Several winters ago I found myself in Colorado just a stone's throw from Guanella Pass. This location - aaccording to Holt's A Birder's Guide to Colorado--was the best one in winter to find white-tailed ptarmigan (Lagopus leucurus), a grouse-like bird which had thwarted my every attempt at seeing it. Despite the fact I had lived three years in Colorado well prior to this occasion, frustratingly, I had not encountered this alpine specialist.
A few miles below the pass, wind-driven wisps of snow were leaping horizontally from the mountain top; a poor omen if there ever was one. Upon arriving at the saddle, I was met by an estimated 80 M.P.H. wind and fairly limited visibility. This was the only available time during this trip and so began a careful search for tiny black dots - ptarmigan eyes - among the dwarf willows. The eyes and bills would be nearly the only visible clues to the presence of the birds, they being entirely snow-white during winter. It was not to be on this day.
Three ptarmigan (p is silent) species inhabit North America but rock and willow ptarmigans are strictly Canadian tundra birds. Only white-tailed ptarmigan reaches into the U.S., and then only at or above timberline down the spine of the Rocky Mountains from Alaska into northern New Mexico. Seeing them is never easy. Dunne writes the bird "spends a great deal of time imitating a rock." Equally cautious is Holt, "This bird is not easy to find, being one of nature's best camouflaged creatures..." For me, then, there has always been a mysterious allure surrounding this will-o-the-wisp creature which inhabits the rarefied air of mountain ridges.
Also found in this alpine tundra zone is another bird species which I had yet to encounter: Black rosy finch (Leucosticte atrata). Three of the world's rosy finch species are confined to North American mountains, the other four are Asian birds. Until 1993, science had lumped them all together into a rosy finch super species. Genetic and other differences, however, were enough to separate them into the individual species we recognize today.
Similar to the ptarmigans, rosy finches had become this hard-to-reach, transcendental, nearly mystical bird for me. Johnson, in Birds of North America Online (subscription only) writes, "Black Rosy-Finches are among the least studied of North American birds because of the inaccessibility of their alpine habitat generally and their nest sites on cliffs in particular."
As luck would have it, I had seen gray-crowned and brown-capped rosy finches prior to this summer, leaving only the black one on my North American trifecta list. Also like the ptarmigans, this was a species I had tried and failed to see in the past.
My luck would change in early August when I drove to Colorado to visit a friend who was occupying a condo in Vail. Prior to meeting up with him I spent the night in Estes Park, the doorstep to Rocky Mountain National Park, another easily accessible location well known for white-tailed ptarmigan sightings. Early the next morning I weaved through breathtaking mountainous scenery before parking my vehicle at an alpine turnoff. This time it was easy. I walked no more than 200 feet along a tundra trail when a clucking bird gave away its location. There, not 20 feet away, sat a beautiful male white-tailed ptarmigan in his late-summer gray-brown drab.
Some days later I joined my wife and daughter in southwest Montana for a few nights at Big Sky Resort. A celebrated spot for black rosy finches is the Beartooth Plateau straddling the Montana/Wyoming border. When it came time to depart from the ladies after a few days, I made a beeline for this alpine zone on my way back home. This one took a heart-pounding, heavy-breathing, thin air walk of some effort after parking at a high altitude pulloff. At the edge of a glacier, though, I heard the sound of calling rosy finches and soon located a juvenile bird accompanied by an adult. Nice.
There are birds with very large ranges and very general habitat requirements, such as great horned owl. The ones occupying narrowly defined niches, though, seem to represent a class of "grail" birds, more sought after than the rest. These are the ones that don't come to you, you must go to them. Whether it's the few counties in the Texas hill country where golden-cheeked warblers nest or the tiny area where whooping cranes nest in Canada, tightly defined ranges become go-to spots for birders everywhere. Alpine tundra represents just such a small zone. White-tailed ptarmigans and black rosy finches await those willing to enter it.