How to Photograph Ptarmigan
Of the four species of the grouse family that we have in the UK, the ptarmigan is the smallest – and the only British bird that turns white in winter.
Add in that you can only see them on certain Scottish mountains 3000ft and higher, as they rarely venture below that height, it becomes more apparent why so many photographers have the ptarmigan near the top of their wish list during a winter visit to the Scottish Highlands.
Weather and safety
I am very fortunate to live in the Cairngorms National Park area as the Cairngorm mountains are the ideal habitat for these hardy birds. However, despite the luxury of having them in my home area, by no means does that mean they are easy to find or reach.
There is only one way to find a ptarmigan, and that is to get yourself up and into their realm. In most, if not all, cases this will involve a good uphill walk. It will take several hours to reach the likely areas that you would hope to find them frequenting. If winter is your chosen time to visit and look for these birds, then it is absolutely crucial you take into account the weather conditions.
These high ground areas in inclement weather are places not to be messed with. Sadly, on all too many occasions in the past and no doubt the future, some folk for whatever reason have not given the mountains the respect they deserve and have been caught unaware and paid the price with their lives. It is a sobering thought to always keep in mind when visiting the mountains, particularly in winter, but not to be dismissed in the summer either.
There are plenty of weather apps readily available that will show you an exact location’s weather information. I always err on the side of caution and if it looks the least bit “dodgy” weather wise, I always make the decision that the birds will be there on another better day.
Don’t just look at the precipitation or snow, as wind is possibly the most definitive variant to check. Anything over 30mph I find gets extremely difficult to deal with, and you always have gusts to factor in too which could be double the wind speed. Then add the wind chill which that wind brings, and the cold can quickly become extreme.
Combine all that with a snow shower that can come from nowhere and you can very quickly be in a freezing whiteout. It’s exactly these types of conditions which disorient people and can very quickly lead to perilous life-threatening situations.
Of course, the human safety aspect is the most important and I hope I have been able to bring that home to you. However, in a photographic sense these conditions described above are also largely pointless to take pictures in. Believe me, trying to handle a large lens in those winds and the biting cold is not something you want to try.
Before we leave the weather scenarios, also try to avoid low cloud and mist. It makes locating the birds a lot harder and even if you do find them, particularly in misty conditions, the images will look washed out and dull.
Clothing for the mountains
Aside from all photography equipment you will need, and having just mentioned the weather hazards, it’s crucial that you give as much thought to suitable outdoor clothing as you would to choosing a camera and lenses.
Good walking boots with ankle support are key, as is a warm waterproof jacket and trousers. Layer up, if possible, so you can add or remove a layer as required.
Gloves are also crucial. Yes, they can be pain for working a camera but on cold, windy days they are a saviour. A hat is of course also worth wearing. Even in summer, the weather can be extremely variable on the mountains; you might not need the same number of layers, but the boots and a jacket are still essential.
How to find ptarmigan in the mountains
Like most subjects in wildlife photography, finding them is the hardest bit. Ptarmigan are certainly one of the most demanding in that respect. Due to their location on high mountains, there is considerable physical effort involved: not just the walk to reach them, but you have to carry your heavy camera gear with you plus your supplies for the day.
I would always allow a full day for your excursion, as you need to allow time for walking in and out plus however long it takes you to locate the birds. Remember, if it’s winter then the days are short in the Highlands; some months only have six hours of light at best.
In my experience, finding ptarmigan is a very hit and miss activity and the weather plays a crucial part in this. Wind is the enemy and makes it hard to hear the birds. Hearing a male’s very distinct croaking call can often be your first clue to the whereabouts of the birds, so a strong wind can make things much more difficult.
When you reach ptarmigan territory, it’s well worth taking a break to just sit and listen for any birds that are calling. A second reason to avoid really windy days is that the birds are a lot more “flighty” than on calmer days.
With their amazing camouflage, they can be hard to spot with the naked eye. So, by getting a rough pinpoint from a call, you can hone in on a narrower area to try and see them. A set of binoculars are a great asset for this, and I cannot recommend strongly enough that you take a pair along with you.
Sometimes you may find that you can walk right into them if they have been sitting tight, so always be on the alert as you walk along. In wintry conditions, snow cover can govern where it is feasible for you to locate the birds. A full covering of snow widens the range and, once you are up in ptarmigan territory, they could be anywhere. However, if the snow is broken and patchy – or there is a definitive snow line – look around these areas as the birds tend to stay close to the white patches. Taking your time is the key here.
Approaching and getting close to ptarmigan
Once I reach the ptarmigan area, I stop and listen for a bit. If there are no calls, I will continue walking slowly and methodically, stopping every 100 metres or so to scan ahead and see if I can spot any birds.
