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An amazing day: White-tailed Ptarmigan adventure and the last minute Tufted Duck twitch!

Posted by Liron on Monday, February 16, 2015
Today, February 15 2015, was a day which I will never forget. It was one of the best birding days of my life, and was more than just a birding day: it was an adventure!

Around a week ago, I got a text from my friend Melissa, who was helping to organize a hike to the top of Mount Seymour that Ilya P. had planned. The goal was to find a White-tailed Ptarmigan for Ilya's Vancouver big year and for many birders life and year lists (you can follow Ilya's his big year at: http://vanbigyear.blogspot.ca/)

I would place White-tailed Ptarmigan in the top 10 list of most sought after birds in BC. They are super cool birds living in really harsh environments, but the fact that it takes a lot of effort to see them in most of the province also makes them such an amazing bird to see. In the Vancouver checklist area, ptarmigans are pretty much unheard of; most reports are from hikers that snap a photo of chicken-like birds not knowing what they are, and show them to a birder.

As you can see, there are no reports of a Ptarmigan from the Vancouver area on eBird. There are a few reports north of Squamish around Whistler and some from the eastern Fraser Valley, but none in the Metro Vancouver checklist area:

ebird ptarmigan map


The only time I have ever seen a White-tailed Ptarmigan was on Whistler mountain in the Summer of 2011, when while not really birding I almost stepped on a female with chicks. It was an amazing experience, but I didn't realize how lucky I was to see this amazing bird.

White-tailed Ptarmigan (female) - Whistler Mountain (peak), August 21 2011

White-tailed Ptarmigan


Today, Sunday February 15th 2015 was the day of the hike. It was foggy in the morning, but as Mel drove me up the mountain we quickly escaped through the fog. Looking down at the city was amazing, as only a few buildings were sticking up through a sea of fog.

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Soon more birders began to arrive. About 15 of us were coming on the hike.

We would take a trail up to the Mount Seymour peak. It is about an 8 or so kilometer hike, but it is very steep. The terrain is very hard to walk on too. This year there is basically no snow on the mountain, but at the upper elevations we hit snow that was very hard to walk in with hiking shoes.

We began heading up the mountain at around 8:00 AM. We started up a ski run. It was a beautiful day and the scenery was gorgeous!

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There were some ravens flying around, and we heard Golden-crowned Kinglets, Chestnut-backed Chickadees and Pacific Wrens, but other than that it was totally quiet. The views were spectacular.

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The hike got harder and harder. Slippery snow and difficult terrain combined with steep slopes makes for a very difficult hike. There were zero birds expect for one Gray Jay that briefly showed up. As the hours passed hiking got harder, but there was a motivation to keep everyone going: the ptarmigans that we would hopefully eventually find.

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Hiking up I didn't really think we would find any ptarmigans. I have searched for hours in alpine in the past and come up with nothing ptarmigan-like.

About 3/5 of the way up, I began asking hikers coming down if they happened to have seen a white chicken-like bird walking around. The answer was no- that is, until we ran into a group of three hikers who had camped overnight at the peak. They showed us a picture on an iPhone of a bird they thought maybe was a dove (they were from Australia, where there are white coloured, fat doves, so this makes sense). They had taken it the evening before on Mount Seymour's peak. This is when I realized that maybe we would in fact find one of these white chickens!

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The group was quite spread out hiking up, and soon Ilya, Mel, and I arrived at the base of First Pump Peak. The Ptarmigan habitat looked good here, so Ilya wandered around looking for a bird. A few minutes later, i heard a noise off in the distance. Ilya was pretty sure it was someone shouting "I got it!" Could it be? Had someone found a ptarmigan?!?

A minute later Ilya's phone rang (there was cell reception up here). It was John Reynolds, notifying us that they had found a ptarmigan!! We sprinted up that last part of the trail up to the peak (only falling in the snow a few times), where a beautiful White-tailed Ptarmigan was sitting out in the open. Everybody in our group got amazing looks. The bird was a lifer for many, and a Vancouver area lifer for almost everyone.

It was hard to believe. The bird was beautiful, in its white winter plumage. The scenery was just as stunning. The hard hike had taken a few hours. The scenery would have made it worth it ptarmigan or not, but getting looks like the ones we got of the ptarmigan was amazing. It was one of the best birding moments of my life!!

White-tailed Ptarmigan

White-tailed Ptarmigan


The ptarmigan then started to head down a cliff. We adjusted our position and watched it slowly work its way down the cliff, occasionally stopping to feed. If it had been on this cliff when we arrived at the top, we most probably never would have seen it!

Most of these photos are not cropped at all, as I wanted to show the near rocky environment the bird lives in (which should be covered in snow at this time of year).

White-tailed Ptarmigan

White-tailed Ptarmigan

White-tailed Ptarmigan

White-tailed Ptarmigan

White-tailed Ptarmigan

White-tailed Ptarmigan

White-tailed Ptarmigan



As the ptarmigan disappeared from view, we sat down to eat lunch. Everyone was super happy! It had been a successful adventure!

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After eating and mingling for a bit, some decided to began heading down for the mountain, some decided to stay in the area for a while, and some of us decided to continue on hiking to the next peak. I decided to go on to the next peak. There is no real trail there, so it is a very difficult but fairly short hike. The view from the next peak was even more beautiful than the first! We didn't find any more ptarmigan but the scenery still took our breaths away.

Myself at the first peak
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Beginning the hike to the second peak
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Scenery
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Jeremiah and Ian taking in the view 2I6A0250_lr


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Stunning scenery
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Arrival at peak 2, Grouse Mountain in the back (note windmill on the left)
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Ptarmigan habitat on peak 2 overlooking the Lower Mainland
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Myself, peak 2
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Myself, peak 2
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After taking in the view at peak 2 and walking around for a bit, we headed back to peak one. It wasn't easy getting back, and at times we were going down near vertical rock faces!

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After a short rest at back at the first peak, it was time to head down. The way down was very hard as the melting snow and steep slope made for a lot of slipping and he occasional fall, but it was all part of the adventure!

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Down at the bottom we looked for the Gray-crowned Rosy-Finches that have been at the parking lot but had no luck. We decided to meet down at the bottom at a cafe to eat a bit and talk. It was fun! I enjoyed a hot chocolate and a cookie.

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Group photo, taken shortly after finding the ptarmigan.

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After a while of chatting, we headed out to the parking lot and said goodbye. As we were about to leave, Daniele gets out his phone and causally says, "Tufted Duck back at Iona". A Tufted Duck had been seen at Iona in Richmond a couple weeks prior but not since. This was a big deal as Ilya needed it for his big year. So Ilya, Carlo, Andrew took off in their car and Mel and I and Daniele followed. We arrived at Iona and hustled out to the NW inner pond where it had been seen.

On the walk to the pond spotted a Tree Swallow (my first of the year). We arrived at the NW inner pond and Daniele set up his scope. A couple minutes later, we hear "I got it!". Daniele had spotted the bird! We all saw it and made our way to the other side of the pond where we got some pretty good looks. It was awesome!


Tufted Duck



The sun was setting and the light was fading, so we called it a day! It was one of the best birding days of my life, full of adventure and excitement! It was also awesome that I got to share it with some of BC's amazing birders! I'm pretty sure not too many people have seen a White-tailed Ptarmigan and a Tufted Duck in the same day. Certainly not around Vancouver!

Daniele and Ilya
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Sunset at Iona
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Thanks for reading!



 

 

 

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