Willow ptarmigan numbers appear fair to good in Unit 13B this winter. The extended season, open until Feb. 15, gives hunters another six weeks to have a shot at these fine game birds.
Heavy snow in the Alaska Range has caused a considerable number of birds to move to lower elevations where they can find better cover and feed. Flocks can be found along the Richardson Highway as far south as Sourdough, Mile 148, to Donnelly Flats.
Hunters should look for tracks in willow thickets. The ptarmigan will usually be nearby.
They will fly when spooked, but goshawks — the bane of ptarmigan — are at near-record highs, so most ptarmigan prefer to sit tight.
Quite a few folks hunt for ptarmigan, but few know a willow ptarmigan from rock or white-tail ptarmigan.
Willow ptarmigan have a characteristic cackle: “go back, go back.” They also show black tail feathers in flight. They are our largest ptarmigan species, and our state bird.
Rock ptarmigan have a guttural chir-like call. They also sport the black tail feathers in flight, and they have a black stripe through their eye, noticeable when in hand. Rock ptarmigan tend to sit on higher windblown hillsides in the open, where they feed on smaller willows and dwarf birch.
The white-tail ptarmigan is seldom seen by hunters. These tiny birds are half the size of other ptarmigan and frequent high terrain and soft snow. Family groups of four or five birds are the rule. Look for them in scattered willow patches rather than heavy draws — they will not fly unless pushed hard. Whitetails are, as their name suggests, white-tailed. The little black eye is all that distinguishes them from the snow they sleep in.
Heavy, soft snow may be tough for travelers and hunters, but is ideal for all ptarmigan. Land-bound predators have a hard time getting around in extremely soft snow, and airborne threats are minimized when the higher willow patches are compromised and the birds are forced to move. The cover at lower elevations is usually heavier and mixed with a few larger trees.
The hare population is also very high this winter along the Alaska Range, giving goshawks alternative targets. Owls are not a significant predation factor, because ptarmigan spend their nights buried in snowbanks for warmth. This winter’s soft snow is ideal for ptarmigan and should contribute to a good survival rate.
Interestingly, willow ptarmigan can have a dramatic effect on the general landscape of the areas they frequent. Willows are the main dietary item of all adult willow ptarmigan, both summer and winter. After heavy snowfalls, the birds will feed on the buds that poke through the snow on taller willows. An Ecoscience study found that 90% of the buds within their reach had been browsed, stunting the willows and creating a feedback cycle through the entire ecosystem.
When one considers the estimated willow ptarmigan population is in excess of 40 million birds, this study becomes quite believable.
Despite the huge population, the limit is 10 per day and 20 in possession along the Richardson Highway. What does one do with 10 ptarmigan? A dressed willow ptarmigan is about the size of a Cornish game hen. The meat is dark. There is little meat on the wings and though the legs appear substantial, they have many fine bones that make them difficult eating.
Personally, I find the best way to prepare a ptarmigan is by using a pressure cooker. The birds can be skinned rather than plucked and will stay moist in the cooker. A three-quarter-pound ptarmigan will cook in 15 minutes at 10 pounds of pressure.
One pressure-cooker perk is that a frozen bird can be cooked by adding another five or six minutes to the cooking time. The meat will be tender and even the legs can be negotiated. Mashed potatoes and cranberry sauce along with frozen peas will complete a 30-minute dinner that will satisfy even the most picky eaters.
Those hardcore hunters who wish for their family blessings as they head for the hills in search of birds can start the dinner prep an hour earlier with a store-bought pie shell and a can of prepared pumpkin and — voila! Instant kudos. You might even be rewarded with the gift of a box of shotgun shells. (Steel, of course.)
John Schandelmeier is a lifelong Alaskan who lives near Paxson with his family. He is a Bristol Bay commercial fisherman and a two-time winner of the Yukon Quest.