A ptarmigan in Bethel on April 17, 2021.
© Danny Nelson
A ptarmigan in Bethel on April 17, 2021.
Hunters along the lower Kuskokwim River have been reporting an abundance of ptarmigan this year after a relative dearth of the birds in years prior. But whether that's because there really are more ptarmigan — or if people are just seeing more — is unclear.

Hunting ptarmigan in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta has been relatively easy this year, compared to the last few years.

"This year we've got lot of ptarmigan all over," said Daniel Nelson, an elder who lives in Napakiak. "They were kind of declining in number, you know. The past two or three years I'd go ptarmigan hunting and I'd barely see some, just a few flocks. Most of the time I get home with nothing, but this year I return with average of 12 ptarmigan per trip."

Neither the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service nor the Alaska Department of Fish and Game track the number of ptarmigan in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta. However, state biologist Phillip Perry said that based on his own experience and what people are telling him, ptarmigan sightings are much more common this year than in the past five or six years.

"People are telling me, 'Wow, there's a bunch around this year, I'm doing really well,'" Perry said.

Many people are connecting the increased sighting of the birds to the weather this winter.

"I think it's due to more snow this year," said Maxine Gray, who lives in Kasigluk. "The last few springs, because of the rain and the lack of snow, I've heard that they were harder to find."

The amount of snow impacts ptarmigan in a number of ways, like helping the birds stay warm to survive the winter.

"They do this thing called snow roosting," Perry said. "They'll go down in the snow, and then they're insulated away from, you know, cold, bitter temperatures."

And when there's less snow on the ground, Perry said that the white birds are more visible and more likely to be eaten by predators.

On the other hand, it could be that there are a similar number of ptarmigan in the Y-K Delta as years prior. Rick Merizon is the small game program coordinator for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. He said that the extra snow this year may just be pushing the ptarmigan down from the mountains into places where hunters normally look for them.

"Ptarmigan are a high elevation critter," Merizon said. "And typically they're pushed down to lower elevation only by the depth of the snow. So it buries up their food source, and they have to move somewhere to find food."

Merizon said that biologists in other parts of the state have observed ptarmigan traveling over 100 miles in a single season. He also said that if the ptarmigan population is actually larger this year than in years past, a bigger factor than this winter's snow would likely be last summer's weather. Warm, dry weather usually means more chicks survive to adulthood.

"You get these hot, dry, buggy, late Junes and July and gosh, we might have 80% chick survival," Merizon said.

Nelson in Napakiak said that he believes that last summer's weather conditions allowed ptarmigan chicks to thrive, and he said that will also mean more geese and ducks this season.

Merizon said that the Alaska Department of Fish and Game planned to conduct a survey of ptarmigan population numbers and movements last year, but with COVID-19 travel restrictions and budget cuts, that study has been postponed until spring of 2022.

For now, with the increased number of ptarmigan sightings this year, Gray in Kasigluk said that she's been enjoying more of the spring treat.

"I love it. My grandma made it all the time. It's just something we grew up on. And it's, you know, it makes me think of spring," Gray said. "I like to dry it. It seems to be the favorite. It's chewy, it's got a distinct flavor. A little more gamier than dried moose, and it's really good with seal oil."

The snow is melting along the Kuskokwim River. With that, Warren Nicolai, a hunter in Bethel, said that he's starting to see flocks of ptarmigan migrate to the coast.