Young Birder Ptarmigan Hike to Illal Mtn - August 19/18

A preview of what's to come, plus a fun fact: White-tailed Ptarmigan or (Snow Quails) are the smallest bird in the grouse family...

Adult White-tailed Ptarmigan on Illal Mtn - Photo: Melissa Hafting

1 of the 5 White-tailed Ptarmigans we ended up seeing on this trip! This one is a chick - Photo: Melissa Hafting

If you have followed my blog and my young birder trips, you would know that White-tailed Ptarmigan is the BC Young Birder group's nemesis bird! Over the years I have led 9 hikes all over the province looking for them with the kids. I have seen them on my own or with other adults but when I would take the youth we would constantly dip.Well except for a trip Liron and I did where we saw an all white bird in winter.  

So this time I made a promise to myself that I would get the youth their ptarmigan. They are never easy birds at any location but I was determined to try. I researched for months where was my best chance. Last year we did Whistler, Mt. Cheam and Flatiron/Needle Peak, all places where others got Ptarmigan especially the latter. However, Needle Peak was a tough hike and it didn't work out for us last time, so I wanted to try something different. Also, it is always cool to show the kids a new peak! I ruled out Mt. Cheam and Whistler for the high amount of people traffic on the weekend. I wanted to go to a hard to access mountain where hikers regularly see Ptarmigan; but a hike that we could all physically do, since I had 13 year olds and first time hikers on the trip.

So after extensive research on the internet and talking to my friend Alan Burger who hikes this mtn often; I decided to take the kids up to Illal Mountain. This mountain is located past Hope in the Coquihalla Range. This hike is over 16 km round trip, if you don't have a 4 wd but we were lucky enough to have a 4wd and we were able to drive down a very rough spur road to get to the trail head. When we got to the parking lot we were greeted by a Columbian Ground-Squirrel. Bears are in the area, so we carried bear spray but the only sign of bears we saw that day was their scat. We hiked up to Illal Meadows but on the way up ,in the steeper forested section, we had an American Three-toed Woodpecker and a Pine Grosbeak as highlights. As we crossed the shale ridge we had a few Pikas "eeapping" at us! I love their cute sounds. We enjoyed picking delicious wild blueberries, the whole way up. Illal Mtn is famous with back-country hikers for its delicious blueberries.

One of the yummy blueberries in Adam's hand - Photo: Adam Dhalla

We couldn't smell smoke in the air (we sure could in Hope) but the air was more heavy and it was very hazy that our visibility out towards the other peaks wasn't great. We took many breaks and ascended slowly since your lungs need to work harder in those conditions. As we climbed out of the trees into the meadows, we saw quite a few Clark's Nutcrackers. 

The kids were busy chatting away sharing their summer experiences. Bridget had just returned from Long Point's Young Birder Workshop in ONT and she went with fellow young birder Isaac from Kamloops. It was so great to hear about all the birds she saw like a Prairie Warbler. Then Sasha just got back from Beaverhill Bird Observatory's Young Birder Workshop in AB and she told us about all the cool birds she banded including Canada Warblers. Plus Cole just got back from a VENT young birder camp in AZ and he was telling us about all the awesome birds he saw like Five-striped Sparrows. Ian was supposed to be on this trip but he got accepted to a young birder photography workshop in Ecuador with fellow young birder Liam from Victoria, and they got to shoot a jaguar (you can see Ian's incredible photo HERE). So he wasn't too sad haha!. Luckily Ian had seen his lifer ptarmigan with Liron on Flatiron in June. Adam had just returned from Japan and Australia and he was telling us how hot it was and the cool birds and animals he saw!. Katya had just done a family trip to Mt Rainier where she saw her lifer Ptarmigan; so she told me she would do her best to spot one for us :).

The chatting helped us to pass the time and get through the final grunt before we reached the beautiful meadows. We stopped to admire the landscape. We looked at all the wildflowers like Indian Paintbrush. Since I have done so many alpine hikes with the young birders, one of them - Bridget kindly bought me an alpine wildflower book, which I constantly reference! Thank you Bridget.

The beautiful landscape of Illal Meadows - Photo: Bridget Spencer

1 of many alpine lakes near Illal Peak - Photo: Bridget Spencer

When we reached the alpine meadows, we sat down for lunch between two pretty lakes. Here we saw a Baird's Sandpiper. It turned out to be one of 2 we actually saw!. Baird's Sandpipers tend to migrate over alpine lakes, so it isn't as strange as you would think. 2 weeks ago Alan had a Western Sandpiper in the same spot (which is rarer) and on nearby Flatiron Mtn, which we could see from Illal Mtn my friend Ben had an Upland Sandpiper (rarer still) in July.

1 of 2 Baird's Sandpipers we saw at Illal Meadows - Photos: Bridget Spencer

Katya the ptarmigan spotter sitting by the lake - Photo: Melissa Hafting

Well after lunch there was no time to waste! We were on a mission and we searched all the lower meadows in a long line of 8 of us spreading out everywhere. There was just so much (too much) suitable habitat!

