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Willow Ptarmigan – 1st for New York!

Alex Lamoreaux|

Today myself and 8 fellow PA birders embarked on a weekend-long PSO field trip to the southern Lake Ontario shoreline, however our plans took a very unexpected turn when I noticed a forwarded email. It was from Drew, saying that there was a Willow Ptarmigan on Point Peninsula in Jefferson County reported by Eugene Nichols. Obviously we were all quite skeptical of the sighting, but the email from Jeff Bolsinger seemed convincing and, at the time, we were only about an hour from where the bird was seen. We picked up Drew at the Derby Hill Hawkwatch, tried to ignore the non-stop raptor flight overhead, and drove up to Point Peninsula to search for the ptarmigan. When we arrived Jim Tarolli and Dave Wheeler were there and quickly got us onto the ptarmigan – a beautiful bird in stunning, pure white winter plumage! We gathered around and watched as the plump, disoriented bird foraged for buds in a willow along the lakeshore seeming to ignore the growing number of gawking birders. A local homeowner driving past slowed down to ask what we were looking at, and after explaining, she offered to let me take her kayak out and around for closer, unobstructed photos of the bird! Within minutes I was in a kayak on the lake and less than 30 feet from the bird as it slowly climbed around pinching off buds to eat. What an incredible and insanely unanticipated lifer, and a great way to kick off our PSO trip!

This is the first record of Willow Ptarmigan for New York (although there is one museum record from Lewis County), and one of only a handful of records for the Lower 48! Lower 48 records from the the past 100 years come only from the state of Maine in 1951, 1977, 1990, and 2000. Thanks to Nate Swick, Peter Vickery and Benjamin Griffith.

Sightings

April 25- Seen all afternoon, through at least 7pm.

April 26- Seen all day in the same location.

April 27- Seen throughout the day, same location.

April 28- The ptarmigan has not been seen at all today, but could still very likely be in the area as there is lots of public land that it could be hiding in.

Willow Ptarmigan - Jefferson County, New York (Photo by Alex Lamoreaux)

Willow Ptarmigan – Jefferson County, New York (Photo by Alex Lamoreaux)

Willow Ptarmigan - Jefferson County, New York (Photo by Alex Lamoreaux)

Willow Ptarmigan – Jefferson County, New York (Photo by Alex Lamoreaux)

Willow Ptarmigan - Jefferson County, New York (Photo by Alex Lamoreaux)

Willow Ptarmigan – Jefferson County, New York (Photo by Alex Lamoreaux)

Willow Ptarmigan - Jefferson County, New York (Photo by Alex Lamoreaux)

Willow Ptarmigan – Jefferson County, New York (Photo by Alex Lamoreaux)

Willow Ptarmigan - Jefferson County, New York (Photo by Alex Lamoreaux)

Willow Ptarmigan – Jefferson County, New York (Photo by Alex Lamoreaux)

  • Benjamin Griffith

    I’m not sure where Nate got his number, but Maine has 3 records since 1950, and a 4th one from the 1800s.

    • Jesse Jaycox

      I see a record listed for Lewis County NY in 1876. See http://tinyurl.com/m5jcj6f

      • gutenburg

        When I asked about the 1876 Lewis County record several years ago I was told that the specimen is not extent and that Coues (or any other eminent naturalist) never saw it. People seemed to think that it was a leucistic Ruffed Grouse. Of course it seems to me that Lewis County would be one of the counties most likely to have such a bird (Northern Wheatear several years ago) with Jefferson perhaps being the most likely. So there are doubts about the 1876 record but it may have been correct.

    • Thanks Ben, we updated the article to reflect these sightings.

      • Benjamin Griffith

        Oddly the Maine Bird Records Committee website doesn’t seem to list the 1990 record

  • Peter Vickery

    Regarding Maine, there are five documented records:

    1892:
    Both Knight (1908) and Palmer (1949) listed one record, “a male in winter plumage was shot on April 23, 1892, at
    Kenduskeag, Penobscot County.” (Palmer
    1949:171), which was initially reported by Merrill (1982: Auk 9:300).

    1951:
    One taken in Sherman Mills, 19 May 1951; this bird was in the possession of a local woodsman.

    1977:
    One photographed on Bailey Is., Harpswell, ME, 14 May 1977 (J Pierson, PK Donahue, ph.).

    1990:
    One female in Brooks, ME, This bird is in the collection at
    the state museum in Augusta, where it was photographed, 1 Oct 2002.

    2000: One photographed on Great Chebeague Island,
    Cumberland, 16 May, 2000, possibly present 10 days earlier. This bird remained to 3 June 2000 (NAB 54(3):261; NAB 54(4):360).

    Best, Peter Vickery, Richmond, ME

    • Thanks Peter, we’ll revise the article.

  • Bob

    What is the view of the bird from land and not in a kayak?

  • Louis Bevier

    What a fantastic bird! The Maine Bird Records Committee lists the records from our state and updates/corrects some of the localities and dates given by Peter Vickery (e.g. the Sherman Mills locality is an error): Willow Ptarmigan records in Maine
    A key publication, Applegate 1996, is linked there so that others can read it. We have 7 post-Audubon records (none yet reviewed!). Most are specimens or photographed birds, and all but one report in the past 125 years comes from mid-late April through May. So the NY bird fits right into that pattern. The single Massachusetts record, long disregarded as an escapee, is 10 May 1859, so also in spring. Recent north shore of Lake Ontario record, e.g. Darlington, Canada, was June. The Applegate paper suggests some possible reasons for the pattern. — Louis Bevier, chair Maine Bird Records Committee