Ice Cave and Ptarmigan
April 17, 2012
A highlight of one year came in April. We had heard about a huge ice cave in the Alaska Range. We set out to find it, making several wrong turns along the way. One took us to an amazing bird, a white-tailed ptarmigan that wasn't in the least spooked by us and walked right up!
Another wrong turn took us down a steep slope on the glacier to a dead end. On the return trip, I gunned my little 370cc Arctic Cat and got a good run at it, but bogged in the wet spring snow only three-quarters of the way up the hill. Dennis barely made it to the top with his more powerful machine. He walked back to assess my situation.
We were fifteen miles off road in the wilderness and had not heard or seen anyone since early morning. Yet less than a minute later, a head appeared at the top of the hill out of NOWHERE. “Need help?” The answer was obvious. He and his athletic young companion muscled my machine around. The lighter man took the machine down the hill and, using all his skill, finessed it to the top of the slope. After a friendly conversation, our two saviors buzzed off to find a place to go ice climbing. Unfortunately, we didn't take a picture of them.
They were the only people we saw the entire day. Their arrival, exactly on cue, was providential, to say the least!
We finally found the cave and were glad we’d brought good flashlights. We walked gingerly over what in summer would be a raging river emerging from beneath the glacier. Overhead were delicate ice stalactites, fractions of an inch in diameter and feet long. I snapped a photo of Dennis at the cave entrance that now decorates my computer desktop (see photo above).
Later, I put together a video with our photos from that day. The music is "Crystal Night" by Amy Shreve, from her album Peace in the Puzzle. Used by permission. Find it and more of Amy's beautiful music at www.amyshreve.com.
A few interesting facts about ptarmigan:
- Ptarmigan can fly, but spend more time walking on the ground. They are related to grouse.
- The word "ptarmigan" originally came from Scottish (Gaelic) "tarmachan." The spelling with a "p" was introduced later. The "p" is not pronounced. Although spellings with "pt" are Greek spellings, there are no ptarmigan in Greece!
- Ptarmigan do not migrate. They live in the cold Arctic year-round.
- They tunnel into snowdrifts to keep warm at night or during storms. Light fresh snow actually has more insulating value than an equal thickness of fiberglass!
- Ptarmigan feathers change color for camouflage. In winter, they are snow white; in summer, mottled brown or gray.
- Ptarmigan have feathers on their feet and toes to keep their feet warm as well as to serve as "snowshoes", preventing them from sinking into the snow.
- Feathers in their nostrils help warm the frigid air they breathe in winter.
- Ptarmigan eat buds, needles and twigs. They do not have teeth so can't chew their food. They need to eat pebbles, which go into their gizzard. As muscles in the gizzard contract, the pebbles roll around and against each other, grinding and softening the food so it can be digested. In the video, you can see the ptarmigan "eating" small stones.
- In preparation for winter, ptarmigan store pebbles where they can access them after the ground covers with snow.
- Most rock and willow ptarmigan run or fly when disturbed. White-tailed ptarmigan are smaller, less skittish, and less likely to be in flocks. White-tails conserve energy by moving as little as possible. Their main predators are birds rather than land animals.
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