Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Willow Ptarmigan; A bird with my kind of personality.

After Seattle, we headed up to Nome for a bird tour. We spent Monday through Friday with this group and birded about 12 - 13 hours each day. They were long days, mostly spent in the car, but the scenery was unbelievable. With the exception of Nome and the outlying villages, there were absolutely no signs of civilization. No cell phone towers, telephone wires, or airplanes. There were very few people and no noticeable pollution. The air was crisp and fragrant. You could hear rushing water, the crunch of lichen under your feet and the wind as it whipped down the mountains and across the tundra.

The only way to reach Nome is by air, boat or snowmobile/dogsled trails. There are only 3 major roads, each over 50 miles, that lead to the Kougarok River and the villages of Teller and Council. We traveled one of the roads each day.

Anytime I go on a bird trip, I find a favorite bird. My favorite bird in South Texas was the Green Jay. During the Arizona trip it was the Lazuli Bunting. Outside of Nome I fell in love with the Willow Ptarmigan. The Willow Ptarmigan was a very aggressive bird who fearlessly defended his turf. My first witness to this behavior was during our first outing. We had 3 leaders who drove separate cars. Each day the group was divided to fit in the cars and no one sat in the same vehicle twice. The man in charge of the tour drove a white van and on our first day, he drove in front of the car we were in. We watched a Ptarmigan chase after that white van. No exaggeration. This bird was running alongside and behind the bumper. On that same day, we stopped once to look at some songbirds and a Willow Ptarmigan did not like us on his turf.
He just took notice of our trespassing.
He warns us with his clucks and barking rattles. Several field guides describe their barking as if the bird is saying "Go back go back go back." If you want to hear what the Willow Ptarmigan sounds like, here's a link (you can really hear the "Go back" at the end of the recording). And I heard it firsthand that day. That bird rattled and barked "Gobackgobackgoback." ** He was very unhappy with us.
When we refuse his demand that we go back, the Ptarmigan fluffs his feathers to show us he means business. He begins to charge in our direction.
We're in big trouble.
But he stops short at the last minute. We were let go with a warning.

Countless times during that trip, we had a male chase the cars and on one occasion had a Ptarmigan turn around in mid-flight to fly at the windshield of our van.

I felt an incredible kinship to this feisty bird. When I told Danno, he laughed and told me that he wasn't surprised. Apparently I am crabby like the bird, and I have been known to say "Go away" to people on occasion.**

I have no idea what he's talking about.

** I originally typed that the Ptarmigan says "go away", when in fact he says "go back".  I'm the one who supposedly says "go away".

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