Avg. High: 44° F
Avg. Low: 20° F
Max. High: 77° F (1934)
Min. Low: -33° F (1930)
Avg. Precip: 0.70"
Max. Precip: 2.50" (1948)
Average Snow: 10.0"
Max. Snow: 35.0" (1948)
Max. Wind: 147 mph (1971)
Early Easter Daisy
photo: Curt Brown
photo: Steve Jones
The White-tailed Ptarmigan is one of the few birds adapted for survival in the winter snow and cold at high altitudes in the Rockies.
Winter along the Continental Divide lasts six months, from late October to late April. It's a time when most birds migrate and retreat from the hostile weather, but one bird designed for survival in the snow and cold remains. This unique bird, the white-tailed ptarmigan, often rests unseen in shelters dug in snowdrifts.
Winter-white plumage not only camouflages these grouse, it also keeps them warm. The hollow central axis of white feathers is filled with insulating air spaces. A ptarmigan’s undercoat of fluffy down feathers further increases the loft of its coat. Muscles connected to feather tracts enable birds to fluff themselves up to trap more air when it's cold, a mechanism called piloerection.
Ptarmigan even have feathered nostrils and eyelids. Feathered nostrils, like hairs in our nasal passages, help warm the air before it enters the lungs, while feathers on the eyelids cover and insulate a small portion of skin that otherwise might be vulnerable to cold air.
The birds feed and rest among willow shrubs, often roosting beneath the snow. Occasionally when I ski too close to a snow burrow, a white bird flies up suddenly, emerging from the snowpack like popcorn. On calm days, ptarmigan sitting motionless on the snow surface appear like ghosts in a white-on-white world.
- by Joyce Gellhorn, author of the book, White-tailed Ptarmigan released in 2007.
Photo credits: Ptarmigan - Joyce Gellhorn
Flowers - Steve Jones
Read Ruth Carol Cushman and Stephen Jones's Nature Almanac column in the Daily Camera "Get Out" section the first Friday of each month.
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