A Ptarmigan Tale

August 14, 2013  •  1 Comment

At the beginning of August 2013 I spent a weekend in the Eastern Sierra on a camera club field trip. On the last day, everyone else wanted to go home after the sunrise shoot. For my part, having come so far, I was going to make the most of my time out there, and decided to go look for birds, especially the kind we don't have at home, and especially something I could add to my life list. In 2012 I had visited this area with an Audubon field trip led by Bob Power. There had been a few birds we either did not see well or missed entirely. Of those, three I had since found and taken decent photographs of (Short-eared Owl, Common Poorwill, and Black-backed Woodpecker), and one had been my first target the day I arrived in the Mono Lake area on this trip - Pinyon Jay.

That left the White-tailed Ptarmigan. On the 2012 trip we had looked for White-tailed Ptarmigan at Saddlebag Lake, a scenic wilderness in the Inyo National Forest, just outside the east entrance to Yosemite National Park. eBird showed that there had been sightings of the ptarmigan within the last month, in the Twenty Lakes hiking area at the northwest end of Saddlebag Lake. It's an incredibly beautiful place, with a good variety of birds, so I figured I would enjoy a hike there even if I didn't find a ptarmigan. The chances of stumbling across one was extremely remote.

This photo shows the northwest end of Saddlebag Lake. Conness Lakes, where I ended up, is the valley in the upper left of the image.Saddlebag Lake

I arrived at the south end of the lake mid-morning. There are three ways to get to the other end of the lake and back - one is to walk the whole way, one is to take a "boat taxi" across and walk back, and the other is to take the boat taxi both ways. In 2012 we had taken the boat across and walked back - there were many birds as well as beautiful wildflowers - but that hadn't turned up any ptarmigans and besides, eBird seemed to indicate it was necessary to go deeper into the Twenty Lakes area. So I bought a return trip ticket for the boat taxi. The woman who sold me the ticket gave me a map showing a 5 mile loop trail which seemed perfect for the amount of time I had.

It was a bit discouraging to have three dogs and several children on the boat taxi. It was even more discouraging to find that two of the dogs were immediately let off leash on arrival at the north dock. Dogs are wonderful if you want to protect yourself from wildlife, human or otherwise, but not so great if you want to find wildlife. I set off on the trail in a clockwise direction, ahead of the other people who were organizing themselves, and was a bit dismayed to note a bit later that they were following behind. That was not the worst of it - it is apparently a heavily used area, and as I walked along past some of the small lakes, I noticed people fishing and half of them seemed to have off-leash dogs. This didn't seem to bother the abundant juncos, chickadees, and robins, but I was hoping for something a little more unusual.

Saddlebag Lake from Conness Lakes The photo to the right is Saddlebag Lake from the top of the Conness Lakes spillway.

As I stopped to check out a flock of chickadees (it's common to find other birds hanging out with them), a man walking in the opposite direction asked me if I was a birder. I was standing under a tree full of birds with binoculars in hand and a camera with longish lens slung over my shoulder, but I refrained from making the obvious sarcastic response because I sensed he had something to say and was dying to say it. "Do you want to see one of those grouse birds?", he asked. Trying not to look too eager, my response was a major understatement, "That would be nice". He excitedly told me that he had almost stepped on one the day before, and then he pointed up and said, "See that waterfall with the tumble of rocks beside it? It's up there. The falls come from Conness Lakes, where the birds live. There's no real trail, but it's feasible if you don't mind a bit of a scramble". Then he added, "It's farther than you think".

It did look rather daunting, but I still had several hours, and I would definitely regret it if I didn't try. I thanked him and set off cross country to the base of the waterfall, already feeling the 10,000' altitude and load I was carrying. There was no real trail and it probably would not have been feasible to go that way had it not been August, since the ground was reasonably dry in places where it looked like it could be very boggy earlier in the summer. It was not possible to go in a straight line because of all the rocky outcrops hiding small lakes, but before too long I was scrambling up the rocks beside the waterfall. There was a trail of sorts, but it kept disappearing amongst the rocks. However, the only way up was close to the waterfall so any wrong turns were easily corrected.

