Skye bird guide to Ptarmigan – an elusive but beguiling upland species

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

Well camouflaged ptarmigan

Well camouflaged ptarmigan

Ptarmigan is definitely a species that “leggers” – who go to where the birds are to be found – have an advantage over “arsers” who sit in and wait for the birds to come to them!  First, find yourself a decent sized hill with a mix of rocks and vegetation on its summit slopes.  In south Skye, near to where Springbank self-catering holiday cottage is located in Elgol, the Red Cuillin Hills are good candidates as are the the Kylerhea hills.

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 Skyebirds.com which collates all 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 although can result in you seeing more birds than you thought were there because they are so well hidden.

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 well-known sites 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!