Willow Ptarmigan in Three Mile Bay, New York

The Mission and How It Unfolded:

Photo Credit: Eugene D. Nichols - This is the first photograph of
what will likely become the 1st NYS record of Willow Ptarmigan
On Thursday evening, April 24, 2014, I received a pix message from my friend Eugene Nichols looking for some ID assistance on an "odd looking white bird that flew like a grouse?" I nearly dropped my phone when I saw photos of what looked like a ptarmigan. He perfectly described what may have been either a Rock or Willow Ptarmigan. "All white, black outer tail feathers, feathering throughout legs and feet, etc." Eugene is very observant, a great naturalist, and lives on Point Peninsula. He was making his evening waterfowl rounds when he noticed this odd bird and luckily he managed to grab some photos with his phone. I urged him to share the photos with his friend and colleague, Jeff Bolsinger and it wasn't long before Eugene and Jeff had Friday morning plans to try and relocate and well document this suspicious looking Ptarmigan. For those that might be wondering; A Willow Ptarmigan is a "chicken-like" upland game bird that spends its life in the arctic tundra and its a really big deal when one is seen in the lower 48.

Reality hadn't quite hit me yet until the Friday morning text exchanges with Eugene. "He and Jeff had relocated the bird and Jeff was getting great documentation shots." This is when the wheels started turning and my brain would be consumed by the thought of driving up to Point Peninsula and seeing this rare visitor of the northern tundra. I almost dropped what I was doing and left mid-morning but decided I'd take a deep breath and finish out the work week. At this point, early afternoon had come around and word was out on various birding list serves. Several friends expressed interest in teaming up on this excursion and it wasn't long until the enthusiastic, Arie Gilbert confirmed that he was definitely going to try for the bird, leaving early Saturday morning and kindly offering me a seat in his vehicle. I was in. And I wasn't going to miss this bird.

Willow Ptarmigan (non-breeding male), Three Mile Bay, New York, 4/26/14

3:00 AM on 4/26 came around pretty quickly and I popped out of bed, hopped in my truck and met Arie at his house in Babylon. It was a long ride built with anticipation but the soothing text message that I received from Eugene "The Ptarmigan Guardian" Nichols was of a positive relocation effort. The bird was there and all we had to do was make it to Point Peninsula (and hope the Ptarmigan didn't get whacked by a Snowy Owl). Arie, Ian Resnick and myself arrived on the scene at 10:50 AM. Expecting a mob of people, it was a tremendous surprise to only see a small handful of birders on site and we immediately got the Willow Ptarmigan. For the next 90 minutes, the male Willow Ptarmigan would put on an absolute show. Usually the birders are the ones to approach the birds, but in this case the Ptarmigan actually approached us! We were all set up along the road/beach edge when the Ptarmigan literally walked right up to our group. Not a word was spoken and all you could hear was the sound of camera shutters. The bird, in typical ptarmigan fashion, could be less concerned about us birders but did a great job clipping buds off of willow saplings and strutting around the beach front.

Pending review by the New York State Avian Records Committee, this is the first New York State record of Willow Ptarmigan and this species has barely ever breached the lower 48 states. Congratulations to Eugene Davenport Nichols on an outstanding discovery. For additional info check out the ABArare blog: http://blog.aba.org/2014/04/abarare-willow-ptarmigan-new-york.html

Willow Ptarmigan (non-breeding male), Three Mile Bay, New York, 4/26/14

Willow Ptarmigan (non-breeding male), Three Mile Bay, New York, 4/26/14
Willow Ptarmigan (non-breeding male), Three Mile Bay, New York, 4/26/14

Willow Ptarmigan (non-breeding male), Three Mile Bay, New York, 4/26/14
And finally, here's a map zoomed in on the area that the Willow Ptarmigan was ranging within during our visit on 4/26/14 (highlighted in yellow) always staying between the road and bay. 


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