Sunday, July 29, 2018

The Ptarmigan of Newfoundland

Ptarmigans are great birds and in fact, many of the "chickens" or game birds are among my all time favourites. While they are nice to see, there is often nothing easy about finding them! This is perhaps due to the fact that these birds are also prized by hunters, so Ptarmigan have a reason to be wary.

Ptarmigan are plump birds, with short legs and small conical bills, which are perfect for cracking seeds or plucking berries from their barrenness habitat. All Ptarmigan belong to the genus Lagopus. This name is fittingly derived from the Greek lagos, meaning "hare" and pous meaning foot. This is in reference to the birds feathered legs and feet, which help them stay warm and gain purchase on their, rocky and often icy terrain.

Newfoundland is home to two species of Ptarmigan, Willow and Rock. Our Willow Ptarmigan is also known as Red Grouse in the UK. While neither species is particularly easy to find in Newfoundland, Willow has a much greater range and is by far the species you are most likely to encounter.

Range and Habitat

Willow Ptarmigan

Willow Ptarmigan are found throughout the province of Newfoundland, most often in coastal, rocky barren areas, where they are quite unlikely to encounter a Willow! Some of the best areas are on the Avalon Peninsula, on the barrens between Cappahayden and Portugal Cove South, Cape Race Rd, and the Cape Pine Road.

Willow Ptarmigan are known by several names locally and one of them is "patridge". While Willow Ptarmigan is not a correctly a patridge, part of it's diet certainly consists of the "patridge berries", (known internationally as ligonberry) which grow in dense patches on the subarctic barrens of coastal Newfoundland. The windswept coastal barrens on the Avalon Peninsula will often have exposed patches of these berries, even in winter and if they are snow covered the Willow Ptarmigan have a solution for that as well- they simply dig through the snow to reach them!

Of course, Willow Ptarmigan also make use of a variety of seeds and insects as well, in the warmer months. I have seen Willow Ptarmigan feeding on the seeds from exposed branches of Alder bushes sticking up through the snow on several occasions.

Rock Ptarmigan

As for the much less common Rock Ptarmigan, their range is much more restricted in the province, primarily due to their apparent association with high altitudes. If you want to see a Rock Ptarmigan in Newfoundland, there are few choices as far as locations, and none of them are easy to get to! The way pretty much everyone in Newfoundland see's their Rock Ptarmigan is by climbing Gros Morne Mountain. The summit is about 800 meters and the hike takes a 5+ hours at least. At the top, you may or may not be rewarded a with Rock Ptarmigan, that is the chance you take! It would appear that Rock Ptarmigan stay true their name, their habitat is very rocky, add that's putting it lightly!
Gros Morne Newfoundland, Rock Ptarmigan
Gros Morne Mountain, Newfoundland


Identifying Willow and Rock Ptarmigan in Newfoundland is actually quite easy, since the two almost never overlap. It is worth noting though, that both species change their appearance seasonally, to provide better camouflage against their surrounding environments. I will include a series of photos of both species below that will highlight some of the identifying features, differences and seasonally changes that both species undergo.

Willow Ptarmigan, Newfoundland
This female Willow Ptarmigan has begun it's moult to it's white winter plumage. In years with little snowfall a white Willow Ptarmigan stand out on against the barren ground. Some Willow Ptarmigan on the Avalon never turn fully white, while others do.

Willow Ptarmigan flock, Newfoundland
Flock of Willow Ptarmigan in breeding plumage, Cape Race Rd. The vast majority of times I've seen Willow Ptarmigan I have seen them by flushing them off the roadsides while driving slowly. Ptarmigan and other games birds will often frequent the edges of gravel roads to collect 'grit'.

The rufous necks and breasts of the above male Willow Ptarmigans are unique to the species and make them easily separable from other Ptarmigan species when in this plumage. Male Rock Ptarmigans are a well patterned gray or grayish brown and never have the rufous tones of Willow Ptarmigan.
Male Rock Ptarmigan in Newfoundland
 Rock Ptarmigan (male). Note the colour of the neck and breast especially and compare to the birds above, Rock Ptarmigan is much colder in appearance.
Male Rock Ptarmigan, partially moulted to winter plumage in Newfoundland
Rock Ptarmigan (male) part way through it's moult to winter plumage. When completed the bird will be totally white, except for the dark lores, red comb and black tail.
Photo: Alvan Buckley

Male Rock Ptarmigan, partially moulted to winter plumage in Newfoundland, Canada
Another shot of a moulting male Rock Ptarmigan, you can get a sense of the elevation in the background
Photo: Alvan Buckley

The photos above display both Willow and Rock Ptarmigan in either breeding or transitional plumage. Lets take a look at the stark white winter plumage, noting especially how well it allows these birds to blend into their snowy surroundings.
Willow Ptarmigan, winter plumage, Newfoundland
A completely white individual. Note that it lacks the dark lores shown by Rock Ptarmigan in similar plumage. Also note the relatively thick bill (for a Ptarmigan) which is evident even in this photo.

Willow Ptarmigan, winter in Newfoundland
Some Willow Ptarmigan retain elements of their breeding plumage throughout the winter. Is this the same of all populations? At times the wind swept barrens where these birds live has frequent sections of exposed ground, in those cases this plumage might be a more effective camouflage than a the above bird, which is totally white.

Rock Ptarmigan in winter in Newfoundland
Rock Ptarmigan (male) winter plumage, note the black lores and thinner bill than seen in Willow Ptarmigan
I will conclude with a couple of close shots allowing comparison of the bills of both Willow and Rock Ptarmigan. Note the thicker bill of Willow Ptarmigan.
Rock Ptarmigan and Willow Ptarmigan
Willow Ptarmigan on left and Rock Ptarmigan on right. Note how much thicker the bill of Willow Ptarmigan is than the Rock Ptarmigan on the right.

If you enjoyed this article you might also enjoy some of the other 120+ articles on the Birding Newfoundland Blog. Some of the latest articles include.

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