Mountaintop Ptarmigan

Somewhere out there amongst the mountain tops were birds that resembled the coloration of rocks that formed them.
PTARMY TIP: Use binoculars to glass areas above you. Look for movement. Birds will “migrate” peak to peak on occasion.

Article by By EDGAR E. CASTILLO

Dan’s exasperated face said it all as he climbed back up to our position. This was his second trip to the rocky saddle where we were resting from our own ascent. Dan had to abruptly turn around and quickly return to the truck that held the emergency paper item he so desperately needed. Easton, Dan’s son, and I watched him disappear behind a bush after digging through the truck fervently for what he was after. The truck resembled a tiny little miniature toy from where we sat atop a myriad of rocks. I turned and leaned the .870 against my leg as I steadied myself to gaze down towards the mountain lake and scan the Colorado mountains that encircled us. The gradual incline had rewarded us with an astonishing view of blue water surrounded by towering peaks and dark green pines in the lower country. Somewhere out there amongst the mountaintops were birds that resembled the coloration of rocks that formed them.

White-tailed ptarmigan are one of three species of North American ptarmigan and the only variety found in Colorado, making it a sought-after bird for any adventurous wingshooter. When Coloradan, Dennis, commented on the possibility of going after ptarmys, as they are called by locals, we had to jump or rather “climb” at the opportunity. 

White-tailed ptarmigan are one of three species of North American ptarmigan. Ptarmys blend perfectly with their surroundings, as they have highly effective camouflage and are difficult to pick out against the rocky background.

Ptarmigan Camp

Twenty-four hours earlier, we had packed up our bird camp — we had been hunting dusky’s, sage- and sharp-tailed grouse, as well as snipe — and traveled a few hours north towards the San Isabel National Forest. After maneuvering Dan’s full-size truck and 14-foot trailer though a mountainous road, we found a beautiful spot nestled amongst tall trees near a trickling stream. 

Once “Ptarmigan Camp” was up and running we got a fire started as the cold mountain air was stirring. The plan in the morning was to hitch a ride with Dennis, tie down two dog crates, stow gear for four bird hunters and squeeze into his Toyota truck. 

The morning temps were brisk when the little white truck came to a halt on the narrow mountain road alongside camp. We quickly loaded up and strapped in. Its small frame and nimble maneuverability made the bumpy 45-minute climb UP to the trailhead a little easier. 

O2 & Trekking Poles

Shotgun and trekking pole
PTARMY TIP: Oxygen canisters work! Best $20 bucks spent.

Once there, no time was wasted. Dennis was adamant about keeping an eye on the weather. He did not want to get stranded on the mountain. I quickly placed the recommended silver and green cans in my vest. Oxygen. That’s right — breathable air. The elevation in Kansas City is a thousand feet above sea level. We had camped at 10,850 feet for less than half a day, and we were going to be pushing 13K! That’s a big jump in elevation for three Midwest flatlanders in a short amount of time. Depending on how our bodies reacted to the drastic elevation, these weightless containers could be as valuable as the current state of ammunition!

With a snap of my chest strap from my Hunt Redi bird vest, I was ready to climb. I grabbed the trekking pole and extended it, and immediately realized my 16-gauge .870 was in my other hand. I looked at Dennis and noticed he was carrying an actual backpack with a built-in sling to carry his shotgun . . . keeping his hands free to climb. Dan saw my expression of bewilderment and grabbed the 16-gauge and quickly MacGyvered it to my vest. The impromptu setup was quite secure. Easton followed suit as he too wore the same vest. Dan’s vest would not allow him to finagle a way to carry his shotgun, so he would climb with shotgun and trekking pole in hand. 

Dog or no dog?

Hunting dog on mountainous landscape
PTARMY TIP: Some hunters prefer to hunt with or without dogs. Your choice. Medium-ranging canine is best.

