About Jack & Barbra Donachy

Writers, photographers, food lovers, anglers, travelers and students of poetry

Birds of The Chigniks: Horned Puffin – the Bird that Wears its Wedding Colors on Its Beak

This photo of a pair of Horned Puffins was taken in late May, right in the heart of their breeding season which runs from mid-spring through mid-summer. This is when their enormous bills are at their largest and most colorful – literally fluorescent. Males and females are monomorphic; that is, they show the same plumage. (Alaska Gulf)

Who knew that in some species of birds, bill shape, size and color changes with the seasons? Such is the case of the Horned Puffin, which grows additional layers of colorful keratin – the same material hair, feathers and fingernails are made of – during the breeding season. When the season concludes, puffins sluff off the additional material and their beaks become smaller and duller. The vibrant lemon-yellow coloration mostly disappears and the tangerine-orange becomes a more mellow peach. While relatively large, the bills of juveniles are smaller than those of adults and appear gray or a coal-dusted orange.

Juvenile Horned Puffin, Chignik Lake, September 11, 2021. The Chignik Drainage cuts through mountains, creating an avian corridor across the Alaska Peninsula at a point where it is about 40 miles across from the Alaska Gulf on the southwest side to the Bering Sea to the northwest. From passerines falling out in nearby spruce groves to oceanic species seeking refuge during storms or pausing during migration to forage, you never know what you’ll encounter along the Chignik.

With puffin breeding colonies on nearby Alaska Gulf islands as well as additional sites on peninsula headlands, the estuary and seas near Chignik Lake are an excellent year-round place to encounter Horned Puffins. Here they feed on abundant herring, sand lances, juvenile salmon, sculpins and other forage. Dense, well-oiled feathers and wings that become flippers propel puffins to depths of 100 feet and possibly more. Feeding for themselves, puffins swallow most of their prey underwater. If you see one with a beak overflowing with silvery sand lances or herring, it’s undoubtedly taking them back to its nest.

It is reported that a Horned Puffin can carry dozens of small fish in its bill. I counted eight sand lances here. (Alaska Gulf near Chignik, July 28, 2020,)

In former times, puffins were shot and salted down for food by the barrelful. They were even considered acceptable fare on Catholic holy days when fish rather than other forms of meat was to be consumed. In Alaska, both Tufted and Horned Puffins were traditionally hunted with hooks baited with fish a well as with hoop nets on long handles. Also, a type of bola was thrown into the air to entangle seabirds returning to their nests. In addition to utilizing puffin meat and eggs, the skins and feathers were used in clothing. Historical accounts describe puffins as curious and friendly, but they are apparently still hunted in some areas and anytime that’s the case they can be challenging to approach.

Horned Puffins, so named for a small, fleshy point protruding above each eye (see the first photo in this article) are easily distinguished from Tufted Puffins, above. Both species are present in the Alaska Gulf near Chignik.

The best time to see puffins along the Alaska Peninsula is during the summertime breeding season. The weather is often mild, the seas calm, and the birds, hunting for themselves as well as for their chicks, can often be found close to shore. Look for the same sorts of current breaks you might look for when salmon fishing, as these rips concentrate baitfish.

In flight, they skim the seas like some form of exotic bee, chunky dark bodies pulled along by those wonderfully colorful bills, determined wings rapidly beating the air into submission. Suddenly they glide upward along the face of a rocky headland and unerringly disappear into a crevice where a chick or mate is waiting. Over and over they repeat the circuit – the flight out, the deep dives, the return flight – until one day they gather their forces and all the puffins and perhaps other nearby nesters as well head en masse out to sea where they will spend the winter months. Juveniles, no longer under the care of their parents, will struggle at first to tag along, often not making it far before they need a rest. And then, they too will find themselves over the sea’s depths. For the youngsters, it will be two years before they return to their natal headlands or island. But the adults return each year, finding familiar ledges and spaces between rocks, watching over a single egg, and joining other puffins, murres, auklets and guillemots over shoals of herring, sand lances and out-migrating salmon smolts. It is an amazing sight to behold.

