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Thread: Ptarmigan behavior

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    Member TMCKEE's Avatar
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    Default Ptarmigan behavior

    Some of the recent posts gave me an idea for a new thread here, I'd like to see what observations folks have made into ptarmigan behavior. Not the ADF&G brochure sort of stuff but the nuances of their behavior like when flushed do you notice how they use the wind, terrain; do they hook left or right, or flush straight away, do they then hold where they land after the flush or hit the ground running, etc... How is their behavior affected by weather? Do they show a preference for the lee or windward side of a hill, north or south facing slope? Or anything else you've learned about them, that you're willing to share.

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    Member Burke's Avatar
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    Default I'll start...

    Observation #1 Winter
    They run like crazy when the snow is hard packed...both after flight and when pointed by the dogs. If they fly it is usually short distances.

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    Default Patterns

    I have noticed that they seem to fly shorter distances as the winter gets colder too. They seem to be up on the slopes more early in the season and go down into the valley bottoms when the weather gets bad. I like to hunt them in early winter right after a snowstorm. The weather seems to push them down and the morning after snow you can hike likely spots till you see their tracks heading down the slope. Then you can usually just fallow the tracks into the cover in the bottom and start getting into them. Of course some times they don't stick to the norm. I have also found them in thick forest down low in early August, and up high in late winter. I have noticed that the birds in certain areas seem to have specific habits and birds in other areas different habits. I kinda like to pattern the birds I hunt from year to year, it is a good thing to think about to improve your chances during hunting season.
    "Bark,bark,bark,sniff,sniff,bark,and bark" - Lynchs Blue Roan Lynch E.C.K.

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    Good questions! And the answers will vary considerably.

    Gamebirds of all types will use the wind to their advantage, and when possible will get up and grab that wind under their wings as quickly as possible. They will hook right or left depending upon the terrain and how they've been pushed, or pressured. With experience a hunter can direct a flush somewhat. This is part of developing your woodcraft. Certainly doesn't always work and when it doesn't it's reason to laugh out loud in the wilderness. Most birds, including ptarmigan, like the warm sun on those south facing slopes, but never discount the shaded north side because lots of times that's where they are. Ptarmigan - and sharp-tailed grouse -are used to the wind and just deal with it, but ptarmigan do often seek out the lee side of a mountain ridge. On the other wing...a ptarmigan so used to the elements will also find relief just the other side of a stunted spruce, ditch, ridge of hard packed snow, or simply by hunkering its butt down into the snow right out in the open with just its head and one black eye looking out for you or some other predator.

    Ptarmigan vocalizations are something I find interesting, and there are a pile of different things they have to say to each other. The more rapid the "ko-ko-ko" the more imminent the flush, better have your gun at the ready.

    For the most part ptarmigan will be found a second time pretty much where you saw them land, but if there is some sort of security cover near that spot, then you should consider their having sought that out. But you'll also find that a lot of times a bunch will get up and disappear over yonder mountain ridge! Sharptails will do the same sort of stuff.

    When it comes to the affect of weather, I know that females and juveniles will leave the higher country when the snow is so deep as to cover up most of the brushy security cover, and when the temps are severe. Beyond that I don't see much affect. They seem to accept the severe conditions they are dealt.

    What I'm interested in is their migration patterns, and for many years I've been trying to talk ADF&G into developing a system of volunteer "cooperators" all accross the state to report their sightings and other criteria. For example, north slope ptarmigan typically migrate 100 miles or more south each late fall, south of the Brooks Range. But one year, quite a few years ago, thousands of ptarmigan decided to spend part of the winter in and around Kotzebue. I wonder why? I'd like to know more about ptarmigan than what is available.

    Let's continue this talk. Great post.

    Jim

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    Member sayak's Avatar
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    Default Patterns...

    ... other than high to low as the snow comes down and as breeding time comes into play, I'd be skeptical that they have any hard and fast migration patterns. How can one account for the urban migration into Fairbanks last year? I remember one spring in Dillingham ('96 I think) when birds were just everywhere on the roads and in the subdivisions. Next spring: nothing within miles. You just never know with these birds. I don't think they are overly bright, and may just follow the leader.

