New Season Begins with the Ptarmigan. For me September signals the start of the autumn and winter Ptarmigan season. All the chicks are now well on and almost indistinguishable in size from the adults. At this time of the year the Ptarmigan mill around in small family groups and as winter approaches they gather together in much larger coveys. Last year was a phenomenal breading season, with record numbers of birds seen in the Cairngorms. In the autumn I saw huge congregations of birds and witnessed one mega-flock numbering in excess of two hundred birds! To me Ptarmigan represent the most developed and well adapted bird found in the U.K. First of all they have to endure massive variations in temperature, from plus twenty five degrees in the summer to minus thirty (and more) in the winter, that’s a swing of over fifty five degrees. In addition to this they are the absolute masters of disguise, blending perfectly into their environment whatever the season. Today, after a few months away from them even I struggled to ‘get my eye in’. Basically you’re looking for a small grey bird amidst a massive mountain covered in grey rocks! This is where local knowledge and experience really helps. We found our first group today in an area where I had located them in previous years. That still didn’t stop me getting a fright when the first four birds flew off from right beneath my feet. This group flew high up into a boulder field, the other half dozen or so birds sat tight. Only after a short while did they start to meander up through the rocks, I followed them at a discreet distance and once they’d settled, I gradually moved up the slope to join them. I was lucky to find a very relaxed and compliant bird amongst that group. She happily sat, posed then after half an hour she and her friends headed off up the hill to join the rest of the group. Similar experiences at this time of the year and in this location had taught me exactly where they were heading. For the past three years on the trot, I’ve photographed a group of ptarmigan in that very same place, and this group were heading straight for it! As I moved up the ridge to get in position, I thought to myself, there must be more birds around here somewhere? Literally, as that thought entered my mind, just a few metres away up popped the head of a ptarmigan! I had found another small covey. Occasionally when photographing wildlife you come across an exceptional bird or animal, one that just ‘blows your socks off’, one that stands out from the others and gifts you with an unforgettable experience. I’m delighted to report that this happened to me today with the most relaxed and chilled out ptarmigan I’ve ever come across (at this time of the year). Not only did she stay with me for well over an hour, she allowed me to manoeuvre around her so I could make use of the different backgrounds and lighting.
In the end after taking over four hundred pictures, I decided to leave her in peace and made my way back down the mountain. What a fabulous day, wall to wall sunshine, light winds and lots and lots of beautiful ptarmigan.