The willow ptarmigan was declared the state bird of Alaska back in 1955, thanks to its unmistakable appearance, its uniqueness to Alaska, and its abundance in several parts of the state. Due to its ‘state bird’ status, many visitors to Alaska are keen on spotting a ptarmigan, and the beautiful Juneau area of the state is actually one of the most likely places you’ll spot one.
How to spot a willow ptarmigan
First of all, it is important to note that the willow ptarmigan looks very different depending on which season you are in; it is a light brown colour in the summer, changing to white in the winter. An unusual feature for a bird, this apparent image change is actually an effective form of camouflage from its many potential predators.
You will notice a ptarmigan thanks to its wide, thick bill, which is its trademark feature, as well as its distinctive bright red eyebrow. The appearance of the ptarmigan changes from month to month; a male will bare a white patch behind its bill, which is only visible for a couple of weeks during spring. After this, both genders of ptarmigan turn white with black feathers on the tails. In May, male birds grow attractive light brown feather capes in time for the main mating season. Come August and the appearance of the male changes yet again; a full set of white feathers starts to grow through in time for the winter snow.
Up in the mountains and along the Richardson Highway
An excellent place to spot ptarmigan in the summer is the Chugach Mountains; the Richardson Highway, which leads to the Thompson Pass from Valdez, is often aligned with the birds as they wander among shrubs. Other areas that are good for ptarmigan spotting close to the Richardson Highway include the Black Rapids and around Cantwell. While in this area, be sure to stop off at the Denali National Park, where you are almost certain to catch sight of ptarmigan among willows along the rivers. If mountains are your passion, head to those by the Skilak and Tustumena Lakes, northwest of the Alaskan peninsula; both are popular grounds for ptarmigan.
Willow ptarmigan are fond of higher elevation marshland and alpine and sub-alpine areas in the Juneau area and aren’t visible at sea level while on a mini cruise from Auke Bay or travelling by boat on the waters surrounding Juneau. If you do want to see a willow ptarmigan, many open land trails in the Juneau area are common places to spot the willow ptarmigan. Mt. Roberts above tree line, accessible by trail or the Mt. Roberts Tramway, is one such hotspot, favored by the birds most of the year round. However, in late fall, the males and females separate, meaning that sightings at this time of year are slightly less common. By
this time, the females will have formed a series of small flocks and headed to the lowest ground to take shelter from the harsh colder weather.
Coastal plains in the West and North
As their name suggests, willow ptarmigans feed on willow trees and are, as a result, found around waterways lined with the trees. The coastal plains of Western and Northern Alaska are important habitats for the ptarmigan. During its breeding season, in the months of spring and summer, the ptarmigan likes to nest in areas that are sparse of woodland, or even treeless.
Lower elevations and valleys in the winter
In the winter, you are more likely to see ptarmigan in subalpine areas; the birds prefer to live in wetter places and head to the slightly warmer south or low-elevation areas. In the colder months, they tend to migrate in low valleys, staying close to tall bushes and slopes that contain plenty of shrubs.
In conclusion, those that have their heart set on a ptarmigan sighting during a trip to Alaska are unlikely to be disappointed; the willow ptarmigan enjoys the widest range of any game bird in the state. Be it a snow white bird in the winter, or a beautiful brown bird in the summer, no authentic Alaskan trip would be quite complete without witnessing the state’s signature birds in their natural habitat.