It was Labor Day, the last day that the road to the top of Mount Evans was open and the task I set for the trip was to get some photos of the resident herd of mountain goats. I have done this for the last few years and normally I get 50 or so shots, with only a couple worth a damn. Today was different, the alpine atmosphere was like a petting zoo. After a full season of timberline tourists the goats had lost almost all fear of photo-snapping humans. Neighborhood dogs and my brother’s horses are far more wary of people than these big-game mammals. It’s really hard to maintain the recommended “cushion” between photographer and subject when the subject keeps walking up to graze at your feet. If anyone needs good shots of mountain goats, thanks to this trip, I have over 500 of them.
At some point in the proceedings, I was set up a few strides off the road and the group of mountain goats that had started about 30 yards away were now surrounding me. I turned to look back at the car and was startled by a goat within a yard of my feet, and as I jumped a rock jumped. The goat, however, kept munching away unfazed. I looked back at the rock and it continued to slowly move, as did another and another. An old song by the B-52s popped into my head,
“We were at the beach
Everybody had matching towels
Somebody went under a dock
And there they saw a rock
It wasn’t a rock
Was a rock lobster”
It wasn’t rocks, and definitely wasn’t lobsters — white-tailed ptarmigans were everywhere. These well-camoflauged birds are one of those things that you don’t see until you see them, and then you see them everywhere. They were even calmer than the goats, only moving to eat or avoid being stepped on. At one point I had my camera lens inches away from a resting bird and I wondered to myself, “do we really hunt these things? Is the method of take a pencil or other pointed stick? How hard can hunting ptarmigan really be?”
Pretty hard, actually.
First off, Colorado’s white-tailed ptarmigan live in some pretty unforgiving locales and if you are tired after a day hunting pheasants on the plains, you will be exhausted after a few hours hunting these birds. The same goes for your bird dog. If you are planning on some fall ptarmigan hunts I would advise you to take conditioning and scouting hikes (with the dog if you have one) throughout the summer. The air above 13,000 feet is pretty thin and you need to get your lungs ready for it.
Ptarmigans are the only bird species in Colorado that lives on or near the alpine tundra year-round. Alpine tundra occurs as isolated mountaintop islands starting around 11,500 feet in elevation. By mid-October, flocks of females and juveniles begin to move downslope to more protected areas. In locales where the tundra is especially barren and exposed, males will also seek refuge at lower elevations. To escape winter’s bitter-cold winds ptarmigans will bury themselves in snow banks.
And for safety sake, make sure to let others know detailed areas where you plan to hunt. Unlike the Eastern Plains of Colorado, you can go for the whole day without seeing another hunter. Add to that the quick changes of high-altitude weather and the terrain you are hiking and you will be glad to have the security of the search and rescue fee built into your license purchase. Some people recommend taking a few days off and going as high into your hunting unit as possible and set up a base camp, then move around more leisurely than you would if you try and make a day of it.
Then, once you get to your location and come across some birds you might find it hard to get them to act like wild game should. There are tales on the Internet of “hunters” dispatching ptarmigans with sticks or plucking them up by hand and wringing their necks. Not very sporting. If they don’t flush on their own you need to keep pressing them or rushing towards them. This is where a good hunting dog will come in handy.
While a ptarmigan hunt might not be an easy hunt, it will sure be a memorable one. If you are looking for solitude and scenery, and really, what hunter isn’t, ptarmigan hunting is one of the best outdoor experiences Colorado has to offer.
White-tailed Ptarmigan — For more information check out the Small Game Brochure