Nothing to Grouse About
Alaska boasts six species of grouse, the family Phasianidae. WC only has photos of five of the six. The White-tailed Ptarmigan has eluded him so far.
Taking the Grouse species first, by far the most common is the Ruffed Grouse. Some years ago there was a confused Ruffed Grouse with a territory on the edge of Creamers Field. He was nicknamed Dennis. He had the bad habit of incautiously attacking anything and anyone who came through is territory. The results were some remarkable closeups.
You just knew those genes weren’t going to reproduce and, in fact, they didn’t. WC will spare his gentle readers further details. By the way, it you hear a noise like a badly tuned engine in the woods, it might be a Ruffed Grouse drumming.
Less common is the Spruce Grouse, the black-spruce thicket-loving cousin of the Ruffed Grouse. At least in Interior Alaska, the species is darker and grayer.
Even less common than the Spruce Grouse is the Sharp-tailed Grouse, unless you are lucky enough to find a lek, and get to see the males dancing for the ladies.
A male Sharp-tailed dancing is nothing less than astonishing; too bad U.S. Army Alaska destroyed the one lek WC knew about.
The other grouse in Alaska are, in fact, ptarmigan. The most common is the Willow Ptarmigan.
By the way, the most reliable place to see Willow Ptarmigan WC knows is the floor of the Savage River downstream from the bridge in Denali National Park. In mid-July, you can even find chicks following their parents around.
The higher altitude cousin of the Willow Ptarmigan is the Rock Ptarmigan.
In winter plumage, shown here, you can tell the Rock Ptarmigan from the Willow by the strong black eye line in the Rock. The female is molting. She’ll be on eggs soon on the brown tundra, and needs the camouflage. The male remains whiter longer to act as a distraction for predators.
As noted above, the White-tailed Ptarmigan has eluded WC’s camera. WC will grouse about it, but persist.