My fall season in Interior Alaska is reserved for hunting ruffed and sharp-tailed grouse, but once winter arrives, the dogs and I turn to ptarmigan. The state’s ptarmigan season begins in August and runs through April. The sunny, warmer months of March and April are my favorites for snowshoeing the high country with two Brittanys fanned out ahead of me.
This particular day, after a few hours following the dogs, I had put four ptarmigan in the bag and decided to call it quits. I had put up the dogs in their crates and decided to drive around in search of wildlife to photograph.
At this time of year male rock ptarmigan begin staking claim to small pieces of snow-covered real estate where later they will dance about and chatter endlessly to hens that fly into the area to choose a mate. They fiercely will defend these areas from any rival males.
I soon spotted a lone ptarmigan sitting in the snow high up on a steep slope. Grabbing my camera and long telephoto lens, I headed uphill toward the bird. Not having put on snowshoes proved to be a huge mistake, as I soon was struggling to gain altitude in the deep snow.
As I drew near the bird, the male—identifiable by his scarlet eye comb—stood up and defiantly chattered at me. A moment later he burst into flight and rocketed downslope. I raised my camera to my face and swung the long lens like the barrels of a game gun. Butt, belly, beak, bang! I got only two useable images of the speeding white bird, but they were trophies suitable for framing.