Conness Lakes

The Conness Lakes valley (shown right) is a classic cirque carved by a glacier, the tiny remains of which was still evident at the end of the valley. A chain of small lakes fills the middle of the valley, connected by shallow streams that are easily crossed. Higher up to the east are a couple more small lakes. The valley was not large, maybe half a mile long and half that wide, but I realized I should have asked for more explicit directions. I had no idea where to look. And in spite of the scramble to get up to the valley, now at 10,500', there were two families with several children and a couple of off-leash dogs. It seemed hopeless. Needing more information I walked along the northwest side of the ponds to where the family group was, and asked if they had seen a small chicken-sized bird. One of the women thought this was hilarious, considering the pandemonium caused by the children splashing and calling to each other in the lake, and the barking dogs, and she seemed rather pre-occupied with making sure the kids didn't wander out too far, while keeping an eye on the adult male members of the group who were precariously scaling a rock slide above us. I appreciated this was a fantastic outing for the families, but not helping me, so I left them to make my way to the other side of the valley, which, as a photographer, was more appealing anyway since it would mean having the sun behind me as I looked at the scene. 

Once on the other side, I found another group of hikers, who, while curious about the very existence of ptarmigans in such an odd place, had known nothing about them beforehand. I decided to leave all the people behind and climb up to the upper lakes, where I hoped I could get a better view. It wasn't far, and with such a gorgeous view you could not find a better location to have lunch, although it would have been improved with the addition of a few certain birds.

American Dipper

I spent nearly two hours wandering around before giving up and starting the hike back to the boat dock. As I crossed the stream back to the west side, I startled an American Dipper (photo left). I'm not sure who was more surprised - me or the dipper. As I watched it express its indignation at being disturbed by splaying its tail and bobbing, two more hikers crossed the stream and stopped to ask what I was looking at. I pointed out the dipper, and said it was poor consolation for not finding ptarmigans. "Oh," they said, "we just saw some of those." I couldn't believe it. "Six of them", to rub it in. "Would you like to see photos?", rubbing it in a bit more and pulling out a point-and-shoot to show me. I declined, and asked where exactly they had been seen. "There is a big rock". Really? That's like standing in a forest saying there is a big tree. I asked them more explicit questions for the location, getting needed clarification, as learned from birding with people who frustratingly think you can see exactly what they are seeing.

Then I had to make a decision. I was already very tired, there was at least an hour more of hiking to get back to the boat dock, and my allotted return time for the boat was 90 minutes away. After that, there was a 5 hour drive home. In addition, when in a hurry I have a tendency to trip over my own feet and have numerous scars to show for it. Up here there were many more trip hazards than my own feet. And all the other hikers had left, leaving me feeling a bit uncomfortable being the last person in this relatively isolated place. But I was so close! It didn't take much thought - I retraced my steps back across the stream and in the direction of the ptarmigans. They were in an area I had scanned with my binoculars, but had not gone very close to.

White-tailed Ptarmigan And you had to get close. At least, I had to get close. I'm certain I walked around the ptarmigans - or scrambled around rather, since they were on a mostly grassy slope, soggy with glacier meltwater and with many rocks strewn about - at least twice before finding them. There were juncos and pipits flitting around for added distraction. Even then, I'm not sure I would have seen them had there not been a juvenile that the mother was softly calling, presumably to help protect it from the monster that was trampling their home. I heard the cooing sound and followed it to find the two, sitting on a couple of rocks out in the open. How did I not see them before? Such is one of the puzzles of birding - sometimes it seems easy to find birds hidden in obscure places, and other times it's hard to see them when they're under your nose.

I would have liked to have stayed a while to take photos, and looked for the alleged other four, but time was running out, and besides, it was clear that I was disturbing the birds and it was better to leave them in peace. The hike back to the boat dock was another adventure - I had taken a circuitous route to get to Conness Lakes and hoped the trail directly back to Saddlebag Lake was more obvious, but it was not a main trail and in places quite ambiguous. There were more creek crossings - a little more challenging with more water in the creeks at the lower elevations. The hike would have been much more enjoyable had I not felt pressed for time. However, I made it to the boat dock with minutes to spare for the ride back to the car. When asked how my day had gone, three words summed it all up - exhausted but happy.White-tailed Ptarmigan juvenile


1.Tom Grey(non-registered)
Congrats, Caroline -- an epic tale, well-told, with suspense, and those excellent shots of those rock-resembling birds well-illustrating the happy ending!
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