Rock Ptarmigans (Lagopus muta) are a gorgeous alpine species that has been
heavily threated recently by factors like global warming, enlargement of ski runs, human disturbance, hunting and lost of habitat. The populations are fragmented and located in the must inaccesible and glacial sides of Alps, so very hard to be find, expecially in the Dolomites.
I worked hard in order to see them during 4 different excursions in the Belluno province, walking in total about 50 km along the moutains and getting to observe them just once:
1) Lastoi de Formin
The range of this area, known as Prealpi Bellunesi, are the southern edge of the distribution of Ptarmigans in the Belluno province. They are very steepy mountains, with bad trails, usually not well signed, but this means less people around and more chances to encounter wildlife. The view from there range over the Cansiglio upland, the Alpago basin, the Santa Croce lake, the Belluno valley and the Dolomiti Bellunesi.
The grassy slopes are home of tens of Mouflons (Ovis orientalis), a species of sheep that was introduced in Europe from Middle East first in Corsica and Sardinia, in historical times, and recently in central Europe.
Unfortunately they were rather shy.
Other ungulates I spotted were 2 Alpine Chamois (Rupicapra rupicapra)…
…and 4 Roe Deers (Capreolus capreolus).
I couldn’t locate any Rock Ptarmigan, but I found a rather good passage of passerine on migration at the top saddle: few Rock Pipits, 1 White Wagtail, 5 Black Redstart, 45-50 Coal Tits (35 together in a flock!), 10 Blue Tits, 50 Chaffinches, 10 Bramblings, 2 Serins, 100 Siskins, 5 Goldfinches, 7 Linnets and 20 Crossbills.
Truly alpine species were 2 Black Grouses (in flight), 7-10 Alpine Accentors, 1 Crested Tit, 5 Willow Tits, 2 Ravens, 1 Alpine Chough and 2 Rock Buntings.
The area suitable for Rock Ptarmigans here was wide, with an extended plateau rich in flat rocks eroded by past glaciers, small glacial lakes and alpine pastures.
I couldn’t locate any Ptarmigan and the only birds I had at high altitudes were 1 Raven, 1-2 Alpine Chough and some beautiful Alpine Accentors (Prunella collaris).
4) Dolomiti di Sesto
This area, on the border with the Bolzano province, is one of the most spectacular of the Dolomites, with breath-taking peaks, deep valleys with lakes and glacial cirques now covered by snow.
Here, arrived at the right altitude, above tree line, I managed to locate 2 males of Rock Ptarmigan, well camouflaged even if completelly white in the plumage.
So I found that there were also a female with still few grey feathers making it almost invisible.
I could take just a couple of pictures…
…when I bloody large dog break into the scene, sending to fly the 3 birds!!
The leash is obligatory for every dog in pubblic places, but unfortunately, as usual in Italy, there are almost no controls to make the law respected.
Very frustrated, I stopped to have lunch: a ten of Alpine Choughs (Pyrrhocorax graculus) came to me hoping in some food.
So I tried again to recontact the Ptarmigans that had disapeared behind a hill.
Luckly I was sucessful.
To not disturb the birds I stayed with this pair just 5 minutes, but they were such exciting moments that I can’t describe by words.
In “snow ball version”.
And, after the male, the female.
The pair together.
The male pure white in the white: wow!!
Showing the “hare foot” (= lagos + pus).
The always mimetic female.
Last regards, before to disapear behind the saddle.
After this unforgetable time, short but long enough to fill the heart, I started the downhill.
On the way back, I spotted some more birds: 1 Wren, 1 Robin, 1 Blackbird, 5 Goldcrests, 20 Coal Tits, 10 Crested Tits, 5 Willow Tits, 1 Great Tit, 5 Blue Tits, 1 Nuthatch, 5 Common Treecreepers, 10 Spotted Nutcrackers, 2 Carrion crows, 2 Ravens, 1 Chaffinch, 80 Bramblings, 2 Siskins and 10 Crossbills.
Of course I couldn’t loose the last photo opportunities.