These are willow ptarmigan (Lagopus lagopus), a non-migratory grouse that lives in the open tundra and moorland of Scotland, Scandanavia, Siberia, Canada and Alaska.
Willow ptarmigan are masters of disguise. In summer they are brown and speckled like the vegetation they eat and hide in. In winter they molt into white plumage to match the snow, and between the seasons they’re brown and white like patchy snow and dirt. Willow ptarmigan have to be well camouflaged because so many predators eat them including foxes, wolves, owls, peregrines and gyrfalcons.
How did willow ptarmigans get their name?
“Willow” comes from what they eat in winter: the twigs and buds of willows and alders.
“Ptarmigan” comes from the Gaelic word “tarmachan” which means to grumble or croak and describes the sound these birds make. Tarmachan has no “P” but in the late 17th century somebody put a P at the front of the word to make it look Greek and scientific. By the early 19th century the P stuck and became the accepted spelling of the word.
Did you find three birds in this picture? If so, you probably followed their tracks. Ptarmigan know their tracks are a dead giveaway so they sometimes fly directly to a hiding place and burrow into the snow. Then it’s really hard to find them and you’ll certainly be wondering, “Where’s Willow?”
(photo by Ansgar Walk from Wikimedia Commons. Click on the photo to see the original where you can also see wing marks in the snow.)