When you do locate any ptarmigan, the approach to get into a close enough position to take photos is largely the same regardless of how you found them. There is very little point, if any, of trying to stalk towards them. Why? Firstly, it is likely there will be very little terrain to use as cover due to the openness of their habitat, and the birds will have probably seen you and be aware of your presence already.
Since the birds are already aware of you, it makes no sense to try and sneak up on them. Indeed, it can even be counterproductive when you suddenly appear close to them to take your shot – in this case they are more likely to take flight.
Approaching the ptarmigan is very similar to with another mountain species: the mountain hare. You can never really predict how they will react to you until you start to make your approach. The technique is simply walking very slowly in full view of the birds; a few gradual steps at a time, pausing every ten or so paces for a couple minutes. With this deliberately slow advance, the birds will become more accepting. The closer you get, the slower your pace should be.
Always keep your eyes on the bird’s behaviour, and with any sign of agitation you should stop and let them settle again before you make any more moves. Never push things by trying to get too close. Give them some breathing space and, if they remain calm and relaxed, you never know what will happen in your favour.
On numerous occasions, I have had ptarmigan come closer to me of their own accord. If you locate the ptarmigan and they are settled in the one spot, the above tactic works best. However, that is not always going to be the case. For example, they can be feeding and moving in a certain direction. In these circumstances, take a wide berth and get ahead of their general direction. It is a bit of a gamble, but to follow behind them as they move is largely a fruitless effort.
Once you get around 100 metres or so ahead of them, get low and keep movement to a minimum. Keep your fingers crossed and hopefully the birds will continue towards you, allowing you some opportunities for ptarmigan photography.
Like all wildlife encounters, nothing is guaranteed and not every occasion is going to work. The ptarmigan will ultimately dictate success or failure.
If there are enough birds around, hopefully some will be more approachable than others and allow you to employ these approach tactics which should give you a fighting chance. Another point to consider is always to make your approach from below or side-on to the birds, as starting from above on higher slopes will drastically increase the possibility of spooking your target. If you do see the birds from above, it’s best to detour around them and approach properly.
Equipment for ptarmigan photography
By now you’ve established that working with ptarmigan requires a fair amount of walking, and a decent portion of that will be uphill. It’s important you take that into account when packing your camera bag. In other words, don’t go crazy and pile in everything you have or think you “might” need. Try and keep equipment to the bare minimum.
Personally, I take a camera body and the usual spare batteries and memory cards. Lens wise, 400mm or greater will be the main lens of choice. You can achieve the bulk of your images with this range of telephoto, with the exception being any wider habitat shots.
Shooting habitat shots are possible when the birds come really close, or when they are perched on a rock with mountains in the background. A wide-angle lens for such situations is worth packing alongside your telephoto.
You may have a telephoto zoom like a 100mm-400mm or 150-500mm. These will cover everything from close portraits to wider landscapes, so is ideal if you just want one lens with you. If you have a prime telephoto lens and want a second, wider choice then a 70-200mm is a good preference.
I rarely, if ever, take a tripod. They are just too bulky and add too much weight to carry up the mountain. If you must, then a monopod for a larger telephoto lens is a better alternative. However, typically I hand hold or use a nearby rock or boulder for supporting the lens.
Exposing the shot
Shooting a white bird in white surroundings can be challenging. If you are lucky enough to get these conditions, some exposure compensation will be necessary. How much compensation required will depend on whether it is overcast or sunny.
On cloudy days, you might be required to overexpose (+ev) by up to couple of stops, perhaps even slightly more in shaded areas to get the correct “whiteness” in the exposure. On bright, sunny days you’ll find one stop at most should be enough.
Keep checking your LCD for any blinking blown out highlights, and watch your histogram to give you some feedback that you are on track. Without the correct compensation, your photo will look grey and dark rather than have the crisp whites you see with your eye.
You will not always have full snow cover, and in more mild conditions you might have to deal with the birds being against darker backgrounds. This does make things a little less straight forward. In these instances, it can depend on how close the ptarmigan is to you.
It depends on your camera’s metering mode, but typically the more dominant the bird is in the frame, then the more positive compensation will be required to combat the camera trying to underexpose the picture. The reverse applies if it smaller.
Basically, in these conditions you will need to keep checking and reassessing your setting, unlike when you have a full white scene and have gauged and dialled in your settings allowing you to largely leave them set at that same exposure.
A day in the mountains photographing ptarmigan will, without doubt, fulfil your desires for a true wildlife photography challenge. It will test all of your skills: fieldcraft, technical expertise, and even fitness. If all these things come together and you get to spend some time with these extraordinary, hardy birds, you will surely come away rewarded for your efforts.
Although I have based this feature on winter experiences, don’t exclude ptarmigan as a fantastic subject for other times of the year. Spring, summer, and autumn all offer changes in their plumage – and they are just as appealing during these seasons too. Good luck!