Laura rounded the bend near the spruce-bark-beetle clearing and stopped dead in her tracks. I nearly collided with her back. Oh dear, I thought, what does Laura see?!
Instead of backing away in fear, Laura motioned for me to hurry up and look. "Quick, before she flies away! It's a ptarmigan in the trail!"
Sure enough, a brown ball of feathers was blocking our path, but she was not flying away. She was lowering one wing to the ground like an aggressive chicken and sashaying toward us.
Laura and I looked at each other. "Something's not right with this ptarmigan," Laura summarized.
We knew it couldn't hurt us, but an animal without fear is unnerving. Can ptarmigans get rabies?
Suddenly, a train of three peeping fluff-balls tumbled across the trail, from the higher, forested side to the lower, mossy patch. Their backs were striped to blend in with shadows from spruce bows, and their feet were so small they got caught in the sphagnum. The mother's strange behavior made sense: she was being a crossing guard!
|Bobbing across the trail.|
A frantic peeping wove through the bushes on the high side of the trail, and the fourth straggling chick emerged to join its siblings. Mama gave us the sideways-eye of a prey species (if you don't know what I'm talking about, stand on a porch above a flock of hens, lean over the railing, and watch them turn one side of their head straight up) and allowed us to pass. We happily watched the family amble through the underbrush. They sabotaged our 19-minute goal.
That night, I texted Laura's photos to my bird-verifier, Thomas, who politely pointed out that our "ptarmigan" was a spruce grouse. Makes sense, since our forest is 95% spruce, and ptarmigans live in tundra!
|This photo was taken with no zoom to show how close Mama got to me.|
|When she made eye contact, I got the sense she was both intelligent and confident, entirely committed to her role of protector.|
Five days later, I was clearing grass and blueberry bushes with a scythe when an indignant clucking interrupted my whacking. There, in the trail, stood Mama. This time, I watched for an hour as she strutted along a sunny log and her chicks dust-bathed in the middle of the path.
|"This root is the perfect size for me!"|
|Look at those furry legs!|
|They'll become nicely feathered shanks, like Mama's.|
|This sun makes me sleepy...|
Later that afternoon, as I finished the other side of the loop trail, the family emerged again! They had taken a short-cut through the forest. What draws them to the trail, I don't know, but I think the blueberries have something to do with it:
The next installment in the spruce grouse saga came yesterday, when I surprised the mother by coming around a bend too quickly, and she returned the surprise by flying within inches of my face, claws outstretched. Sorry, Mama!
This time, the family was spread out on an open slope beneath the mountain hemlocks. I counted the chicks, anxious that all four might not have survived the week, but my total came to FIVE. Props, Mama. Keep up the excellent work.
|Crossing guard extraordinaire.|