When we moved to Chignik Lake in August, 2016, we were interested amateur birders. Neither of us foresaw this minor side-hobby going further than that. But it soon became apparent that we have found ourselves in a unique situation to add to the comparatively limited data base and knowledge of the avian fauna of this remote part of the world.
Remote? The Lake and Peninsula Borough covers 32,922 square miles (85,270 square km) – roughly the size of West Virginia or South Carolina. Yet fewer than 2,000 people inhabit this rugged landscape, which has no roads connecting it to the world beyond. It is a place where wolves regularly show up on the edges of isolated villages and where Japanese glass fishing floats from a bygone era are regularly found washed up on beaches.
Although birding efforts are regularly conducted at the area’s several National Parks and Wildlife Reserves, it has been over 50 years since anyone specifically studied the birds of the Chignik Lake area. While some things remain the same (the Great Horned Owls David Narver documented in his 1963 paper Birds of the Chignik River System are still here), a lot else has changed. Among other things, several decades ago White Spruce trees were introduced from Kodiak Island. These conifers provide shelter, nesting sites and an abundance of food. This in turn sometimes results in uncommon, rare or previously unrecorded species showing up here and in some cases staying awhile.
One such species is the lone White-throated Sparrow (Zonotrichia albicollis) which has taken up residence in a grove of White Spruces this past winter. He or she seems to have gotten mixed in with a small flock of other sparrows – 10 or 11 Golden-crowneds, an American Tree Sparrow and a first-winter White-crowned Sparrow. Between the feeders we’ve put up at The Grove and the abundance of conifer seeds and other forage, these sparrows, along with a few juncos, have hung in over the course of the harshest winter Chignik Lake has experienced in recent years.
Given that this young White-throated was first observed in late fall, it seems likely that it was a late-fledged bird migrating south. This suggests that it was Alaska-bred. If so, this appears to be an unusual occurrence for a species which may be expanding its range north.