    On a side note; my 9yo boy got his first kill, a spruce chicken, yesterday with a pellet gun. Yeah, I know they don't taste good this time of year, but the bird was just begging him to shoot him. So regardless, he gets a party in the native way when we go up to Eagle River this weekend. Proud does not begin to describe the emotions he demonstrated throughout the day. He's making one "claw" into a necklace for himself.

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    Thanks for sharing, I hope more will follow suit.

    I went out today and found a couple of coveys of willows, limited patterns in behavior. The first consisted of about 6 or 7 birds and was feeding on a south facing slope at mid day very near to the timberline. They flushed with the wind at their tails and uphill, but not far. Vocalizations were limited to after the flush, and consisted of the standard ko-ko-ko with some rapid chattering. They were in a "no discharge of firearms" area so I did not pursue them. Actually they were about 10 feet from the road. My dog Gauge practically climbed over me to get out of the Jeep and ran straight to them and held a beautiful point, poor guy couldn't understand why I wasn't doing my part.

    After a few hours of enjoying some beautiful country and seeing numerous tracks (old snow), Gauge wandered off of our direction of travel and got some more birds talking. This was a pair of willows also at timberline, Northeast facing slope, they flushed uphill, but with a quartering head wind. They were much more vocal prior to the flush (ko-ko-ko). They were using the last alder up the hill as cover and were very reluctant to flush, great for the dog (and it gave me time to play catch up).

    Similarities: Both coveys were at or extremely close to timberline, and both flushed uphill.

    Conditions: Sunny with temps above freezing, snow had a half to one inch crust.

    I'm really beginning to develop a passion for these birds and I'm dreading the looming end to the season. I may have to find a way to venture North to take advantage of their longer season.

    Tyler
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    Tyler,

    Ptarmigan really are a wonderful game bird, and many mysteries still surround them. That's okay. I like solving mysteries, always have. Glad you two had fun up there.

    Getting my Jeep loaded right now and heading up to the hills for another day of ptarmigan hunting. I now have to go and select two dogs for the day and have to bear hearing the plaintiff barks and crying from the dogs that must stay home today. Maybe I'll take three dogs?

    Jim

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    Quote Originally Posted by Jim McCann View Post
    Tyler,

    I now have to go and select two dogs for the day and have to bear hearing the plaintiff barks and crying from the dogs that must stay home today. Maybe I'll take three dogs?

    Jim
    Sounds like a bitter sweet dilemma to me. Good Luck and have fun.

    Tyler

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    ...short vid clip of some Rock Ptarmigan when I was on my way up to look for goats, last year...

    ....a well-regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed....

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    Sayak,

    You ask how a person could explain the ptarmigan around Fairbanks last winter? Good question. Here's my take on it.

    To begin with, there weren't as many birds around town, at least when compared to previous decades. Second, I'd attribute it to a lack of snow up in the high country. As we all know, ptarmigan snow roost throughout the night to stay warm and hidden from predators. There was very little snow up there last year. Similar to this year, and there have been a few birds around town now and then.

    I was really surprised today to see barely any snow left in most areas up high. I had wanted to get up to a favorite slope at sunrise, but I had to take the teenager to school and such and didn't get up there until about 9am. Plenty of sign/scent in the one spot, but as I suspected the birds had moved on.

    I hunted hard for over 5 hours and the dogs and I didn't have one single bird contact until about an hour before we called it quits. Other than what we'd found at the beinning of our hunt, not even a single track was found until this afternoon. Temps were warming, from single digit this morning to 30 or so this afternoon, but the wind was whipping us bad, probably a steady 15mph with gusts.

    Pushing up just one more sidehill where the snow, although spotty, was deep in places. It was a south facing hillside with short young willow, the kind willow ptarmigan prefer, and open areas of tundra where some freeze-dried blueberries were to be found, another spring ptarmigan favorite. Wind was hitting me pretty hard, but when the dogs slammed into a nice point and I moved uphill slowly with eyes buggin out and lungs heaving, I spied a single ptarmigan hunkered down in the tundra, not in the nearby skim of snow. Of course, another bird lay in shallow snow up ahead of the first, and as it turned out 6 or 7 others had skooted down deep into the snow just downhill from the other two.

    Dropped one of those of birds but had to hold off shooting the second barrel of my 16 ga sxs because the birds grabbed the wind and were over my pup Charlie.

