WILD HARVEST: Winter Ptarmigan For A Winter Warm Up

It took a couple of hours to scour several lakes and river segments offering the right combination of habitat. This February day was a cold, snowy, winter wonderland and we were in search of willow ptarmigan along frozen waterways by snowmobile north of Thompson, Man. We flushed the first flock of the day with the sleds and then manoeuvred into shotgun range on foot. A .410 and a 20 gauge went to work. With repeated attempts and just enough shells, we were rewarded with a beautiful brace of ptarmigan.

A veritable upland bird hunting cornucopia occurs each winter in Canada’s Boreal region, and few take advantage. Many may not even be aware of what wonderful bird hunting opportunities exist in our frozen north during the winter months. No, December, January and February are not times to hang up that shotgun and daydream of upland birds the coming fall. Ptarmigan are a species some resident hunters are not fully in sync with, and this is understandable due to the remote, largely inaccessible northern habitat they call home. Winter levels the playing fields, however, bringing this quarry into striking range of any dedicated Canadian bird hunters. Firstly, snowmobiles make remote areas much easier to access in the dead of winter. And secondly, unlike the majority of Galliformes (chicken-like birds such as grouse, pheasant and turkeys), willow ptarmigan undergo patterns of seasonal migration. Similar to waterfowl, these birds exist in lower densities across the north during the summer and early fall while breeding and rearing their young. They then begin to assimilate in greater numbers and move south along traditional, but less obvious, travel corridors, and into the reach of hunters willing to go look for them. Not particularly weary of humans or hunting pressure, getting within shotgun range of ptarmigan is certainly not the hard part. Finding them can be the tricky at times, but once you do the rewards are certainly worth it.

I often find the richest ptarmigan habitats to be frozen, brush-chocked lakeshores, low spots or river ways. The birds are conspicuous in black spruce trees, and feel safe perched on small branches mere feet above the ground. Spotting the birds on the snow, however, is a different story. Usually they are only noticed upon being flushed, but the discovery of fresh tracks can lead you directly to a flock. Any unsuccessful ptarmigan ventures only result in a pleasant day spent exploring frozen lakes with a friend by snowmobile. Successful hunts provide truly handsome birds to be admired, along with excellent table fare. The slightly dark meat can taste pre-seasoned by the ptarmigan’s natural diet, with accents of wild tea and various northern berries. Catkins and buds from willow, aspen or hazel make up the bulk of their late season food source. While not as dark as waterfowl or woodcock, the colour of the meat further indicates a willow ptarmigan’s physical ability to migrate. Dark meat is a result of dense capillary networks in the muscles, enabling a ready supply of oxygenated blood to sustain long-distance flights.

So consider heading north with your sled and shotgun some winter weekend, after the rest of the birds have long gone south. Few other upland hunts will ever be as rewarding or memorable; this I promise you.

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