The Arctic grouse famed for its winter plumage
Information about Ptarmigan
Our Expert Says… "These cold-climate specialists are perfectly happy in low temperatures - their leg feathers reach all the way down their legs helping to keep them warm. They can be quite difficult to spot when their plumage is in its "mottled" state, but if we do spot them they will usually allow us to get quite close as they are not shy birds."
The rock ptarmigan (pronounced taar-muh-gn) is a member of the grouse family. In the UK and Canada, the “rock” is usually dropped from the name. The unusual name comes from the Scottish Gaelic word tarmachan (meaning “the croaker”). The silent “p” was added in the 1600s by a Scottish naturalist who was inspired by ancient greek!
Rock ptarmigans are around 35cm (14”) long with a wingspan of about 60cm (2ft). The species molts into a winter camouflage in the fall, with all-white feathers except for the tip of the tail which is black. It then molts again in spring into its brown summer plumage.
A non-migratory species, the rock ptarmigan can be found on rocky mountains and tundra throughout much of arctic and subarctic Europe, Eurasia, and North America, including on Greenland.
Young ptarmigans feed on insects, but adult birds eat mainly birch and willow buds in season and the seeds, leaves, and berries of other plants when the buds aren’t available. The population is thought to be stable, particularly as they tend to inhabit remote areas. They have few predators but are known to be a favorite prey of Golden Eagles.
Pictures of Ptarmigan
Highlights where the Ptarmigan can be seen
Arrival at Longyearbyen
The transport hub for Svalbard with the airport. Once just a mining town, it is now involved with tourism and scientific research and has various services, accommodation, shops and cafés, and some interesting museums.
There is also the chance to check out wildlife within town, including Snow Buntings and even reindeer, and to walk along the road through the mudflats to the dog kennels, dodging the Arctic Terns on route. There is an Eider colony next to the kennels and Barnacle Geese and other birds on the mudflats. If you are very lucky, you might see an Ivory Gull near the kennels.
Longyearbyen is the biggest settlement in Svalbard. Seat of the Norwegian administration, it also has the best services and infrastructure in the archipelago. Located deep in the Adventfjord, a sidearm of the Isfjorden (Icefjord), Longyearbyen’s airport can be used all-year round, but its harbor is blocked by ice in winter. Most shops, hotels, restaurants and a hospital are within easy walking distance of the port.
Disembark in Longyearbyen
Longyearbyen is the biggest settlement in Svalbard. Seat of the Norwegian administration, it also has the best services and infrastructure in the archipelago. Located deep in the Adventfjord, a sidearm of the Isfjorden (Icefjord), Longyearbyen’s airport can be used all-year round, but its harbor is blocked by ice in winter.
Most shops, hotels, restaurants and a hospital are within easy walking distance of the port. One of the most prominent buildings in town is the UNIS center, where several Norwegian universities have joined forces to operate and offer the northernmost higher education to both Norwegian and international students. Adjacent to UNIS, and well worth a visit, is the Svalbard Museum, covering the natural history and exploitation of Svalbard. Remnants of the former mining activity can be seen all around Longyearbyen and even in town.
A range of wildlife can be seen around the town and the mudflats on the road to the dog kennels. There is an Eider colony here and Ivory Gulls can sometimes be seen. If you can dodge the diving Arctic terns, the mudflats attract birds like Barnacle Geese, and a range of waterbirds and shorebirds that are scarce in other parts of Svalbard.
Sheer sided fjord on the south side of Milneland. Great ship cruising, often as part of the circumnavigation of Milneland.
Denmarkøya, on the south-east side of Milne Island, is the location of a group of small islands with landing potential at the end of Føhnfjord, at a position between the deeper fjord systems and the open ‘bay’ of Scoresbysund. The popular landing here is Hekla Havn, named after the expedition ship used by Carl Ryder when the expedition explored NE Greenland from 1891 to 92. As well as the hut remains from the expedition, there are older Innuit remains, as well as good tundra walks, wildlife, and some great geology.
North of the Arctic Circle and deep in the long Kangerlussuaq fjord, it was the site of a WWII airport, then for refuelling for trans-continental flights.
