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Story Last modified at 8:39 p.m. on Wednesday, January 26, 2011

We all conserve energy on cold, January days

Frank E. Baker

The ridge between Baldy Mountain and Blacktail Rocks had been swept clear of snow by winds during past weeks, exposing tundra and rocks. The temperature was slightly above zero as I walked slowly along the ridge, pulling the balaclava over my face to keep my nose warm.

As I approached the base of Blacktail Rocks I spotted two, softball-sized white balls. The balls were immobile, each in front of rocks that were in direct sunlight. At first I thought the balls were snow, but on closer examination – 10 feet away – I saw the black eyes and detected slight movement. They were willow ptarmigan. I've seen plenty of ptarmigan in the wild, but I don't think I've ever seen their feathers fluffed out that far. They were perfect, round balls.

Like other over-wintering birds, ptarmigan fluff their feathers to trap warm air from their bodies, comparable to getting inside a down sleeping bag. The more heat they preserve, the less food they have to consume. I moved even closer and realized that the birds were very content where they were, benefitting from a few degrees of heat from the sun radiating off the rocks.

I walked farther along the ridge and found my own place in the sun in front of a rock that was definitely capturing some solar heat. It actually felt about 10 degrees warmer in that sheltered spot. I then put on my down coat, fluffing my feathers so to speak, and enjoyed a leisurely lunch with a nice view of Meadow Creek Valley. Since I don't have insulating feathers on my feet like the ptarmigan, three layers of socks inside my boots seemed to do the job.

According to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game Wildlife Notebook Series, ptarmigan are nomadic in winter, moving erratically from one sheltered slope or patch of food to another from November to March. The birds are quite sociable in winter and usually feed and roost in the snow close together. When snow covers the ground, willow ptarmigan eat willow buds, willow twigs, and a little birch.

I've never witnessed this myself, but I have read that in very extreme cold, ptarmigan will burrow beneath the snow to preserve heat. One tale relates how a trapper in the interior came upon small puffs of steam rising from the snow and as he approached on snowshoes, the snow erupted with the wing beats of ptarmigan.

More from Fish and Game: All ptarmigan nest on the ground soon after the snow melts. Hens usually lay six to 10 eggs, which are incubated for three weeks. Hatching takes place in late June and early July throughout Alaska. The male willow ptarmigan stays with the family and doesn't hesitate to defend the brood, but male white-tails and rock ptarmigan leave the care of chicks entirely to hens. The chicks grow with amazing speed. They can get off the ground only nine to 10 days after hatching and fly well when they get their first full set of flight feathers at eight to 10 weeks of age.

Packing up for the hike home, I thought: everything in nature is about conservation –-conserving energy, warmth and food. Whether we're conscious of it or not, we continuously emulate the wilderness denizens by the way we heat and insulate our homes, how we dress and nourish our bodies. We're not nearly as efficient at this as the land's wild creatures, but with advances in technology and outdoor apparel over the years, we seem to be getting better.

But every time I spot wildlife in the depth of winter I'm humbled. That afternoon I was headed home to a warm fireplace and a cup of hot coffee. The ptarmigan were spending the night, and many nights to come.

On my way back the pair was huddled in the same spot--still in the sun.

"Stay warm," I said softly, pulling the balaclava up over my face.

Frank E. Baker is a lifelong Alaskan and is currently a freelance writer.

This article published in The Alaska Star on Wednesday, January 26, 2011.