Into the whiteout for a chicken

Until recently if you would have asked any birder in North America where is the easiest place to see White-tailed Ptarmigan in the winter, they would have answered Guanella Pass, near Georgetown, Colorado. Unfortunately the road leading into the alpine habitat is no longer plowed during winter and access has become a lot more difficult. Luckily I managed to visit the area before the county stopped maintaining the pass road.

The White-tailed Ptarmigan is the only ptarmigan species found outside northern Canada and Alaska, ranging from Washington State all the way to New Mexico. During the summer months the smallest North American grouse is well camouflaged by a mottled brown and gray plumage, resembling the sparse vegetation and lichens of alpine tundra. Some birders, exhausted from wandering across vast expanses at high elevations, finally located the bird when they tried sitting on it, ,mistaking it for a rock. Alright I am exaggerating, but the point is, these birds are tough to spot.

It’s not any easier during the winter, in addition to cold temperatures and snow drift, the birds turn utterly white, even the namesake tail feathers. Some suggest that the best way to find White-tailed Ptarmigans during the winter is to look for the black eye, sticking like pieces of coal out of the snow, blinking. I arrived in Georgetown well after dark and proceeded toward the Guanella Pass Road, which commenced with a distinct increase in incline and appeared to shoot straight up the mountain into black woods. I drove as far as possible before pulling over near a flat spot to camp. Yes, even though all campsites were closed for the winter I sat up my tent undeterred (birds on a shoestring) and was surprised to survive the night without any major frostbite.

The next morning I warmed up the car and myself for a few minutes before continuing up the road. Guanella Pass is unique among many Colorado high elevation roads for being maintained throughout the winter. By the end of November the mountains were covered in deep snow, but the track was cleared. What I hadn’t planned was that a Hyundai Accent with relatively small tires doesn’t handle packed snow and ice very well. I pulled onto a long patch of hard snow and the wheels started spinning, I pushed the accelerator and slowly started sliding backwards down the mountain, until the wheels grabbed the exposed gravel. I tried again and advanced a mere five feet, there was no possibility I would drive the five miles to the top of the pass.

I parked where I had camped and figured I would just walk it. A Dodge Neon drove by and easily covered the slippery patch and disappeared up the mountain. Alright there was some traffic that day, so I walked a few hundred yards before sticking out my thumb. The first car gave me a lift all the way to the top. I jumped out, thanked the driver, and told him I would worry about the return trip later, after hopefully seeing the ptarmigans. Within the first five minutes the weather turned from decent to windy and then cold. I searched along the road and up and down the slopes, when I finally spotted a large round shape, completely white, sitting up in an alder far downslope. I couldn’t see any details with my binoculars so I plunged into the hip high drift and worked my way closer. When I was finally within fifty feet of the bird, with snow filling my boots, I raised my binoculars again and found a white plastic bag twitching in the wind. After struggling back up to the road I was completely winded. The elevation, cold temperatures, and wind were taking their toll. I was glad that some hikers driving back down took pity and gave me a lift back to my car.

Guanella Pass, Colorado Photo Stephan Lorenz

Disappointed and frozen I warmed myself in the cheapest motel room I could find in Georgetown, substituting the Thanksgiving turkey, with a McDonald’s chicken sandwich. I was going to try again the next day.

The weather was much better, with clear skies and warmer temperatures. The mountains seemed less menacing. I parked in the same spot and just started walking, just below the top I caught a ride for the last mile. I was determined to stick it out. I climbed up a hill beyond the parking lot that the birds supposedly frequented, but found nothing. Looking down I saw a clump of snow detach itself from a drift and walk across an open gravel patch. I rushed forward and caught up with a White-tailed Ptarmigan before it disappeared in the white. I sat down and observed the bird as it slowly moved across the pack with its feathered feet without breaking the crust. It settled in the shelter of a rock near another bird, no near two other birds, no actually five other birds. As I carefully scanned my surroundings I found the area to alive with ptarmigans, at least thirty sat hunkered down or moved slowly between stunted trees. The birds didn’t move much and when they closed their eyes disappeared into the heavy snow drift.

group of White-tailed Ptarmigan Guanella Pass, Colorado Photo Stephan Lorenz

White-tailed Ptarmigan Guanella Pass, Colorado Photo Stephan Lorenz

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