Scottish Field

THE MASTER OF DISGUISE

Fiercely protective and tremendous­ly hardy, the elusive ptarmigan is an expert at flying under the radar, says Cal Flyn

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Wildlife expert Cal Flyn uncovers the elusive ptarmigan

As the cold weather begins to close in around us once more, the skies are crowded with flights of migrant birds heading south. But high in the hills, in some of Scotland’s most exposed environmen­ts, the ptarmigan is settling in for a long winter.

The hardy ptarmigan, a type of small grouse, lives year-round on the Cairngorm plateau and in the remoter regions of the Highlands, and is perhaps best known for its biannual wardrobe change: switching during the autumn months from its cryptic summer plumage of barred tawny (and a flick of red eyeliner), to its winter costume of pill-white.

In the right conditions, this clever tactic renders ptarmigans near-invisible, and many unsuspecti­ng hikers pass within a few feet of these stealthy little birds without ever knowing it. Upon the approach of human feet (or foxes, or stoats), the ptarmigan presses its breast into the mud and crouches low, waiting for the danger to pass. Perfectly toned to the heather and the moss in summer; its brilliant, almost lucent winter down camouflage­s it perfectly against the glare of sunlit snow.

But step too close, and they burst from cover in a desperate bid for escape with a rush of wingbeats – which is my most common mode of encounteri­ng them: flushed into a flurry of shock and delight.

For this reason it can be a little tricky to engineer an encounter with a ptarmigan. But it can be done if you know what you’re looking for. Its call, for one thing, is extremely distinctiv­e: a hard, percussive rasp (probably the source of its name, a corruption of the Gaelic tàrmachan, likely descending from torm, meaning to murmur or croak). And in winter, one might hone in on areas where ptarmigan are lurking by looking out for their winter roosting spots: small hollows they claw in the snow drifts.

Ptarmigans dig down for shelter, sometimes very deep if the snow is powder, and sit atop their own fibrous droppings which they use as a sort of bedstraw. It is not their most appealing habit, but it is a recognisab­le one – and one of their many clever adaptation­s to the extreme climate of their favoured habitat.

In the sub-Arctic Cairngorms, winter temperatur­es may drop well below minus 20˚C, and winds of 100mph or more regularly batter in over the mountain ridges. Few other species in Britain cope with such gelid conditions – though they co-exist with mountain hares, snow buntings,

red deer and golden eagles. Further adaptation­s include their plump, even dumpy appearance – they are well-feathered for heat-retention, and wear thick, fur-like feathers on their feet and even on their eyelids.

But, as Nan Shepherd wrote in The Living Mountain, ‘the creatures that dress like the snow to be inconspicu­ous against it – the ptarmigan, the snow bunting, the mountain hare – are sometimes cheated’. Fast-changing mountain conditions like those commonly seen in the Cairngorms – where a foot or more of glittering snow might descend suddenly and then melt away overnight as if it had never been – can render their plumage out of step with their surroundin­gs, highlighte­d in silverwhit­e against a peat-dark background.

‘Few things are more ludicrous in Nature than a white hare “concealing” itself, erect and patient beside a boulder, while all round it stretches a grey-brown world against which it stands vividly out,’ she added. So too we might find the ptarmigan, white and waddling through mud and meltwater. Warm winter days, therefore, might offer the best opportunit­ies for the determined spotter.

We know as much as we do about the ptarmigan thanks in large part to the late, great Dr Adam Watson, the Scottish naturalist and triple doctorate-holder who died in January this year. As an expert on snow patches and on grouse, he preferred to address the Cairngorms by their original title – Am Monadh Ruadh, the Red Mountains – and called the ptarmigan ‘the most beautiful bird in the world’.

His behavioura­l studies of ptarmigans, which drew from many years spent in observatio­n in the mountains, offer delightful first-hand accounts of the secret life of ptarmigans. They ‘often sunbathe’, he wrote. They lie ‘with feathers ruffled, eyes closed and wings partly spread, and often on

one side with the opposite leg stretched out’. They do this in winter too, he added, ‘sometimes in below-freezing winds up to Beaufort force 4’.

He wrote a little of domestic life among the ptarmigans too, noting how ‘family parties roost close together (nearly touching each other) until the young are almost fully grown’, and that the chicks, which can run almost as soon as they hatch and make short flights at a week old – are nearly as hardy as their parents. ‘I have seen them blown by gales against rocks or rolling like balls down a 50 degree slope, without injury,’ he recalled.

Ptarmigans are monogamous, and the male (the ‘cock’) will stick around while its mate incubates their eggs, often running to divert a predator from the nest. The hens themselves will sit tight, even when threatened, reportedly going so far as to allow a person to touch them rather than leave their eggs. (Although, please don’t try this.) After hatching, mothers too take to diversiona­ry tactics; while their chicks scatter into the undergrowt­h they will flap around and feign injury so as to draw attention away from their young – a tactic that can fool even highly-trained gun dogs and wily foxes.

Shepherd wrote of repeat encounters of this kind, confiding that she had learned to stop dead upon the appearance of just such an ‘injured’ bird: the chicks must surely be close at hand – once within two inches of the toe of her boot. So the regular mountainee­r might slowly learn to interpret the signs left upon the hillside, or in the behaviour of the birds, and begin to see what is right under her nose – quite literally.

They will feign injury so as to draw attention away from their young

 ??  ?? Winter whites: Ptarmigans grow pearly white plumage during winter to blend in with their surroundin­gs.
Winter whites: Ptarmigans grow pearly white plumage during winter to blend in with their surroundin­gs.
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 ??  ?? Right: Ptarmigans can take to the skies when they are just a week old. Below: The birds can be very difficult to spot against the winter snow.
Right: Ptarmigans can take to the skies when they are just a week old. Below: The birds can be very difficult to spot against the winter snow.
 ??  ?? Red hot highlights: A male ptarmigan (Lagopus muta) in the Highlands, showing off his red eyeliner.
Red hot highlights: A male ptarmigan (Lagopus muta) in the Highlands, showing off his red eyeliner.

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