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Seasonal fashion statements

Who wants to stand out in the wild?

Whistler Naturalists

I’ve been putting it off for a while now, but the snow in the sky demands that I get into my loft and find my bin of winter outer clothes. The season demands it, and the cold wind whistling through the alpine is pointing me towards my personal home environment, what my wife calls "the one-piece clown suit," – a canary yellow and stoplight red one-piece Gore-tex suit that just screams function before fashion. With that on, I can’t be missed, but I’m certain to be comfortable.

In the natural world, however, my complete lack of fashion sense might just make me a target for something other than laughter; there are times when it’s downright imperative that a critter blend in with its surroundings. Take the ptarmigan family for example – in particular, Whistler’s most common member of it, the White-tailed Ptarmigan ( Lagopus leucurus ). Now there’s an example of function and fashion being equally important, no matter what time of the year.

After a summer season of foraging for high quality, mostly veggie cuisine like the seeds, buds, twigs, catkins, berries, and bulblets of dwarf alpine plants, a White-tailed Ptarmigan can weigh in at nearly 400 grams – a worthy morsel for those predatorily inclined. Since ptarmigan are about as good at running as they are at spelling – and don’t fly a great deal better – they should make pretty easy pickings. But our little critter has a trick up its tiny sleeve – its plumage.

In the fall, as the snow flies, ptarmigans put on a sweater of a different colour, choosing a rather quick transition to a fetching all white ensemble. As the winter alpine environment can be very featureless and revealing, our little friends do their best to blend in.

Ptarmigans tend to limit their winter foraging to evenings, preferring to hide in small holes under dwarf willow or rocks during the daylight hours. In this respect, they are virtually impossible to pick out when motionless. On numerous occasions, I have observed a ptarmigan on the move in daylight hours freezing at the first sign of a predator and successfully evading detection, in spite of being quite clearly out in the open.

And as for me, well I’m the one chuckling and toasty in the flash one-piece clown suit.

Upcoming Events:

Saturday, Nov. 3rd — Monthly Bird Walk . Meet at the base of Lorimer Road at 8 a.m. (Please note the later, more humane starting time!) Contact Michael Thompson (932-5010) for details.

Sunday, Nov. 18th — Return of the Salmon Festival (Squamish). The second annual Return of the Salmon Festival celebrates the varied traditions, cultural histories, delicious foods, music, arts and recreation associated with the annual return of the salmon. Presented by the Squamish Estuary Conservation Society, the Festival begins at 11 a.m. (rain or shine) at the Sunwolf Outdoor Centre located on the Squamish Valley Road, north of the Squamish Airport and the municipal landfill, near the Cheekye bridge. Included are a Squamish Nation traditional salmon barbecue with bannock, live entertainment, including a Squamish Nation Dance performance at the opening ceremony, art and craft demonstrations, games and face-painting for kids, and educational displays. For more information or to participate as a volunteer or sponsor, contact Edith Tobe, Festival Event Director (phone: 604-898-9171; email: tobe@shaw.ca).

Sightings and Memberships: NatureSpeak is prepared by the Whistler Naturalists. To become a member or to report noteworthy sightings of mammals, birds, or other species, contact Lee Edwards (905-6448; e-mail: leighe11@hotmail.com).

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