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Outdoors/Adventure

13 trips into the mountains yield 3 ptarmigan, and that’s OK

  • Author: Steve Meyer
    | Alaska guns & hunting
  • Updated: September 19, 2018
  • Published September 19, 2018

Christine Cunningham and Winchester thanking each other for one of this year’s rare opportunities to take a whitetail ptarmigan on Aug. 10..  (Photo by Steve Meyer)

Winchester and Hugo had been on point for perhaps 10 minutes when Christine moved into the lush greenery that bordered the glacial creek issuing from a 200-foot waterfall at the head of the valley.

She moved past the dogs for the flush. Nothing happened.
Making another pass with the same result, she looked at me.

"Well the champ says there's birds there, you better keep looking," I told her.

Another pass, and in exasperation she told Winchester, "No birds," the signal for him to break point.

Watching from the side, I saw Winchester glance at Christine and then intensify his focus back, his signal that yes, there are birds, now find them. Christine worked around behind him and walked in a line straight off the end of his nose, and in a moment she stopped, peering down at her feet.

"It's a hen, and she has a chick with her. I'll get Hugo, you get Winchester," she said.

We led our respective English setters away from the creek, told them again, "no birds," and pointed them to the southeast, away from the birds.

It's a scene that we've grown accustomed to in the first two weeks of the season, in particular with whitetail ptarmigan. The environment they live in is harsh, and the young birds don't grow as fast as their willow and rock cousins.

We tend to view our early season trips as a continuation of our scouting trips in July. Unless the boys find a lone male, we don't shoot.

"You remember that hen and chicks that Hugo found in early July a couple years ago?" Christine asked as the setters rocketed up the mountain.

Yes, I did. "The chick with that hen was about that size," she said. "This has to be a second hatch."

In general, wild birds breed in the spring and raise one clutch of chicks. On occasion, and it usually follows a wet and/or exceptionally cold spring when the chicks don't survive, the birds will breed again and have a second hatch.

It's one of nature's ways of assuring survival of a species. But it seems to be a rare occurrence in Alaska. Our abbreviated warm-weather season is not conducive to survival of a second hatch.

There is little in the way of hard statistical data available for whitetail ptarmigan. Unlike the larger rock and willow, whitetails live their entire lives above tree line. The country they inhabit is difficult to access during the spring breeding season. The steep slopes are heavy with wet snow, an ominous presence for a person attempting to negotiate the country and do survey work.

Christine, Winchester, Hugo and I have a love affair with whitetails. The country they live in is remote, beautiful and at times dangerous, and these tough little birds are as much a part of the high country as the Dall sheep they share it with. We spend a lot of time with them and have grown to know them well and know when things aren't right. Our own database, if you will.

There were signs during our numerous trips into the mountains in July. Winchester and Hugo weren't finding many coveys. When they did, there would be one or two chicks with a hen, compared to the five or six chick clutches we normally see. And it wasn't stacking up with the early breeding surveys of willow and rock ptarmigan.

Thanks to the efforts of Rick Merizon, the Alaska Department of Fish & Game's small-game coordinator based in Palmer; Cameron Carroll, ADF&G's small-game biologist based in Fairbanks; and a host of volunteers who are hunters and nonhunters, we do have hard data on willow and rock ptarmigan for the Interior and Southcentral regions of Alaska.

Some years back Rick introduced a program in which volunteers go into ptarmigan country from late April through late May, following specified routes with checkpoints. At these checkpoints, recorded calls of male rock and willow ptarmigan are played. The responses from these calls vary from a distant answering call to a nearby answer to males that come right to the caller location.

Christine and I got in on the ground floor of this program and the first time we played a call, a male willow flew in and about knocked me in the back of the head. It's a lot of fun and provides solid information on breeding populations.

Our counts in the Kenai Mountains during the spring of 2018, along with the rest of Southcentral and Interior Alaska, evidenced excellent breeding populations, promising a good hunting season.

But in another program Rick has introduced, in which brood surveys are conducted with volunteers and their well-trained pointing dogs across Southcentral and the Alaska Range, survival numbers for rock and willow ptarmigan were poor.

Anecdotal information from Interior, Southcentral and Southwest Alaska evidences similar trends for spruce and ruffed grouse. Christine and I, during summer wanderings in the spruce forests of the western Kenai area, had been seeing decent numbers of spruce grouse but we had noticed the young birds seemed small for the time, although we haven't done any hunting for them yet this year.

It seems that the exceptionally wet spring has taken a toll on our upland birds this year. To date, since the season opening Aug. 10, we've followed the setters into the mountains 13 times. Each time, the scene described in the beginning of this column has been repeated.

Thus far we've taken three ptarmigan. It reminds me of something I wrote some years back when bird numbers were down and I was trying to explain why we keep going, knowing we weren't going to be taking many, if any, birds. I expect those whose hunting partners include those with four legs will understand.

Hugo and Cogsy, loving life, even when no birds are taken home on Sept. 8. (Photo by Steve Meyer)

If you can, with shotgun in hand, follow your gun dogs into the mountains with the sole expectation of sharing their unbridled enthusiasm, their happiness, their uncensored lust of simply being who they are, life becomes as rich and precious as only they seem able to embrace.

The birds are integral to that special world, and caring for them in the lean years is as rewarding as taking them in the good ones.

Steve Meyer of Soldotna is a lifelong Alaskan and an avid shooter. Contact him at oldduckhunter@outlook.com.

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