This is a grouse that loves the high life. It can cope with intense cold, blizzards and gales in the wildest parts of the Scottish mountains (and as globe-trotting climbers could tell you, that’s seriously wild weather on the world scale).
What to look for
This can be part of the challenge with seeing ptarmigan. In summer, their grey, brown and black flecked plumage is amazingly well camouflaged against a background of lichen-flecked rocks. In winter, it becomes totally white, with the exception of it's tail and eyepatch which remain black, and it then becomes more visible during snow-free spells (another drawback of global warming). Listen for stony, rasping calls.
Moulting allows a ptarmigan to shift from snowy-white winter plumage to finely barred buff, white, black and grey for late spring and summer. Foot feathers act as both insulation and snowshoes in winter, spreading the bird’s weight as it walks.
When and where to see
Keep alert for ptarmigan calls at higher levels of Highland hills, year-round. Aside from an isolated bunch in the north of Arran, Scottish ptarmigan live north of the Highland Boundary Fault, with mountains from the Cairngorms to Ben Nevis and in Wester Ross being particular hotspots. Good places to spot ptarmigan are on the rocky slopes beside the paths into the Northern Corries of Cairngorm (access from the Coire Cas car park).
For more information see the RSPB's ptarmigan page.