Most hunters can't tell the difference between rock ptarmigan and willow ptarmigan. The reality is, if you're hunting strictly for food, it matters little. However, most ptarmigan hunting is done primarily for sport. If you're working your dog or hunting with the kids it's fun to know which bird is in hand. Rock ptarmigan have some noticeable differences from the more abundant willows.
In the spring it's quite easy to distinguish rock ptarmigan from willow ptarmigan. Rock ptarmigan males stay white and have a very obvious black stripe through their eye. Male willow ptarmigan develop a characteristic chocolate-brown head and neck. The calls are considerably different also. The male rock ptarmigan has a single-pitch cackle. Willow ptarmigan have a two-pitch call that varies in intensity.
Some sources say ptarmigan are named for their call, that it's a Scottish Gaelic word for "croaker." I found another source that told me "ptarmigan" was Gaelic for "mountaineer." Go figure! Fall birds are a bit more difficult to tell apart. Male rock ptarmigan are more gray, with a slight yellowish tinge. The females also display this difference, but it's more subtle. The major difference is in location.
Along the Denali and Richardson highways rock ptarmigan tend to be along the higher elevations where the willows and dwarf birch are scattered. During early fall, they like the edges of rock and boulder fields where there are good moss berries and blueberries. White-tailed ptarmigan also like these locations, but white-tails are much smaller and lack the black tail-feathers characteristic of both rock and willow ptarmigan.
Willow ptarmigan tend to hang in the heavy willows with their summer broods while the other species of ptarmigan stay higher, on more open, slopes. Rock ptarmigan prefer to feed on dwarf birch rather than willow. Their liking for open terrain can make them vulnerable to golden eagles and gyrfalcons. They are tougher to hunt because they like to run. They are hard birds to get in the air without a dog.
Females and chicks flock early and can be found in big groups by late September. When I first moved to the Denali Highway in 1970, there were some huge flocks of rock ptarmigan in the Tangle Lakes area and along the Maclaren Summit. It was not uncommon to see groups of a couple hundred.
However, the advent of reliable snowmobiles has taken a toll on rock ptarmigan in those locations.
Ptarmigan don't range far from their habitual nesting grounds, often staying within a half-mile or so of where they are hatched for the majority of the year. North of the Brooks Range, birds may migrate several hundred miles, but that isn't the case south of the Brooks. The big populations of rock ptarmigan that used to winter and nest along the eastern Denali are mostly gone.
There are still good numbers of birds, but they are more scattered than in the past. Paxson Mountain and the higher terrain along Landmark Gap still have plenty of birds, but during the fall, one needs to be willing to walk.
This spring I have seen more rock ptarmigan along the Denali than I have in years -- 13-mile Hill and the Maclaren Summit have several nesting pairs along the roadside. It would be great to see the populations along the highway rebound to near their former abundance.
Spring snowmobile hunting has the greatest impact on our ptarmigan populations. We can have restrictive regulations to protect one species of ptarmigan in a specific location, or hunters themselves can avoid taking too many rock ptarmigan along the highways system. An effective way to rebuild these ptarmigan populations would be for hunters to learn to identify rocks by their distinctive black eye stripe and concentrate their hunting on the much more abundant willow ptarmigan.
John Schandelmeier is a lifelong Alaskan who lives with his family near Paxson. He is a Bristol Bay commercial fisherman and two-time winner of the Yukon Quest.