Prior to departing, Dennis explained that he had never hunted ptarmigan with dogs. It was his experience that the terrain could become too dangerous for dogs. Especially if a dog were to chase them over a ridge or cliff to retrieve them or find themselves in a predicament where they could not climb out. There were times that it was so steep that he had to have three to four points of contact (hands and feet) because it was so steep. He had about a 80 percent success rate hunting without a dog. He cautioned Easton to watch Abby carefully.

Unforgiving Terrain

hunters
PTARMY TIP: Boots with good ankle support, extra layers – weather can change quickly, and water/snacks.

With a determined brisk step, our ptarmigan sherpa quickly distanced himself from us. Abby, Easton’s young Drahthaar pup, scurried over the unfamiliar terrain with ease. We followed and after winding up the trail we were met with an incredible view. 

My eyes quickly gravitated towards the contours and jagged edges of the surrounding peaks. The mountainsides appeared smooth, but I knew they were comprised of boot-slipping shale and loose rocks. These mountaintop birds rarely descend past 11,500 feet as they tend to live on or near the “alpine tundra” on isolated mountaintop islands. Once at the top, the environment would consist of narrow, treeless and rocky slope areas where ptarmigan call home. I was losing myself in its vastness. Dennis’ voice suddenly brought me back to earth. “That’s where I think they’ll be,” Dennis said as he glassed the two far peaks opposite of us. Ptarmigans certainly live in unrelenting topography, I thought to myself. 

I’m no Mountain Goat

We decide to split up to cover more ground and increase our chances of finding birds. Dennis, Dan and Easton each took their own respective paths, but they all chose to tackle the more difficult and higher terrain. I would continue following the trail down to the mountain lake. A severe injury a year prior left me with the loss of 11 percent of movement in my right ankle. This makes it difficult for me to traverse across uneven terrain and I find myself easily getting off balance. 

I grab the 16’s barrel on my back as if it were the hilt to a sword and pull it out from my bird vest. The trekking pole is quickly secured to the outer lashing straps, and I grab three purple shells and insert them into the shotgun. My first step off the trail onto softball size rocks cause me to sway backwards. I look over my shoulder and see a faint trio of figures climbing in different directions. Abby’s dark coat stands out against the slate gray mountainside as the dog moves across like a tiny shadow. 

I slowly scramble across a vast uneven carpet of broken stone. The jagged rubble, and boot-sliding scree makes me second guess my quest in search of a mottled little plump bird with feathered feet. I find myself climbing up, down and sideways maneuvering over boulders. Each step is questioned. I feel like a gimp mountain goat. This is certainly not pheasant hunting. 

Binos, Birds, Camoflage and Hallucinations 

I had been off the “trail” for some time as it proved to be unproductive. Recent eyewitness reports from the local ranger had ptarmigan walking along the hiking path in the early hours. Dennis thought they would be up higher along the mountain slopes. He passed on a few good ptarmigan hunting tactics. Look for movement, periodically stop, listen and glass for active birds. Easier said than done. Ptarmys blend perfectly with their surroundings, as they have highly effective camouflage and are difficult to pick out against the rocky background.

Each step was met with the possibility of me tumbling down the side of the mountain. For an uninjured individual, it would be a slight hindrance. For me, it was a real chore maintaining my balance. While walking, I would strain my eyes onto the ground. Searching for movement in the hopes that it would be ptarmigan. I hadn’t made any notable change in elevation —  hundred feet. Finding small openings along the switchbacks I discovered made it a little easier to travel. On occasion, I scrambled over large boulders. The black, gray and white mountainous palette began to play tricks on my eyes. I realized I was hallucinating ptarmigan. A closer inspection of the objects of my perceived focus turned out to be small bunches of rocks and NOT coveys of ptarmigan as I had hoped for. I felt like a fool. 

This trickery went on. Just when I would tell myself it was a rock, my mind would tell me otherwise and I would convince myself what I was staring at and slowly approaching was in fact a ptarmigan standing motionless. Disappointment set in instantly when the “birds” I had climbed up to were nothing more than merely white and black splotched stones. “Rock ptarmigans.”

