Willow Ptarmigan at Darlington Nuclear on Lake Ontario

Male Willow Ptarmigan at Darlington Nuclear on Lake Ontario on 12 June 2011

On 8 June 2011, a molting male Willow Ptarmigan was found by Jeff Reid and photographed by Wayne Holroyd at Darlington Nuclear Station east of Oshawa. In order for many to see it, Susan Bragg and John Peters in the Environmental Assessment Department of Ontario Power Generation (OPG) arranged with Brian Henshaw of Beacon Environmental for birders to visit the site on Sunday 12 June 2011. The Willow Ptarmigan was seen by about 150 birders and put on a great show.


Eight of us went to the site ahead of the main group to find the ptarmigan. Adele Labbe's sharp eyes first located it about 7:00 a.m. as it rested under an aspen outside a fence. It was observed eating Trembling Aspen leaves.


After everyone was bussed to the site, Brian gently encouraged the ptarmigan under the fence into full view of 150 birders. It did not fly during the several minutes it was in view, and resumed eating shortly after returning to the other side of the fence.


12 June 2011. The fully feathered feet are evident in the photo above and act as snowshoes, which is an adaptation to their snowy winter habitat. Ptarmigan molt their foot feathers in midsummer when the toes appear bare for a short time. Michel Gosselin of the Canadian Museum of Nature said about the Darlington bird "There is a bit more white than average at this date, but it is not surprising for a bird which is outside its normal breeding and photoperiod area." At first we thought it was a first year male or an adult that had not acquired full summer plumage.


OPG provided a bus from the Visitor Information Centre to the secure site where the ptarmigan was.


Birders lined up in anticipation.


It was a great success and everyone was happy to see this bird from the tundra.


Ptarmigan Notes and History

In Ontario, Willow Ptarmigan breed mainly on the Hudson Bay Coast, but the Darlington bird is unlikely from Ontario's relatively small population found mostly on the tundra strip close to Hudson Bay. Ptarmigan have not been seen even in the Moosonee area at the south end of James Bay for about 20 years, and ptarmigan did not irrupt south last winter in northern Ontario.

In contrast, Quebec has a huge breeding population because that province extents much farther north than Ontario. Ptarmigan irrupt irregularly south to the Lac-Saint-Jean area and north shore of the St. Lawrence River. Last winter, 2010-2011, there was a very large irruption of Willow Ptarmigan and even a few Rock Ptarmigan into south-central Quebec. The Darlington Willow Ptarmigan is likely an extreme overshoot or possibly a migrant that went the wrong way following last winter's irruption. Darlington is directly south of Quebec. A Willow Ptarmigan that hit a building in downtown Quebec City in March 2009 was thought to be a migrant going south instead of returning north (fide Michel Gosselin). Remarkably, there was a spring specimen taken near Whitby close to Darlington on 15 May 1897 following a large irruption in the winter of 1896-1897. This specimen is in the Royal Ontario Museum. We will be examining its molt hoping for insights about the plumage of the Darlington bird.

The Willow Ptarmigan is a migratory grouse. It is thought that big irruptions occur when populations are high causing them to move farther south into the boreal forest than usual.

Selected Historical Occurrences: Willow Ptarmigan occurred in the thousands some winters at Quebec City during Champlain's time in the 1600s and they were regular south to Montreal into the 1800s. Overall numbers are either smaller now or they are not wintering as far south or both. Some other reports in southern Ontario include Whitby and Welcome near Lake Ontario, Whitchurch just north of Toronto, and Bob Curry (2006) in the Birds of Hamilton cites a record by the legendary George North on 8 December 1945. Godfrey (1986) in the Birds of Canada cites a record from just north of Ottawa at Chelsea, Quebec. This record is now considered an error because there is no documentation on file in the Canadian Museum of Nature (Michel Gosselin, pers. comm.).



Ontario Power Generation: We are indebted to Susan Bragg, John Peters and Chris Wood of the Environmental Department at Darlington Nuclear who organized today's viewing. Special thanks are extended to Bev Forget in Public Affairs, the OPG Security team, OPG Operations and OPG Management Team.


Beacon Environmental: Brian Henshaw, Adele Labbe and Ron Huizer strategically planned how 150 birders would see the bird well.