Opening day dawned with non-threatening clouds drifting across the distant peeks of our destination. The sun hidden behind the mountain slopes cast a pale light, presenting the emerald valleys and shale slopes in dark magnificence. An hour into the climb Winchester, our black and white English setter, disappeared over a distant ridgeline high above us. His vanishing act was shortly followed by the vibration of the control on his Garmin GPS collar, alerting that he was on point.
Excitement born of knowing from experience that Winchester had found whitetail ptarmigan, the lone upland bird that shares the sharply defined granite and shale ahead with Dall sheep, brought renewed energy to the climb. Cascading water in the 700-foot vertical chute next to our route muffled any sound we made in haste to get to Winchester and the birds he held waiting for our arrival. Twenty minutes later, cresting the ridge, his motionless silhouette against the skyline brought a stop to capture in a photograph, the moment. Time no longer mattered, the birds and Winchester were locked together, neither would move without intervention.
The August 10 opening of upland bird hunting in Alaska finds the birds from the spring hatch to typically be around 80% the size of the adults. Thus the opener is not about taking a lot of birds. One or two birds to allow Winchester to ply his trade and then a break for a couple of weeks while the birds finish growing is our standard. The mottled feathers blend well with their surroundings and we had approached to within 20 yards before spotting the lone bird mesmerized by Winchester’s intense stare. Moving closer for the flush the bird held much longer than normal and the gap closed to under ten yards when the whitetail began moving towards Christine, behavior that suggested that this was a hen and there were probably young birds hidden close by. Looking around Christine discovered two very small ptarmigan nestled in the rocks at her feet. These birds were not remotely close to 80% full grown, more like 50% and that seemed evident of a late hatch.
There was no further consideration of taking any of them as we spent the next ten minutes photographing the birds while Winchester shifted his gaze from them to us wondering what the heck we were doing. The hen allowed me to approach within six feet of her. She was not nearly as concerned about me as she was about Christine and she continued to move towards her. Her blinking eyes and her peculiar vocalizations signaled it was time to leave her alone. Much to Winchester’s dismay we herded the hen to her chicks and sent them on their way to grow up.
Chicks at Christine’s feet
With the “find the birds” command, Winchester was happy to oblige and headed up over a ridge to the southeast where a small mountain lake invites the high-country fauna to drink. Within minutes of his flagging tail disappearing the Garmin vibrated again. Six hundred yards isn’t far to go except when it includes 600 feet of vertical elevation and the scramble uphill continued. The first ridge line was false hope as another had to be climbed before the high tail first appeared. Closing the gap a ptarmigan was silhouetted against the background 30 yards in front of Winchester. Approaching for another flush revealed five more ptarmigan, all out in front of the first and all clearly no more than half her size. So as not to further discourage Winchester I flushed the birds, swung the .28 gauge ahead of the last bird and let it fly through before touching off a shot in a deliberate miss.
Following Winchester to the crest overlooking the valley below, dots with patches of purple flowers and blueberry patches we hoped for another point that perhaps would be a lone adult bird. Winchester’s nose told us there were no more birds in that particular piece of real estate. Now in the shadow of a distant peak we shared our thoughts about the early opening for upland birds.
The August 10 opener was conceived many years ago to coincide with the sheep and caribou season openers with the thought that hunters after these species could take birds for camp meat. Some wonder, including myself at times, if perhaps that time has changed and maybe the season opener should be later in the year. The reality is that bird hunters in Alaska for the most part have no real discernible effect on upland bird populations. The exception being the mid-winter take in heavily utilized snow machine country. Roughly ninety percent of the statewide hunter harvest of ptarmigan occurs from snow machine access. Legal hunting takes many forms and covers a wide array of situations that one hunter may find okay and the next not so much. Hunting is an intensely personal way of life and however a hunter approaches it legally is okay. We act on what hunting means individually and oftentimes restrict ourselves far more than law says we must.
For some, heading down the mountain with no birds in the bag would be considered a failure. For others the simple joy of being in a wild place, engaging in nature in the most honest form is a success. For us the trip down was walking on air, already cherishing the moments of time spent with the hen and her chicks, smelling the mountain wildflowers, listening to the silence only found in these places and looking forward to the next time. An opener for the books.