Bridget looking for Ptarmigan - Photo: Melissa Hafting

Young Birders (Bridget, Katya and Sasha) looking for Ptarmigan! - Photo: Melissa Hafting
Adam getting ready to search for Ptarmigan! - Photo: Melissa Hafting

We saw American Pipits, Northern Harriers, Savannah ,Chipping and White-crowned Sparrows but no Ptarmigan. We did find a threatened Western Toad in the meadows though, which was cool! 

A threatened Western Toad at Illal Meadows - Photo: Melissa Hafting

We climbed around and went up the ridge of Illal Mtn and we found Hoary Marmots and Chipmunks and more Pikas but no fancy chickens!!. We searched for hours and people were getting tired some were probably thinking we weren't going to see one ...yet again. I felt that this time we would be lucky, it just was a gut feeling and I wasn't going to give up yet. After what seemed to be forever Katya spotted Ptarmigan and screamed it out and we had to rush around collecting kids who were scattered along the ridge of Illal Mtn. We got everyone together and I actually started crying. They were tears of joy but I just couldn't hold it in. After 9 bloody hikes we had finally found our "golden goose." All the kids gave me so many hugs I fell over, it was just a wonderful moment in my life that I don't think we will ever forget. I had told the kids in the morning that if we found the Ptarmigan today I would cry and if we were successful I would get down on my knees and kiss the ground and I kept that promise! Haha. The kids tried to turn one into a Rock Ptarmigan but it just couldn't be done. They joked and asked me where my next Ptarmigan hike will be with them?! I said I'm done I'm too old for this! I joked with them that they will never get me on a mountain again, since I fulfilled my promise. I just love these kids though, so they probably could convince me again.

Ptarmigan Hen on Illal Peak - Photo: Melissa Hafting

A White-tailed Ptarmigan sure blends into its surroundings! - Photo: Melissa Hafting

4 White-tailed Ptarmigan Chicks on the ridge of Illal Mtn - Photos: Melissa Hafting

It was a lifer for almost all of the youth except for Cole and Katya but they were no less excited! They were enjoying looking at their unique feathered feet. It was so special to be there with them as they got this bird. I was very grateful to Ilya for all the help he gave me for supervising the kids on the mountain and helping me immensely. As we were lying down watching these White-tailed Ptarmigan they suddenly began to multiply! First Katya had seen 2 and we were so bloody excited our teary eyes couldn't focus too well I guess, because then Bridget counted 4. After about 30 mins when I was looking at them I counted 5!!! It was just more joy added to an already immensely joyful occasion. The alpine ground we lay on was extremely uncomfortable and we were being bit by horseflies despite spraying with DEET but we didn't dare move because the Ptarmigan chicks began clucking and walking right up in front of our faces! I know people say they aren't too smart but they sure are lucky we didn't want to eat them! We could have reached out and touched them. We watched them for a solid hour. The adult female was clucking and watching over her young and feeding but the young were jumping around and eating and doing dust baths. It was very cute! We watched them for a full hour and then I reluctantly said we had to go. 

Josh, Bridget and Sasha photographing the 5 Ptarmigan we found!! - Photo: Melissa Hafting

Ilya, Adam and Katya shooting the Ptarmigan that walked right up to them and had a dust bath - Photo: Melissa Hafting

Josh and Bridget totally aghast at seeing Ptarmigan so close on Illal Ridge - Photo: Melissa Hafting

We had to get down the mountain before dark but it sure was hard for the kids to pull themselves away from these fancy chickens...but they all got amazing pictures and a lifer and incredible experience so they were so happy. I still will never forget their amazing infectious smiles when they first saw the bird. When we were about to leave Cole pointed out a raptor flying over us in the distance and we looked up and photographed it and we saw at once it was a Golden Eagle! It sure was a nice way to end a fantastic day. 

Golden Eagle soaring through the heavy wildfire smoke - Photo: Bridget Spencer

We had hiked all the way from the meadows up to the ridge of Illal Mtn and we had all finished our water so we found a nice stream and filled up our bottles with our water filter pump and added Iodine drops for added safety. Water never tasted so good! It was a nice warm day up there about 30 degrees C as a high and at the top of the mountain it was a bit windy but still warm, even though there was still some snow on the ground.

A pretty alpine stream in Illal Meadows that we got water that we used iodine drops with - Photo: Melissa Hafting

We climbed down in 1.5 hours (down is much easier than up) and the last bird we saw was a Sharp-shinned Hawk. Our total hike was 13.5 km with an approximately 800 m elevation gain.

Kids walking down the Mtn - Photo: Ilya Povalyaev

We got some dinner at Tim Hortons and went home with memories to last a lifetime. We were all very tired but happy after a very long day. We would all be sore tomorrow but that didn't matter anymore now that we had our golden chicken. I'm so grateful I was able to share this special day with this amazing group of people.

A group shot of all the youth on the lower shale ridge. Note that Josh is holding up the symbol 5!