Horned Puffin Range Map: with permission from The Cornell Lab or Ornithology, Birds of the World

Horned Puffin Fratercula corniculata
Order: Charadriiformes
Family: Alcidae
Genus: Fratercula – Medieval Latin fratercula = friar for the semblance of their plumage to monks’ robes
Species: corniculata – Latin for horn-shaped, referencing the bill

Status in Marine Waters near Chignik: Common to Abundant; rare or accidental in the freshwater drainage

David Narver, Birds of the Chignik River Drainage, summers 1960-63: Not observed

Alaska Peninsula and Becharof National Wildlife Refuge Bird List, 2010: Uncommon in Spring, Fall and Winter; Common in Summer

Aniakchak National Monument and Preserve Bird List: Present

Table of Contents and Complete List of Birds of Chignik Lake

© Photographs, images and text by Jack Donachy unless otherwise noted.

For a list of reference materials used in this project, see: Birds of Chignik Lake

Just Before Dawn – Chignik Lake, January 30

Image

Five degrees, calm, a raven’s throaty croak echoing across the ice. Gaining about four minutes of light each day now, the earth moving into position to give us back our beautiful sunrises.

After a big Sunday morning breakfast we hiked across the lake and up into the foothills for a couple of miles. Otters, mergansers, other ducks and a pair of Pacific Loons in the little bit of open water where the lake empties into the river. The acres of tundra where we picked berries this past summer locked beneath two or three inches of hard ice, the result of snow melt and rainwater accumulating atop frozen ground and another cold snap. Icy snow firm as hardpan. Soft crunch under our boots. Easy hiking.

Once in a while a Red Fox trots across the lake or along the frozen shoreline. Arctic Hare tracks everywhere the snow is soft enough to show them. Yesterday I counted 80 birds at the window feeders – Pine Grosbeaks, Redpolls, Black-Capped Chickadees, Oregon-race Juncos, a couple of Pine Siskins. Bears denned up two months ago. Gulls and eagles gone. Wolf tracks lacing trails just beyond the village. We keep watching for a wolverine in the place we’ve seen them before. Tomorrows forecast says rain. Hope not.

Birds of Chignik Lake: The Long Bill of the Short-billed Dowitcher (and a thought from Ernest Hemingway regarding shore-bird conservation)

Having encountered them only once on the Chignik River in the past five years, Short-billed Dowitchers would have to be considered a rare species here. I was happy to be surprised by a small flock of them one late-summer day while looking for teal.

It’s a bit difficult and somewhat sad to think that not so long ago, shorebirds such as dowitchers were considered fair game by many shotgun-toting sportsmen. Ernest Hemingway mentions this in a couple of his books, noting (happily, I think) in his posthumously published Islands in The Stream that he loved watching the little plovers and other peeps and could no longer think about shooting them. Perhaps the early American ornithologist Elliot Coues said it best in a passage he wrote in the 1917 edition of Birds of America:

“(The dowitcher’s) gregarious instinct, combined with its gentleness, is a fatal trait, and enables gunners to slaughter them unmercifully and sometimes to exterminate every individual in a ‘bunch.’ To turn a 12-gauge ‘cannon’ loose among these unsuspicious birds, winnowing in over decoys with friendly greeting, is about as sportsmanlike as shooting into a bunch of chickens. To capture them with a camera requires skill and patience, and herein lies the hope for future existence of our disappearing wild life – substitution of the lens for the gun!”