    The dogs and I hunted another hour along the ever steepening south facing hillside in soft snow up over my knees or higher. Tough on me, and tough on my dogs, but they had several more finds, nice points, and another four retrieves, giving me my five bird limit.

    Each of these large willow ptarmigan had a totally stuffed crop of willow buds and blueberries.

    Long day. Hard day. Outstanding day!

    I'm downloading photos as I write. I may post some this evening, or I might just hit the couch and DIE!

    Jim

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    Here is a couple of shots of today's hunt. I hope you enjoy them.

    Rusty, my 8 year old Brittany, a real pro!



    Charlie, almost 2 years old, with a willow ptarmigan.



    The boys on point!



    Five willow ptarmigan and my Merkel 1620!



    Jim

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    No fare Jim, that country looks like a nice easy stroll compared to where I've been working.

    I really need to start looking in their crops, but it's usually something I think about after I've cleaned the birds and collapsed. I really need to get my priorities straight.

    By the way, any recommendations on a guide to Alaskan trees and plants? Being a new guy here trying to figure out what's what and what eats it has been kind of tough. And of course I always thought cranberries came from cans, not high or low bushes! I need something to get me on the right track.

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    Tyler,

    A lot of our interior ptarmigan hunting area is much tougher, and even the area where these photos were taken can be much tougher when there is a lot snow on the ground, but at 60 I don't care to try and kill myself any longer. I'm tough enough to get 'er done, but I must admit I can no longer go every day, and I have to go a bit easier than I once did. But I've got some top bird dogs and they make life much easier for me!

    I've got several plant/tree books, all available at Barnes and Noble, but the one sitting right next to me right now on my desk is "Plants of the Western Boreal Forest and Aspen Parkland" by Johnson, Kershaw, Mackinnon and Pojar. There are several good ones.

    As to crops...willow ptarmigan eat willow buds/catkins, and blueberries; rocks and whitetails eat dwarf birch buds. Ruffed grouse will eat aspen and willow buds, cranberries and green leafy material. Spruce grouse eat the same as ruffs until around later September when they switch to spruce needles. Sharptails will eat green leafy material, kinnikinnik (bear berry), blueberries and grasshoppers when available. Typically grasshoppers are an every other year deal.

    Jim

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    ....my favorite Alaskan plant book/guide, is Janice Schoefield's "Discovering Wild Plants : Alaska, Western Canada, and the Northwest" -I think she even lives in Homer....

    ....a well-regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed....

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    Quote Originally Posted by Jim McCann View Post
    Here is a couple of shots of today's hunt. I hope you enjoy them.

    Rusty, my 8 year old Brittany, a real pro!



    Charlie, almost 2 years old, with a willow ptarmigan.



    The boys on point!



    Five willow ptarmigan and my Merkel 1620!



    Jim


    ...Awesome pictures!!
    ....a well-regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed....

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    Default Summit Lake area (Kenai Pen.)

    Anyone ever hunt this area for ptarmigan? My son-in-law wants to break in a colleague to small game hunting, and having driven through this area countless times, thought it might be birdy (though I have never seen a bird there). Anyone have any experience from (approximately) the Devil's Pass trailhead to Manitoba Mt. area?

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    Default Ooops!

    Meant to make the above post a new thread. No hijack intended.

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    SayAk,

    I have no idea where those places you refer to are. Sorry!


    'huntress,

    Thank you! Glad you enjoyed the photos.

    Jim

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    Hunting these birds in the winter with cold temps I have noticed that they like to bury themselves in the snow (flat terrian and slopes). It kinda hit us as we were riding hunting these guys, and would follow fresh tracks, which would then just stop. We finally spotted a bird under a spruce, as I had pulled my gun off my back and proceded to walk up on the snowmachine tracks, right off to the side of my track another bird popped his head out, then another. After that the day only got better

    --Trout

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    'trout,

    Like other grouse, ptarmigan snow roost. They will eat as much as they can before diving under the snow and spending icy cold nights in burrows under the snow where the temperature is considerably warmer than the outside temp. The food they digest and the droppings they deposit will keep them a bit warmer throughout long arctic winter nights and early mornings. During the day they will hunker down into cupped shape burrows to lower their profile and to stay out of the wind.

    Many are the times I've had the dogs on point but no birds are seen or flush, only to move forward and have a pile of them burst from under the snow. Very exciting!

    Jim

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