Here is a full list of species we saw:

White-tailed Ptarmigan
Clark's Nutcracker
Northern Harrier
Baird's Sandpiper
Pine Grosbeak
American Three-toed Woodpecker
Wilson's Warbler
Orange-crowned Warbler
Yellow-rumped Warbler
Chestnut-backed Chickadee
Pine Siskin
Golden-crowned Kinglet
Steller's Jay
Savannah Sparrow
White-crowned Sparrow
Chipping Sparrow
Sharp-shinned Hawk
Dark-eyed Junco
American Robin
Red-breasted nuthatch
Red-tailed Hawk

Animals seen:

Columbian Ground-Squirrel
Western Toad
Yellow Pine Chipmunk
Red Squirrel
Hoary Marmot

Thanks for reading and sharing in our great day!


  1. Big congratulations! The class of 2018 will forever be remembered as the group that finally got the ptarmigan! Talk about perseverance!

    1. thanks Q. people have always told me i am relentless and never give up. i never will when i have a goal to achieve and i feel when you are working to help those you care about you just keep trying harder and harder and then it feels even more special when you attain that goal.

  2. I always enjoy reading about your young birder trips. Congratulations for finally leading them to the ptarmigan.

    1. thank you so much i'm really glad you like reading about our young birder trips. i try to give the unique experiences. there are so many beautiful places we can find in this province with just a little digging. seeing ptarmigan will always make me happy since they are always hard work which makes it so much more rewarding!

  3. Great write-up of a great hike. Congratulations to all the young birders who finally saw their ptarmigan. They sure put a lot of effort in to the search on Illal and previously, so it was well deserved. And of course, much credit to you for organizing so many ptarmigan ptreks for the group. The photo of Josh, Bridget and several ptarmigan in the background demonstrates just how cryptic and hard to find they can be.

    1. thanks ilya you really helped me on this trip and the kids were so grateful you were there as well. many have passed on their thanks for your help during this hike. you are right the ptarmigan really do blend in so well a few times i looked at them and they disappeared. I had great difficulty re-finding them again. the kids really put in hard work traipsing all around the mountain and meadows and it's not exactly easy to walk in. how you did it with such a large pack i'll never know. you know what you mean to me and how much this meant so thank you.

  4. What a great experience for these young birders and for you! keep up the good work.

    1. thank you so much john! that means a lot! hope all is well with you !

  5. So rewarding to finally find them. Even better seeing how cooperative they were! Almost as good is that we won't have to rent another 4WD car for a hike again. ;)

    1. thanks B it was really rewarding indeed. i'm so glad we were able to reschedule this hike so you could take part. it just wouldn't be the same without you bridge! i hope we never have to rent another 4wd tank again it is always an eventful ride isn't it? at least you weren't in the air this time ;) haha

  6. Wow, what a fantastic day and experience. So inspiring to read and proud of you and your group. Fabulous account and pictures. And makes me want to be able to try to see one too.

    1. thank you so much i'm really touched by your nice words. I hope you get to see one soon you can always email me for some helpful tips. there are in fact some places in the usa that you can drive much closer to them and do a shorter hike than we can here.

    2. Just checked out Ian's Jaguar photo. Pretty incredible. What an experience!

    3. Yah I know what an incredible sighting he had a once in a lifetime opportunity! They are stunning Animals!.

  7. Replies
    1. thanks len really appreciate your kind words. thanks for reading!

  8. What a terrific adventure -- how lucky that all of you got to see such beautiful vistas and your "fancy chicken". Great work Melissa, your due diligence and research found the magic spot. Sounds like those young birders will be sharing that day for some time to come.
    Congrats to all.

    1. thank you so much peter. I always appreciate your unending support of the young birders and i. i agree it will be a day none of us will ever forget. thanks again for the congrats it means a lot.

  9. Thank you so much for organizing and leading this amazing day! I enjoyed every second of it. Great summary of the adventure. A really enjoyable read.

    1. Thanks Cole! thank you so much for coming! wouldn't have been the same without you. it was a truly magical day!!! looking forward to seeing your pics.

  10. Congrats on finding 5 ptarmigan! Sounds like a great trip!

  11. Wow, so happy for you and the young birders! Nothing but respect and joy!

  12. A wonderful account of a fantastic journey for you and your young birders group. How exciting to find such a rare bird in the meadows of that mountain. Congratulations on your Ptarmigan hunt - a successful one for all.

    1. thank you so much sandy! i am grateful to you and the bc birding community for always supporting these fantastic kids! it was spectacular to see this lovely little cryptic bird family!

    2. Thanks so much for the fantastic day mel! Can't believe we saw 5 Ptarmigan! Unforgettable trip :D :D :D

    3. It sure was adam! Thanks so much for coming I'll never forget that special day!

  13. Congrats on the ptarmigan it sounds like a fantastic trip! great photos too, their camouflage feather patterns are amazing.

    1. Thanks Isaac I wish you could have been there. I'm so glad to hear you had a fantastic time in long Point can't wait for the full trip report! Cheers

  14. Congrats everyone!!!!!!! Sounds like you guys had an amazing trip!!
    Great photos everyone!

    1. thanks viktor wish you and marnix could have joined us! i still need to get those books to you so we should connect soon!


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