First Glimpse of Ptarmigan


I am currently in my last night of stay at the Toolik Field Station in the northern foothills of the Brooks Range, Alaska.  I am here volunteering and filming for Katie Christie’s PhD project studying Ptarmigan for the next two weeks.  Toolik Field Station, I must say, is much fancier than I expected for a remote northern outpost well above the Arctic Circle.  Here researchers have the luxury (for a price of course) of being served three square meals per day by a full time cooking staff, access to hot showers (limit two per week), a bed to sleep in, and even a sauna!  We have had the pleasure of staying here two nights, but will be leaving tomorrow to return to the simple life of camping for the next 10 days or so.  I think I am actually looking forward to this detour back to the wilderness.

Male Willow Ptarmigan in breeding plumage. Photo by Neil Paprocki.

Ptarmigan surveys are progressing well, and we have been seeing quite a lot of Rock and Willow Ptarmigan.  Both species are breaking off from their larger winter/spring flocks, and are pairing up.  Most birds we have seen have been male/female pairs, or solo males.  We have also witnessed the male Willow Ptarmigan courtship display, which looks rather like the male has a broken wing he is trying to flaunt to the female.  Quite a show!  Below are a few photographs I have been able to upload from the last few days.


Male Rock Ptarmigan in breeding plumage. Photo by Neil Paprocki.

Female Willow Ptarmigan. Photo by Neil Paprocki.

Male Willow Ptarmigan in breeding plumage. Photo by Neil Paprocki.

The arctic is now teeming with wildlife as the snow melts rapidly off the long frozen tundra. Temperatures the past few days have been in the 50s with abundant sunshine welcoming the newly arriving migrants to their breeding grounds.  Huge flocks of Snow, Canada, and White-Fronted Geese dot the landscape.  Greater Scaup, Green-Winged Teal, Northern Shovelers, and Pintails arriving from the lower 48, greet us at every turn.  Small groups of shorebirds flutter along small ephemeral pools of snow melt and include American Golden Plovers, Whimbrels, Semipalmated Sandpipers, Red-Necked Phalaropes, and Long-Billed Dowitchers, among many others.  Present among all of these birds is the often-overlooked Ptarmigan, who we will be observing intently these next few weeks…


Ptarmigan in Alaska: Part 1


I arrived in Fairbanks, Alaska on Friday, May 11th just in time to see the sun setting around 11pm local time.  My flight had left Seattle about three and a half hours prior, at which point I had also been watching the sun setting!  Ah the great northern summer!  I have come north to volunteer for a project focusing on Ptarmigan and Willow interactions along the North Slope of Alaska.  Here, University of Alaska Fairbanks (UAF) PhD candidate Katie Christie has been studying how Ptarmigan and Willows compete with each other.  Ptarmigan are grouse-like, arctic ground dwelling birds that feed almost exclusively on willow buds in the late winter and early spring.  Over the next 2+ weeks, I will be assisting Katie on her project conducting aerial surveys for Ptarmigan and ground surveys for Willows.


Katie Christie's Study Area.

We will be leaving tomorrow to drive to Coldfoot (see map for details on survey area), north of Fairbanks along the Dalton Highway.  The Dalton Highway was constructed to provide access from Fairbanks to the oil fields at Prudhoe Bay, and to allow maintenance workers access to the Trans Alaskan Pipeline.  Incidentally, it also allows biologists great access to study sites far north.  At Coldfoot, we will be staying with a pilot who will take us on daily flights far north over the Brooks Mountain Range to survey for Ptarmigan.  These aerial surveys, over the course of two days on the North Slope, will involve flying established routes about 100 meters above the ground to look for both Rock and Willow Ptarmigan.  Flocks of birds should be pretty easy to spot this time of year against the snow, as most are starting to transition into their summer plumage, which includes more brown than white feathers.


Male Ptarmigan. Photo taken from the Birds of North America Online.

Once these harrowing flights have concluded, we will continue north along the Dalton Highway to the Toolik Field Station.  Here, arctic researchers congregate to study various facets of the arctic ecosystem.  Katie and I will be focusing our attention on how willow shrubs are being ‘grazed’ by Ptarmigan from Toolik Lake north along the Sagavanirktok River.  Our northern most shrub sites will take us close to the Prudhoe Bay oil fields!  One of Katie’s main research interests is looking at how possible shrub expansion due to climate change may impact Ptarmigan/Willow interactions.

Mount McKinely, or Denali to those from Alaska. Photo by Neil Paprocki.

