Birds of Chignik Lake: Redhead… “Are You My Mommy?”

In breeding plumage, a male Redhead. The question is, how did one of these get mixed in with a flock of Greater Scaup out on the Alaska Peninsula? (Photo courtesy of Kevin Bercaw, Wikipedia)

One of the most fascinating aspects of birding in the Chignik River drainage is that at any given moment, you might encounter something rare or unexpected. Under the “rare” category are species such as Northern Shrikes, Gyrfalcons, Yellow-billed Loons and xanthochromic Common Redpolls – birds that are seldom seen outside the far north, and even in Alaska are generally not frequently encountered. But, in part because of the unique geography of the Chigniks, there are also fairly common birds that unexpectedly end up here, many miles beyond what is generally considered to be their range. Our river cuts a path between rugged mountains on the Alaska Peninsula creating an obvious migration route for passerines, raptors and waterfowl. And then there are the fierce winds that funnel through this valley, so that Pied-billed Grebes, Red-breasted Nuthatches, White-throated Sparrows, Great Blue Herons and other birds that “aren’t supposed to be here” occasionally find their way to The Lake. 

Some of these birds may represent the vanguard of a species expanding its range. I’ve  documented Oregon-race Dark-eyed Juncos as wintertime residents from fall through early spring every year at the lake since we first arrived here in 2016. In fact, there are a dozen in the village right now, hundreds of miles from what is considered their range. And a pair of male and female Red-breasted Nuthatches that stayed in the village for awhile this year may portend things to come for that species as the climate continues to warm and more trees populate the peninsula.

And the Redhead? I suspect that something else entirely was going on with the lone male I photographed in a group of Greater Scaup last spring. Brood parasitism. Among all ducks, female Redheads are best known for their habit of laying their eggs in the nests of other birds. According to Audubon, Redheads have been documented leaving their eggs to the care of at least 10 other species of ducks, American Bitterns and even a raptor, the Northern Harrier. Scaup are a frequent target of their brood parasitism. Knowing how ducks imprint on whatever or whomever they take to be their parent, it is quite possible that this Redhead thinks of himself as a Greater Scaup. 

This is part of a flock of perhaps three dozen Greater Scaup and a few Red-breasted Mergansers. Just left of center, the bird flying highest is the Redhead. We do occasionally see Canvasbacks out here, a close relative of the Redhead. By comparison, the red of the Redhead is brighter, the head is much more rounded, and the wings in flight are darker. I searched the flock for a female counterpart, but found none. (Photo March 11, 2021, Chignik Lake)

Whether he is traveling with brood-mates or he simply fell in with a flock of fellow diving birds, it’s likely that eventually this Redhead will eventually get things sorted out. On the other hand, with breeding season fast approaching when the above photo was made, hybrid crosses between scaup and Redheads have been recorded. You never know what will turn up next at The Lake.

Redhead range map: with permission from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, All About Birds. The Alaska Peninsula lies to the west of this map.

Redhead, Aythya americana
Order: Anseriformes
Family: Anatidae
Aythya: from the Latin aithuia for an unidentified seabird referenced by Hesychius, Aristotle and others
americana: Latinized version of America

Status at Chignik Lake, 2016 to present: Rare or accidental.

David Narver, Birds of the Chignik River Drainage, Spring & Summers 1960-63: Not reported.

Alaska Peninsula and Becharof National Wildlife Refuge Bird List, 2010:
Rare in Spring and Fall; absent in Summer and Winter.

Aniakchak National Monument and Preserve Bird List: Not reported.

loon silhouette

Previous Article: Canvasback – the Duke of Ducks

Next Article: Harlequin Ducks – Lords and Ladies of the Aquatic Court

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.

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