Ptarmigan – an elusive but beguiling upland species

An easily overlooked Skye bird species is the ptarmigan.  It rarely strays from its upland habitat in hills around or above 600m/2000 ft.  You’ll want to get off the beaten track to get a glimpse of this elusive bird that hunkers down among the rocks and hopes you won’t notice them.

Well camouflaged ptarmigan

Well camouflaged ptarmigan

To find ptarmigan in south Skye you’ll need to head upwards to the Red Cuillin Hills or the Kylerhea hills because the birds favour well vegetated higher ground.

The birds feed on sub-alpine mosses and so are generally only found at higher levels.  The mix of rocks and vegetation gives the birds the cover they need to hide away from predators,.  Golden eagles, for example, will cruise the higher tops looking for unwary ptarmigan which make a decent meal for an adult eagle.

The Skye population of ptarmigan is not reckoned to be huge but, because they are spread out over a very wide and upland area, the species is almost certainly under recorded. If you do see them make sure you send in your records to which collates all bird records for Skye and Lochalsh.

There's two birds in this shot

There’s two birds in this shot

The birds are present on Skye all year round – breeding in summer and developing their beautiful white plumage to camouflage them on the snowy tops in winter.

If approached quietly, the birds do not readily take off and will sit tight, relying on their plumage to conceal them.  But when they go, they usually make a bit a of a fuss which alerts others nearby and can result in you seeing more birds than you thought were there because they are so well hidden.

Be sure to record your sightings of birds at British Trust for Ornithology  and become a citizen scientist!

Beginnings of full winter plumage

Beginnings of full winter plumage

Guests staying at Springbank Cottage self-catering cottage in Elgol have use of our environmental activities room which has details of some of the best site for ptarmigan.  We provide telescope, binoculars, guide books, maps and plenty of information about the locality to enable you to get the most out of your time in Skye. So make sure you get ptarmigan on your Skye birds list!


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