Refusal to Fly

As I searched for these elusive birds, my thoughts shifted to what I would do if I did come across them? Stories of ptarmigan refusing to flush when approached were common tales. This makes sense as they could very well be “overconfident” in their effectiveness to camouflage themselves in plain sight. But resistant to fly in the face of danger? Surely not. 

A tall tale was told by Dennis about a ptarmigan hit by a rock that stumbled to its death after a rock thrown by a hunter to get it to fly, ricocheted off the ground and hit the ptarmy on the noggin’! 

Moose and Booming Echoes

hunter

A few hours had passed. My snail pace across the barren rocks hadn’t been very productive. I continued being fooled by birds that weren’t there. They were just more rocks. 

The guys had vanished from my sight hours ago. I plopped down on a large semi-flat rock to glass the mountainside next to the one I was on. Over the next 30 minutes, a faint noise would occasionally drift across the air. Unable to place the peculiar sound, I thought nothing more of it. Ignoring what I construed as more hallucinations, I returned to trying to locate active birds. Nothing. 

A long nasally bellow made me refocus the binoculars to across the lake. Skimming the shoreline, I observed a moving brown figure. “What the heck is that?” I asked aloud. “That’s a gosh darn moose,” I said to myself. The huge-bodied animal had obviously come in behind us on the same path. Its rack was impressive. I watched the moose meander its way along the edge of the water. I quickly sat up and quietly made my way to keep the moose in view. Scampering across rocks and back onto the trail, I managed to get within a hundred yards. Even at that distance, the casually moving behemoth was impressive. 

Finding enjoyment in watching the moose, the serene quietness was interrupted by a series of thunderous booms echoing across the valley. Shotguns! Just as I glanced up towards the peaks, tiny white fluttering speckles danced against a brilliant blue sky. Ptarmigan! Unbelievable. About a dozen were in the air, but they quickly disappeared as they blended into the mountainsides. 

Rendezvous

My eyes strained looking through the binoculars hoping to catch a glimpse of the guys. I had to figure out what to do. If I climbed up and they climbed down . . . well, you get the picture. I had to at least start moving. Turning around, I began to retrace my steps and get on the trail as that would be the quickest way to return to the saddle where we had broken off from each other. Stopping periodically to see if I could see anyone, I finally caught movement high up on the mountain. Two figures just below the ridgeline. It was Dan and Dennis. They were traversing down the mountainside. They would disappear on occasion, only to reemerge as they moved through the scatterings of trees and islands of brush. They were heading straight down. Hundreds of yards to their left, I saw Easton and Abby on the same path. Looks like we all would be rendezvousing at the lake.

Going down was just as difficult, as I continued stepping on loose rocks, I had to contend with crossing a mushy bog with a series of small streams crisscrossing it. I caught glimpses of torpedo-like silhouettes, trout no doubt. Over an hour later, I emerged on the edge. Dan and Dennis were just cresting the last rocky knob and would soon be on a direct path to the lake. 

Mountaintop Birds

hunter with birds

There was a subtle briskness in their gaits. Their faces adorned with slightly crooked smiles. I extended my hand out to each of them, and before I could ask . . . Dan produced two mottled-white birds. White-tailed ptarmigan. “That was unbelievable! You should’ve come with us,” Dan said. Before I could ask any questions, Dennis quietly took off his backpack and produced a pile of white fluff with splotches of tan in each hand. The birds were wearing a sort of camouflaged shawl of mottled shades of browns and grays. This short cape draped from their head to their backside and wings. Splashes of bright-red blood seemed to have been color-matched with some of the male birds bright red eye combs. Feathering extended down to their toes, causing their feet to resemble snowshoes. In-fact, the genus name for white-tailed ptarmigan, Lagopus, means “hare-footed” in Greek. 

Here’s how Dennis described their climb and hunt . . . they both had started out together, but Dennis had Dan stay about 100 yards above him to better cover the landscape. At the 12,600-foot level, Dan glassed a ptarmigan hop from rock to rock, then proceed uphill about a hundred yards away. 

