Strikingly marked with blues, iridescent greens, russet flanks and contrasting white, Northern Shovelers are a beautiful bird. And that bill… (Photo taken April 28, 2021, Chignik Lake)
Two decades have passed since the days when I used to ride my bicycle in wintertime and spring to the Hanamizu River in Hiratsuka, Japan to look for birds there. I did not consider myself a birder then, but I liked to look at the water and I carried binoculars and sometimes a bird field guide with me. There were herons and egrets, and it was a good place to see turquoise-colored kingfishers, a favorite, and to find shrikes which left worms and other small creatures impaled on barbed wire fences around gardens along the river. There were startling, parrot-like green woodpeckers, redstarts and other birds in the forested hills nearby, and sometimes I’d go there to look for those as well as owls, which I never did find. My favorite place was the river, though, and I’d often pack a lunch and find a place to sit and watch the ducks. There isn’t much hunting done in Japan, and so the birds were neither tame nor particularly wary. I was often closer to species such as teal, wigeons, mallards and pintails than I’m ever able to get here on the Chignik.
Drake (left) and hen Northern Shovelers, Chignik Lake, April 28, 2021.
Perhaps the most approachable of the Hanamizu’s waterfowl were the Northern Shovelers. Quiet as ducks go, they’d busily and rapidly swish their bills back and forth through stiller portions of the river, managing by means of their unique bills and a feeding strategy unlike the other ducks to avoid competition. As it turns out, their spatula-like bills are equipped with over 100 very fine, comb-like structures shovelers use to sift out small organisms. In both appearance and effect, these lamellae are similar to the baleen of certain species of whales. So, while shovelers are dabblers (non-diving ducks), they do more swishing and churning with their bills than tipping butt up as do teal and mallards.
Typical shoveler feeding behavior: stir up the water or silty bottom, sift the mix through fine, comb-like lamellae lining the inside edges of the bill, and swallow whatever is edible. Midge larvae are abundant in Chignik Lake, making them a likely repast. John J. Audubon reported finding leeches, snails and small fishes among stomach contents.
In four years of living at Chignik Lake and looking at various species of ducks up and down the Chignik drainage, I’d never seen shovelers here. David Narver didn’t record them in his avian study of the Chigniks conducted in the early 1960’s, and a quick check of this species on the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s All About Birds site indicated very few sightings on the Alaska Peninsula and none at all on the Gulf of Alaska side where Chignik Lake is located. So I was astounded to look at my window in the predawn of April 28 and see the unmistakable silhouettes of ducks sporting those bills. Three drakes and a hen, milling near shore along the beach where many of us park our skiffs and scows. I knew I had to make my pictures quickly. It wouldn’t be long before people headed down to the beach to launch their crafts, at which point the ducks would surely take flight and continue their migration across the peninsula.
Among ducks, Norther Shovelers are particularly known for lifelong monogamous pairings. (4/28/21)
The problem I was facing was that what little light there was shone from behind the birds. Given that encountering this species is at best a rare event on the Chignik, my best option was to turn up the ISO, keep the aperture as open as practical, and at the very least make some decent “record” or documentation pictures and deal with image noise and softness later. The pictures in this article are all from photos I took in the pre-dawn light that morning.
As I feared, just as the sun began peeking over the snow-capped mountains rimming the lake, a honda engine pierced the morning calm. As it drew closer, the quartet began hurriedly paddling for deeper water. Suddenly they broke, sent the water into a froth as they took wing, and were gone. (4/28/21)
The Lake is the kind of place where, at any given moment, an interested person might take a closer look and see a species of bird never before recorded here. But in what part of the world isn’t that true? Regrettably, I cannot remember the author’s name, but there is a very short piece of Japanese Zen poetry that reads,
Tend the garden
Those words might be paraphrased to read,
Make a study
It seems that the closer one looks – at anything – the more there is to see and to learn and to marvel at.
Northern Shoveler Range Map: with permission from The Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Birds of the World. Note that the Alaska Gulf side of the Alaska Peninsula is not considered to be part of this species’ range.
Northern Shoveler, Spatula clypeata
Spatula: Latin for spoon or spatula
clypeata: Latin for shield bearing or shield
Status at Chignik Lake, 2016 to present: Rare or perhaps even accidental. Most likely to be encountered as a spring migrant. However, as shovelers are known to breed on the Alaska Peninsula, this is a species to be on the lookout for in any likely habitat, particularly at Black Lake at the head of the drainage.
Alaska Peninsula and Becharof National Wildlife Refuge Bird List, 2010:
Common in Spring; Uncommon in Summer & Fall; Not reported in Winter.
Aniakchak National Monument and Preserve Bird List: Presence Documented
Previous Article: Northern Pintail – the Dapper Dabbler
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For a clickable list of bird species and additional information about this project, click here: Birds of Chignik Lake
© Photographs, images and text by Jack Donachy unless otherwise noted.