Note the bill serrations on this dowitcher which has just come up with a tidbit of some sort – perhaps the larval stage of an insect or a mass of invertebrate eggs. The tip of the bill contains sensitive receptors called Herbst corpuscles which aid it in searching for food. Short-billed and Long-billed Dowitchers both have exceptionally long bills, and as the bill lengths fo the two species vary and overlap, it is not a reliable diagnostic. In fact, unless the birds are vocalizing, distinguishing Long-billeds from Short-billeds in the field is quite difficult. The flock of over a dozen dowitchers I encountered were in freshwater on the Chignik, several miles above the estuary – habitat where one might more likely encounter Long-billed Dowitchers. They were not vocalizing, but I believe these are Short-billeds based on more overall spotting than barring, a more sloped forehead, and the fact that Short-billeds are more common than Long-billeds on the Alaska Peninsula. But I am happy to have someone with more experience with these peeps offer a correction. It is also entirely possible that both dowitcher species were represented in this flock.

In recent years, dowitchers have experienced rather steep population declines. According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology All About Birds website, reasons include sea level rise, loss of habitat due to development and other factors, and hunting. Regarding the latter reason, I have to agree with Messrs. Coues and Hemingway. With the species in decline, it would seem the better part of discretion to stow the shotgun and opt for chicken breasts.

It’s common for shorebirds to travel in mixed flocks with each species taking advantage of slightly different feeding strategies. Here a pair of Least Sandpipers get in on the action.

The dowitcher’s needlelike bill probes silt, mud and sand with an astonishing speed that has been compared to that of a sewing machine. I’ve recently begun broadening my documentation to include video and was happy to have had the presence of mind to do so with these birds. The “sewing machine” feeding style is well demonstrated – as is the challenge of getting a good, clear still capture of these frenetic birds in typical Chignik low-light conditions.

Dowitchers feeding at Devil’s Flats on the Chignik River, Alaska

Partially concealed behind tall grasses, sedges and Arctic Dock, camera at the ready, its long lens wrapped in a camouflage sleeve, Barbra and I watch as a group of shorebirds bank in unison, the white of their underwings flashing. A short way upriver, they wheel and come back, pass overhead, bank and wheel again a little ways down river, and then return to settle in over the shallows we’ve been watching. I look at Barbra and she smiles. New birds. Our 99th species in the freshwater portion of the Chignik Drainage between Chignik Lake and the estuary. Hemingway was right. They are wonderful to watch.

Although the range map below does not indicate the presence of Short-billed Dowitchers on the Alaska Peninsula, David Sibley includes the peninsula on the range map in his field guide as does the Audubon website.

Short-billed Dowitcher Range Map: with permission from The Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Birds of the World

Short-billed Dowitcher, Limnodromus griseus
Order: Charadriiformes
Limnodromus
: Ancient Greek limne = marsh, and dromos – racer. marsh racer
griseus: Medieval Latin for gray

Status at Chignik Lake: Only one sighting in five years, however it is likely that this species is a regular if brief late summer migrant in the drainage and may even nest in nearby areas of tundra or marsh.

David Narver, Birds of the Chignik River Drainage, summers 1960-63: Not reported

Alaska Peninsula and Becharof National Wildlife Refuge Bird List, 2010:
Common in Spring, Summer & Fall; Not reported in Winter

Aniakchak National Monument and Preserve Bird List: Present

Click here for the: Table of Contents and Complete List of Birds of Chignik Lake

© Photographs, images and text by Jack Donachy unless otherwise noted.

For a list of reference materials used in this project, see: Birds of Chignik Lake

Wishing Our Readers an Otterly Wonderful 2022! Thanks for Following!

I was out on the ice with a few friends the other day. Here’s a minute of the fun.

Barbra and I wish for everyone a happy 2022!

Sincerely,
Jack & Barbra Donachy
Chignik Lake, Alaska

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.

Birds of Chignik Lake: Northern Shoveler – a Bill like Baleen

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
any size

Those words might be paraphrased to read,

Make a study
anywhere

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
Order: Anseriformes
Family: Anatidae
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.

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

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

Next Article: American Wigeon – America’s Most Vegetarian Duck

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.