Playing a sort of mountain charades, Dennis managed to signal Dan, and both started their stalk. Slowly and quietly, they reached where Dennis had seen the ptarmy. Suddenly, 10 birds flushed about 30 yards away from them. Amidst the barrage of shots, Dennis’ quick snap dropped one out of the air and shot another ptarmigan that fluttered over the edge. 

While looking for the ptarmigan, the bird rocketed from beneath a rock Dan had stepped on. The bird fell dead, landing on the narrow ridge. The echoing boom caused another covey to flush behind 50 yards behind them. Both Dan and Dennis each shot a pair from this group. 

After collecting all the birds, they took in a magnificent view from 12,830 feet which overlooked a giant basin and the Continental Divide to the west. Glassing, Dennis spotted a group of mountain goats a half-mile away bedded down approximately at the same elevation as they were. Both looked around for the other group of ptarymy’s hoping to locate tight-sitting singles, but after climbing further up decided to call it and began their decent. 

A Shared Success

dog with ptarmigan

Though I nor Easton ever got into any ptarmigan, it was obvious that we ALL shared in the success of Dan and Dennis. While I began to snap photos, Dan, Easton and Dennis were pulled to the shore of the mountain lake that lay before us. Dennis, being the type of person to always be prepared for any situation, quickly assembled a Tenkara rod, and just like that, we went from hunting ptarmigan at high altitudes to gently presenting a fly tied with feathers from a sage-grouse to trying our luck to fool the local trout. Dark figures slowly sliced through the clear water, darting about.

While ptarmigan may not be easy to find, the surrounding mountain ranges all have suitable habitat for the birds, they are certainly an adventurous bird to hunt. The hunt itself is full of wonderous views and breathtaking landscapes. It certainly was a memorable hunt for ALL of us. So, if you are looking for solitude and scenery, then ptarmigan hunting is something that needs to be explored and one that Colorado has to offer. Oh, and if you do find yourself scampering over rocks, and straining your eyes trying to figure out if what you are looking at is a pair of motionless ptarmigans, remember . . . it may be just a couple of rocks! 

2022-2023 Season & Units/Area

  • Season 1, Sept. 11 – 13 | Area: Statewide except GMUs 44, 45, 53, 54, 66, 67,68, 70, 71, 74-81, 444 and 751
  • Season 2, Sept. 11 – Nov.28 | Area: Only GMUs 44, 45, 53, 54, 66, 67, 68, 70, 71, 74-81, 444 and 751

LICENSE/PERMITS:

  • Small Game: Resident $30.87 | Nonresident $84.96
  • Small Game – 1 day: Resident $14.23 | Nonresident $17.35 
  • Small Game – additional 1 day $6.95 for both Resident and Nonresident
  • Habitat Stamp: For individuals 18-64 years, a $10.40 Habitat Stamp IS required with the first license purchase for the year (March 1 – Marsh 31 of the following year).
  • LIMITS: Daily Bag Limit: 3 | Possession: 6

WHERE: Colorado has widespread distribution of ptarmigan across the state in suitable habitat within the Colorado Rockies. Ptarmigans prefer to live year-round from about 9,500 feet elevation and above. Areas to key in on are areas above the tree line and alpine tundra and meadows, rocky slopes, or scree fields. 

SHOTGUN & AMMO: A light 12 or 20, or any shotgun you’re not afraid getting a few nicks and scratches if you drop it. Go with 6s, 7s, or 7.5s for shotshells. Choke: IC, Modified


Edgar Castillo is a recently retired law enforcement officer. He travels the dirt roads in search of wild birds, hunting open fields, walking treelines, & bustin’ through plum thickets.

2022 Colorado Outdoors Hunting Guide cover

If you enjoyed reading this article, please purchase the 2022 Hunting Guide. This year’s issue is loaded with great content, including hunting strategies for hot weather, advantages of antlerless deer and elk hunts, how and what to cook when in the field, and so much more!

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