Snow White & Waiting for Spring

Just over a week ago, the temperatures in Anchorage were dipping below zero degrees F. This white-tailed ptarmigan tried to make the best of the cold weather by hunkering in a beam of sunlight.

Incidentally, white-tailed ptarmigan are North America’s smallest grouse. Adults top out at weights of around 12 ounces.

Ptarmigan country in Chugach State Park last week, overlooking the city of Anchorage.

I was fortunate to encounter a lynx in the half light prior to dawn. Sadly, my camera was stuffed in my pack for the hike into the high country and by the time I pulled it out, the cat was gone. So, no actual lynx pictures, but I’ll never forget the way it wagged its black-tipped, bobbed tail before vanishing into the alpine hemlocks.

All that was left of the lynx I saw – and the photograph I missed.

Ptarmigan were not plentiful this time, though last year on the same date willow ptarmigan – Alaska’s state bird – were abundant. The paucity of birds may have been related to the park being open this year to snowmachines (that’s Alaskan for snowmobiles). Fast, noisy engines hurtling through a narrow alpine valley is not conducive to wildlife viewing.

But, near the head of the valley where snowmachine activity thinned out, signs of ptarmigan began to appear.

Ptarmigan tracks stitch the snow in Chugach State Park last week.

Eventually, I heard the slightest sound of ice crystals collapsing and looked up near the trail to see a living snowball. It was the white-tailed ptarmigan, the only ptarmigan I would see that day. I was glad to see it, initially at first light and again on the trail home when I found it bathing in morning sunlight.

Only a week later, I would be watching newly arriving trumpeter swans and Canada geese arriving in the lowlands nearby. More on that later.


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