All change for the ptarmigan

Female ptarmiganA female ptarmigan in the Cairngorms last week. Their plumage is rapidly changing to white in preparation for the coming winter.

A lot of my time at the moment is being spent up high on the Cairngorm plateau. It is a magical yet tense time of year up there – full of beauty, yet nothing that moves is wasting a moment in preparing for the long cold that will soon arrive.

Winter will arrive for the ptarmigan before it arrives for anything else, snow regularly arriving for the first time on the plateau during October. Their winter will be the longest and harshest experienced by any wildlife in the country, so their preparations begin early. Only three British species change their plumage/coat to white for the winter (the other two being the mountain hare and the stoat) and I’ve always been captivated by this transformation.

Last week I had a big day up high in the Cairngorms. The aim was to cover as much ground as possible to try and maximise my chance of coming across groups of ptarmigan. Although I’m very familiar with many of the ‘hotspots’ for ptarmigan in the Cairngorms, at this time of year they gather in flocks and their whereabouts can be a bit less predictable. They can also be harder to approach than at other times of year, and the first couple of flocks I came across flew off while I was still quite a distance away.

If you know where to look, then just now there is a very unusual opportunity to photograph ptarmigan changing into this year’s winter plumage, against the backdrop of last winter’s old snow. I managed to get a few images of this and then headed further out over the plateau. I came across another couple of small groups before deciding to try my usual spot for photographing ptarmigan, and it was here that I had a dream encounter.

Whilst slowly crossing a boulder field a large flock of about 30 ptarmigan took off not far away from me and I watched them land on a small ridge about 100m away from me. I spent the next hour approaching very slowly and they allowed me to get right in amongst them. One particular female decided to approach me and check me out, and proceeded to pose on various nearby boulders for the next 5 minutes. Although this kind of behaviour isn’t too unusual during the winter or spring, at this time of year it was an absolute gift.

Female ptarmiganThe beautiful plumage of a female in the ‘morph’ between summer and winter plumage.

Ptarmigan in autumn.

Ptarmigan collect into flocks during the autumn and in general are far more shy and difficult to approach.

Female ptarmiganThis female was quite curious and actually approached me for a look.

Ptarmigan in the summer snowA ptarmigan in its autumn plumage, against the backdrop of last winter’s snow.

Flocking ptarmigan
A flock of ptarmigan on the move.

Ptarmigan in autumn plumage
A female in amongst a boulder-field.

Female ptarmigan
In just a few short weeks this boulder-field will be a snow-slope.

Female ptarmiganThis female spent some time pulling some amusing facial expressions.


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