The airport and the fjord are used as pick-up and drop off for cruise ships exploring the remoter parts of west Greenland. There are few roads in Greenland, but a 25 km dirt road connects the town with the mighty ice cap. Nowhere else is there easier access to the Greenland ice cap. Area also good for caribou, Musk Ox (actually introduced to this part of Greenland), and to look out for White-tailed Eagles.
One of the most spectacular and most photographed fjords in Svalbard, and with all the pointed peaks it can be understood how Spitsbergen got its name. Very popular for the landing at Gravneset, with the whaler’s graveyard it is named after, with the remains of the blubber ovens from the whaling days.
The tundra is also great for plants and wildlife, from geese to Arctic Terns. Zodiac cruising is a great way to explore the rest of the fjord and to look out for wildlife that includes a huge Little Auk colony in the scree on the northern side (some quite close to the shore), and to look out for seals. As well as Ringed Seals and Bearded Seals there is a spot with Harbour Seals (the most northerly in the World?), and a site where Walrus haul on a sandy beach at the entrance of the fjord to the west of Gravneset. The Waggonwaybreen glacier has been retreating and ships can get quite close to witness carvings, a floating platform on the part of the open fjord that was covered by the glacier just a few years ago. Staff will always be on the lookout for bears that can turn up here.
Narsarsuaq & Qaqortoq
This area of deep fjords and lush scenery was probably the area where that the Vikings came up with the name of Greenland, and where first church in the New World was built.
Icebergs contrast with the verdant landscape that is great explore. Qaqortoq is South Greenland’s largest town with lots of colourful houses. It is also a good area to see White-tailed Eagles and other Greenland wildlfe.
Stunning narrow and steep sided fjord that comes down from the north-west, deep in Scoresbysund, Fjord fed by several glaciers including the Daugaard-Jensen Glacier with massive icebergs floating down the fjord. Great ship cruising and excellent Zodiac cruising amongst the huge icebergs.
There is the chance of seeing seals, and, if you are very lucky, a seabird, but bear in mind they are quite shy. Although the location is a long way from Ittoqqortoormiit, hunters do get into the remoter regions of the fjord system, and it means wildlife can be be wary.
Just before reaching the mouth of the fjord there are some areas of tundra that can be good for Musk-Ox.
This location is on the island of Blomstrandhalvøya that is in Kongsfjorden and just across the bay from Ny Ålesund. It is the site of an ill-fated attempt to extract the marble deposits by the Northern Exploration Company and the adventurer Ernest Mansfield.
A lot of money and effort was put into the project, but it turned out the marble would shatter as it warmed up! Today there are the remains of the marble quarry and debris from the mine, including wooden huts, and various bits of machinery, including a crane and a rusting steam engine. As well as the cultural remains it is a good place for wildlife, including the elegant Long-tailed Skuas that breed here that are very rare elsewhere in Svalbard, with the Arctic Skua being far more abundant.
Tasiilaq & Kulusak
Tasiilaq is the largest town in south-east Greenland, close to the mouth of the rugged and long Sermilik Fjord. With the ice sheet just to the west the Sermilik glacier carves numerous icebergs. Kulusak is nearby and with an airport is popular with the short flight from Iceland.
Area good for the landscape, whale watching, the wildlife, and the flora.
This large fjord, and the associated Bockfjorden and Liefdefjorden in northern Spitsbergen, becomes accessible as the pack retreats. It is great for ship cruising, enjoying the scenery, and to look out for bears along the extensive coastline.
Flexibility is key with the chance of bears and changing weather conditions, but with plenty of choices in this large fjord complex. Zodiac cruises are popular, including Monacobreen glacier at the end of Liefdelfjorden, and the islands of Andøyane, a great area for a range of birds, including King Eider. There are also options for landings. The large and impressive wooden hut at Mushamna on the NE side of Woodfjorden. The small hunter’s cabin known as the Texas Bar in Liefdefjorden. The ‘thermal spring’ at Jotunkjeldane in Bockfjorden.