells in the gun and the dog was again called upon to track down a wounded bird. She did her job and found it quickly but this one too scrambled straight downhill until it found a crevasse to sneak into. I waved my partner forward to chase the original birds still while I stayed behind to recover the birds that I had on the ground.
I slipped to the edge of the cliff where I shot the first bird standing and peered over the edge. Nothing. These things are BRIGHT white and this part of the mountain was barren of all snow. Did I miss the first shot or just wound it? I backtracked and went back down the mountain. At the base of the cliff I searched and couldn’t find any sign of a ptarmigan so I went to where the dog was still occupied with the second bird in that group. I could see the tail and legs of the bird in the shadows. I was able to grab the legs but wouldn’t be able to pull the bird out without tearing up the wings and I was hoping one might be serve as an outreach tool and special interest piece in my home so I wanted it intact. After rolling about six boulders downhill I was able to pull out my first confirmed white-tailed ptarmigan. I was so thankful for the opportunity to be in the mountains with this worthy quarry, one that has grown so comfortable and familiar with this barren landscape. I felt a sense of loss for the ecosystem but knew that our hunting tandem would treat this area with respect and leave plenty of birds behind for the future. I held the tiny grouse in my hind and looked at the tiny feathered feet. They aren’t kidding when they report that they are small but oh so handsome. The bird was full of blood feathers so any attempt at a mount would result in a naked chicken so this one would be enjoyed as a culinary treat and nourish my body in the week to come.
I was headed downhill towards the bird I shot first when TW popped back over the rise between the drainage I was in and where we had started and seen birds fly into earlier. No shots fired and he hadn’t seen any birds. After I recovered my second bird I had been taking a break and some more pictures and for some reason looked across the valley. I saw two whitetails from the opposite side fly right into where he should have been. I reported this so he turned around and I continued downhill. Not long after, I heard two volleys of shotgun fire and knew he had found them. I guess he had been on his way back when they flew in and his account of that episode can be found in his winner winner chicken dinner montage thread approaching 2600 views!
Once again cutting downhill towards where we shot our first birds I looked up and lo and behold, the second bird from my “slow double” was sitting atop a boulder below the cliff where I had been not 15 minutes ago. The dog saw it so I decided to see if she could snag it instead of using another shell and possibly destroying meat. The bird hopped down from the rock and scurried into a hole just like my other two birds. I was shooting 7 1/2s and I think I’ll probably move to 5s or 6s or maybe just practice wingshooting but regardless, the dove loads stay in the garage from now on. I hesitated taking this picture because it the bird was still alive but I couldn’t reach it to dispense it so I thought I would show folks what kind of issues I was having so that they know to finish birds every time they have the opportunity.
Originally I had tried to grab the bird from below while the dog had the cameras vantage but I couldn’t quite reach. Because I didn’t want it escaping below us I lodged a fist sized rock as far as I could to prevent the birds retreat when I came in on it from above. The picture was after I had taken some finer rocks out of the equation already but it took another three or four boulders to finally reach in and grab my second confirmed whitetail. I used the road-wounded euthanization technique from my ruffed grouse thread to dispatch it quickly once retrieved. This bird too had many blood feathers and was a fine addition to some garlic mashed potatoes after marinating in Italian dressing overnight.
TW was back with his bird from the other drainage and we moved down to where we had abandoned the first bird to hit the crevi (that’s the plural for of crevasse that I just made up). It really was in there deep and this was going to take effort. We moved a couple surface boulders away and still the bottom was 4 feet away. I peered in and declared that I could see the bird and sat back up. We worked together to yank one stone out and then I used my mass to pull another from the alley we were forming. Out of nowhere I hear TW yelling at the dog who had taken one of our prizes staged above us and was now below us playing with it and chewing on it. He was trying to get to the bird and I started to rush down to try to initiate some discipline. TW arrived first and realized that the bird was alive and that she had sensed it escape from an unseen alley below our digging and was working on retrieving it. What a fine performance and a fine day. We used some local features for pictures to capture the moment before moving downhill, sliding through berry patches until we found a good rock to stage our bounty for more pictures.
A proud dog and a proud bird man basking in the days bounty.
I never slowed down the whole day. Usually I’ll try to sneak a nap in but I was on a high that still hasn’t quite worn off. The dog didn’t have the same problem and lay in my lap with her face on the cup holder. It was an honor to be in the mountains with good company, civilized and wild each bringing their own merit.
The end, finally.