Spotting willow ptarmigan in the snow is much more of a challenge, as you typically only see them once they flush. However, fresh sign can lead you directly to a flock—despite their superb winter camouflage, ptarmigan still leave tracks in the snow. Follow those while scanning ahead, and you’ll likely see a flicker of movement revealing a loose covey of birds.
Move cautiously so you can get close and pick out an individual bird; its black eyes, beak or tail feathers will give it away against the brilliant white backdrop. Note that inexperienced ptarmigan can at times be reluctant to flush, even after a volley of shots have been fired. So be prepared for follow-up shot opportunities and unexpected late-flushing birds. This is particularly true of larger groups of ptarmigan feeding or loafing in brushy cover during a sunny midday.
When I’m stalking ptarmigan on foot, I’ve typically already seen them and I’m merely trying to close the distance. If I spot or flush birds while on my snowmobile, I’ll stop and make a mental note of where they flew to. But before following them, I’ll first walk into the area they flushed from—often, half the flock will still be there and I’ll get in some shots. Then I’ll return to my sled and go after the flushed birds—and round two of some wild winter wingshooting.
Hunting guide Adrian Skok spends a lot of time in Canada’s north country.