Friday, July 18, 2014

White-tailed Ptarmigan in Taos County, New Mexico

These photos are from my short weekend visit to northern New Mexico over the Four of July weekend. Last time I visited my friends Cathy and Gabe here, we drove to Roswell in the southeastern part of the state for Lesser Prairie-Chickens. Finally, more than five years later, we reunited for another chicken, this time the White-tailed Ptarmigan.

We started on the east side of Santa Barbara Ridge on a well-used trail that takes hikers up to Serpent Lake and beyond it to Jicarita Peak in the Pecos Wilderness.

We were joined by New Mexico birders John Parmeter and Wyatt Egelhoff. John had been here several times before, while Wyatt’s first time was only 10 days ago. One of the strategies in finding the ptarmigan is to have several pairs of eyes, with birders spreading out over the tundra-like ridge above treeline, scanning for cryptic lumps of feathers. Wyatt missed it on his hike here alone.

It was about 4 miles to the point where one might start looking for ptarmigan, and we had at least a half mile more to go before splitting up for the serious search; it had taken John a few hours of searching in the past.

I stopped to photograph this Yellow-bellied Marmot when I heard John yelling my name from only about 50 yards up the trail.

He flushed this White-tailed Ptarmigan from right in the trail, nearly stepping on it.

Characteristically unconcerned with humans, it walked only a few feet off the trail and watched a bit. When I arrived it sat only for a few more minutes before strolling slowly, browsing on plant shoots among the boulders.

It was only another couple hundred yards up to the windswept saddle to the south of Jicarita Peak. This is looking west towards the Jemez Mountains.

With amazingly early success in finding White-tailed Ptarmigan, we had time to photograph the fabulous wildflowers here. This is Ross's Avens, Geum rossii (thanks to Jerry Oldenettel for the names of some of these plants).

Arctic Alpine Forget-me-not, Eritrichium nanum

Cushion Phlox, Phlox pulvinata

This Rocky Mountain Nailwort, Paronychia pulvinata was a bit tricky to identify, but the papery sheaths around the leaf clusters convinced me to browse members of the family Caryophyllaceae in the Taos County list. It’s at the very southern end of its range here.

We also decided to take the short trail spur to Serpent Lake, something John had never had the time to do.

On the way down the transition zone from krumholz to pine-fir forest, we stopped for more wildflowers.

Colorado Blue Columbine, Aquilegia coerulea being visited by a syrphid fly

Mountain Deathcamas, Zigadenus elegans

Ledge Stonecrop, Rhodiola integrifolia

Matted Saxifrage, Saxifraga bronchialis

Alpine Clover, Trifolium dasyphyllum

Here we are at Serpent Lake.

The dense willow thickets here are home to one of the southernmost breeding populations of  Wilson’s Warbler.

We were surprised to see the lake full of Tiger Salamander larvae. This is apparently about as high in elevation that the species can occur, about 12,000 feet (3650 m).

The moist meadow and slightly protected basin was good for butterflies. This is Draco Skipper, Polites draco.

Mustard White, Pieris oleracea

Purplish Fritillary, Boloria chariclea

We stopped to pish and attract birds with our Northern Pygmy-Owl imitations a few times, usually bringing in just Mountain Chickadees, Dark-eyed Juncos (Gray-headed), and a few other nice things such as Olive-sided Flycatcher and Cassin’s Finch. Once we heard a pygmy-owl tooting back, but it didn’t take long for us to realize it was this Gray Jay imitating one in response to my whistles.  This is a very rare type of mimicry in birds, certainly requiring a relatively high level of intelligence.

The forest on the hike back was in general very quiet, so we hiked back quickly, stopping for only a few wildflowers.

Fern-leaved Lousewort, Pedicularis procera

Sickletop Lousewort, Pedicularis racemosa

Western Red Columbine, Aquilegia elegantula

Single Delight, Moneses uniflora

Near the parking lot was this Hoary Anglewing, Polygonia gracilis.

And a Sleepy Duskywing, Erynnis brizo.

We took the scenic drive back to Bernalillo on the southern end of the Taos High Road. I made Gabe stop for road cut with some beautiful composites.

Beautiful Fleabane, Erigeron formosissimus

Newberry's Hymenopappus, Hymenopappus newberryi


  1. Rich, what a nice hike! I did not know that prtamigan came that far south! What a find! I used to see them at Rocky Mountain NP in Colorado!

  2. Tundra in early July - a great treat! I used to work with Ptarmigan in Norway and had to find birds with brood patches for my studies. We used bird dogs to find them, but the Norwegians swore that the birds loose their odor when they are nesting. It is true that the dogs never found a bird on eggs. So the only broody ones I had in the end were caught before the nesting season - luckily they quite easily adjusted to breeding in captivity.

  3. Thanks for taking us along on this trek ..... Felt like being there, and I learned a lot! Your photos of these birds and other creatures are exceptional - as are the views of this beautiful landscape!