Throughout all of this, I will be documenting our experiences for a future Webisode series on Katie’s research.  I will also try to keep everyone informed on our progress up north in the coming weeks as Internet access allows.  Until then, here are a few bird pictures from the past week spent exploring the greater-Fairbanks area!

Yellow-rumped (Myrtle) Warbler. Photo by Neil Paprocki.

Female Varied Thrush. Photo by Neil Paprocki.


Filming Greater Sage Grouse


Male Greater Sage Grouse. Photo by Neil Paprocki

This past week allowed some time for Matthew and myself to head down to Nevada to assist one of our videographers in the filming of Greater Sage Grouse.  Tatiana Gettelman is a wildlife biologist working with Sage Grouse in northeastern Nevada as part of a monitoring project for the United States Geological Survey (USGS).

The Greater Sage Grouse is a species of concern throughout the Great Basin and Intermountain West, and has been given a “warranted but precluded” listing by the US Fish & Wildlife Service.  This means the species is warranted for listing as an endangered species, but that it is precluded for now by other species with greater conservation needs.  The US Fish & Wildlife service will have to make a decision about officially listing the Great Sage Grouse as an endangered species in 2014.  This decision will have major ramifications throughout the west as Sage Grouse are a wide-ranging species, and listing under the Endangered Species Act would affect everything from cattle ranching, to wind power, to human development.  Due to this upcoming decision, biologists are studying Sage Grouse more than ever throughout their range, and this is leading to a better understanding of their overall ecology and population status.  Wild Lens feels it is crucial to provide more information about this species’ conservation status to the general public, and so we have paired up with Tatiana and USGS to help document Sage Grouse on this particular project site.


Matthew Podolsky and Tatiana Gettelman inspecting some Sage Grouse pellets. Photo by Neil Paprocki

Tatiana had already been collecting amazing footage of Sage Grouse throughout the first few months of the project, but we thought it beneficial for Wild Lens to come out into the field for a few days to get some additional footage, as well as some audio recordings of male Sage Grouse at lekking sites.


Female Sage Grouse on her nest. Photo by Neil Paprocki.

We started our trip by visiting a known grouse nest, north of Wells, Nevada.  As we approached the nest on foot from the truck, Tatiana instructed us on how to best proceed without flushing the female off the nest.  Due to high predation rates from aerial predators such as Ravens, we did not want to flush her off the nest, thus leaving her eggs unprotected.  We were able to get within 30 feet or so of the nest, and got great looks of the well-camouflaged female sitting on her eggs!


Matthew Podolsky filming a Sage Grouse nest. Photo by Neil Paprocki.

The next morning found us waking up at 3:30 AM to head out to a lekking site.  Sage Grouse are unique in that during the breeding season males congregate at display sites (called leks) in the mornings and wait for females to arrive.  When a prospective female arrives, all of the males at the lek compete for her attention, and she ultimate chooses the male she feels will provide the best genetic information for her offspring.  We arrived at the lek just before sunrise to see about 35 male grouse all around us performing their truly bizarre and amazing display!  View the video below to see a male grouse in action.

That afternoon we tracked two female grouse outfitted with radio collars under an astonishingly huge Great Basin sky.  We wanted to check in on their nesting sites to make sure all was well with incubation.  As we approached the first nest, we noticed a cattle rancher on horseback, and Tatiana stopped him to chat.  Ranchers such as these will be crucial to the success of any conservation plan implemented around Sage Grouse, as they are the ones out on the range everyday.  These ranchers are sometimes given a bad rep as being against anything conservation oriented that will impact their cattle business, but I think all of us biologists have had countless positive interactions with these folks, and most seem very willing to help where they can to save this species.  The rancher accompanied us to the nest, and we were able to get great looks at the females on both nests.  Both were incubating large clutches of eggs!


Biologist Tatiana Gettelman (right) discussing Sage Grouse with a rancher. Photo by Neil Paprocki.

With our return to Boise, Idaho the following day, Matt and I reflected on our visit to Nevada.  We both came away with more knowledge about the specific conservation issues facing this species.  We also felt we obtained great footage and photographs of Tatiana on her project, and are very excited about the possibilities surrounding the future of this project.  Tatiana is getting great footage of grouse, and she is also very passionate about the birds she is studying.  Over the next few years, Greater Sage Grouse conservation and science may become the most important, and controversial, wildlife issue facing the Intermountain West.  The need to educate the public surrounding this issue will be huge, and Wild Lens hopes our collaboration with Tatiana and USGS will help do just that!

Male Greater Sage Grouse performing his lekking display for the camera. Photo by Neil Paprocki.