Michael Penn / Juneau Empire
On close inspection: Dale Rabe, Region 1 management coordinator for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, fans out a female blue grouse's tail feathers that were sent in as part of a state survey, which also includes ptarmigan feathers.
The onset of winter and buildup of snow atop the ridges above Juneau also brings a more challenging exercise for ptarmigan hunters.
"Ptarmigan are most uniquely known for the fact that they change colors from summer to winter," said Dale Rabe, Alaska Department of Fish and Game management coordinator for Southeast Alaska. "In the summer they have feather plumages that are brown and in the winter they turn snow white."
The ptarmigan season provides hunters with ample opportunities to fill their freezers with game birds. The season runs from Aug. 1 to May 15 and there is a daily bag limit of 20 birds, with no annual limit.
Jody White said September and October are the prime ptarmigan hunting months, but he has hunted deep into the winters some years when the snow level wasn't too intimidating in the mountains. He said he prefers to hunt with his dogs, which makes hunting in the snow enjoyable.
"If it's fresh snow they really blend in well, but if it's kind of getting old and cruddy snow, you definitely see them. There is just something different about their kind of white," he said.
Whether they are burrowing in the white stuff or perching on trees of cliffs, White said ptarmigan hunting is a good hunt for bird dogs in Juneau because of their tendency to live near the tops of the ridges.
"Ptarmigan are a good way to go for a hike, get some food and relax," he said.
Reaching the daily limit can be a chore in Juneau, White said.
"Here in Juneau there's just a couple areas where if you hunt hard you can get your 20 birds in a day," he said. "You can go out and get a half a dozen, but some days you might not get any if you're scouting and looking for new ridges."
White said some hunters prefer using .22 caliber rifles for the pigeon-sized bird, but because he hunts with dogs, he prefers using a 12- or 20-gauge shotgun.
"On the ridges you have to be very careful, because you are hunting above town, you're hunting above the roads, there are a lot of hikers around, so it's harder for people if they are not paying attention to control a .22," he said. "You definitely kill a lot more birds with shotguns."
White said ptarmigans seem to be locally abundant and he believes there are not too many avid hunters because of the challenges involved in reaching their preferred habitat. He said he hunts about one or two times a week when both he and his dogs are healthy.
ADF&G recently began a new research program asking hunters to submit tail and wing samples of ptarmigans and grouse, Rabe said. The department is looking to expand its knowledge of these birds and gain basic information about the distribution of the different species in Southeast Alaska.
"The reason we are asking people to send in a tail and a wing is that many hunters may not be able to accurately identify which species they have since all three species are found here in Southeast," said Rabe. "Rather than them tell us what we got we wanted to actually have a specimen so we could confirm they are being correctly identify."
Willow, rock, and white-tailed ptarmigan all reside in Southeast Alaska. White said rock ptarmigan seem to be most prevalent in Juneau.
Hunters can pick up a collection kit at any of the regional offices, which includes information and prepaid envelopes to safely send the samples through the mail. The department has also added an incentive for the hunters, holding an annual cash drawing for as much as $200, open to everyone who has sent in samples. The drawing is held in January, and Rabe said he expects the program to last at least 3 years. "Hopefully they're motivated to help the department with our management and research project, but if they're motivated by a chance to win a couple of hundred dollars, that's fine," said Rabe. "If they send it in we're happy to get it."
Eric Morrison can be reached at email@example.com.