Fragmented and isolated on the very fringe of their breeding range in Scotland, the few pairs of Ptarmigan that are suspected to prevail on the highest tops of the Isle of Mull really are very special in nature. Unlikely to be encountered below 2,000 feet, it is only the hardiest birdwatcher and earnest hillwalker that are likely to catch a glimpse of one of the island’s population of White Grouse. As a consequence of their remoteness to the average birdwatcher, Ptarmigan are rarely seen and those that are (by hillwalkers) are not necessarily reported. Not everyone who ascends the summits of Mull’s hills are birdwatchers and, even then, not every birdwatcher is aware of the significance a sighting of a Ptarmigan on the island may hold.
There are an estimated 10,000 pairs of these Mountain Grouse scattered among the high peaks and summits of Scottish mountains, with the greatest density being in the Cairngorms. Small numbers cling on in the Inner Hebrides (on Skye and Mull) and, perhaps, still on the Isle of Arran. These island communities are, indeed, out on a limb and, with the species’ well-documented cyclic fluctuations, could be in imminent risk of local extinction. Indeed, Ornithologists in the late 19th Century predicted that Ptarmigan on the Isle of Mull would soon be a thing of the past. However, these are not Britain’s hardiest birds for nothing and a small population has successfully managed to maintain a toe-hold on the island for the past 100 years.
At Mull Magic, Ptarmigan have become a bit of an obsession and we would very much like to get to grips with Mull’s population. Whenever we can, we like nothing better than to head to the hills, in the hope that we may encounter what we often lovingly refer to as Mull’s Mythical White Grouse. We know that they are out there and just waiting to be seen! If anybody reading this blog has seen Ptarmigan on the island, we would be delighted to hear from you. That way, we will greatly increase our chances of catching up with Mull’s birds before, as climate change insists, they do become a part of the island’s natural HISTORY! That’s if the expanding number of local White-tailed Eagles don’t get them first. Normally thought of as potential prey for Golden Eagles, it seems that the Isle of Mull’s White-tailed Eagles are also partial to Ptarmigan for tea and are getting in on the act!
We find Ptarmigan (with a silent ‘P’) to be absolutely fascinating, if normally shy and secretive birds. For this, they rely heavily on their cryptically camouflaged plumage, which the birds moult seasonally to blend in with the changes in their Arctic-Alpine hill top environment. As the landscape of the mountain changes, so does the birds’ colour! The grey plumage of this Spring male (below) is splashed with white feathering, which will allow it to merge almost seamlessly in to a background of lichen-stained boulders and patches of unmelted snow. Late snowfall is not usually a problem on the Isle of Mull, so it would be interesting to note whether the island’s Ptarmigan population have an earlier moult sequence compared to those birds that are resident on higher mainland hills.
Living all-year-round in what can be an extremely cold and hostile environment, Ptarmigan have evolved several adaptations in order to cope with life on top of Scotland’s highest mountains. Like the comical Puffin, that lives out it's life at or close to sea level, the montane Ptarmigan sheds it's beak seasonally. Whereas the Puffin’s elaborate adornment is used for courtship purposes, perhaps the grouse does so in order to take advantage of seasonally available food. As well as having a densely-packed layer of insulating feathers, which protects their bodies from the harsh reality of inclement weather , these Mountain Grouse also have feathered feet and toes. These avian snowshoes, not only keep the bird’s toes warm, but also allow them to walk more steadily on the snow and ice. If you can imagine a pair of sheep’s wool-lined Ugg boots crossed with a set of crampons then we think you’ll get the idea!