Subsistence Salmon Beach Seining on Chignik Lake

This short video shows a group of Chignik Lake residents beach seining for Sockeye Salmon along the shores of Chignik Lake. The salmon thus harvested were later distributed to village members.

I didn’t have the lenses I might have preferred to have with me, and I have just barely begun the journey into videography, but on a recent hike up the lake to the mouth of Clarks River, an opportunity presented itself. Jake and Jamie pulled up to the beach in Jamie’s skiff and in a few minutes were joined by several other friends and neighbors who had traveled upcountry by honda. The plan was to do some beach seining along the lakeshore for Sockeye (Red) Salmon, with the request that since I was there, would I take some photos? 

I’d made the hike in hopes of finding interesting macro shots, or perhaps a moose or bear in a landscape setting. The 105mm prime lens attached to my camera wasn’t ideal for the shoot at hand, but it was the lens in hand – neither long enough to adequately capture the bear that was fishing at the mouth of Clarks when I first arrived, nor wide enough to capture the sweeping landscape the netting operation was set against. 

Nonetheless, I really got into recording this event, which has been occurring here in the Chigniks in one form or another for thousands of years. In fact, if you look closely along lake and river beaches where salmon harvesting has long occurred, you might get lucky and find stone artifacts such as the ones in the photo below.

From upper left, counterclockwise: The notched ends in the first three stones indicate that they were used as weights along the lead line – the bottom line – of a fishing net. The oblong object in the upper right is an ulu-like knife that would have been used to split salmon carcasses before they were hung to dry. It is still quite sharp. The two center pieces are arrowheads. 

Most of the time in most places, salmon spawn over clean gravel or small rocks in clear-flowing rivers and streams. Sockeye Salmon, however, often spawn along lake shorelines where upwelling in the form of small underwater springs is present. There doesn’t have to be a stream as long as enough water is seeping up through lakebed gravel in water a few feet deep. There the female Sockeye will scrape out her nest, her redd, with her tail, deposit her eggs which a male at her side will fertilize, and then push gravel back over the eggs to protect them while they incubate. Shortly after they’ve spawned, all the adult salmon will die. Their decaying carcasses provide a vital source of nutrition for the various zooplankton and small insects upon which their young will feed until they’ve matured sufficiently to migrate out to sea.

This past season, beginning in late May or early June, over half a million Red Salmon ascended the Chignik River. While many spawn in the lake itself, many others spawn in the Chignik River as well as in several tributary streams and rivers. These salmon, along with the Pink, Chum, Coho and Chinook that also run the Chignik, are foundational to life here. They provide food for our abundant bears, eagles, otters, seals and other wildlife, provide a nutrient base for the lakes and rivers, and, with the help of Brown Bears, become fertilizer for berry flats, wildflowers and other vegetation which, in turn, feed everything from mushrooms to mice to caterpillars to songbirds. It would be no exaggeration to say that every living thing along the Chignik is connected to salmon. That includes the 50-some residents of Chignik Lake, among which Barbra and I are two.

Absolute Perfect Peace (or Lingonberry Banana Breakfast Gems)

Warm rolls stuffed with cranberry banana jam, a fried egg and a freshly brewed cuppa joe – what a great way to start a day!

August through early September see the peak of the berry picking season here at Chignik Lake. We start with salmonberries, move into blueberries, wineberries (aka nagoon berries), and crowberries (aka blackberries) and finish up with lingonberries (aka lowbush cranberries). Somewhere in the middle of all that, we can find porcini (aka bolete) mushrooms. But, those aren’t a berry, are they?

Berry picking has always been a joy for me. Something about finding little sweet edible treasures is pleasurable, but it’s more than the happiness of the find alone that I love. A couple of weekends ago, we went across the lake to pick cranberries. The berries grow by the bucketloads on little hillocks in and around boggy areas where blueberries and mushrooms also thrive. The air was sweet and pure, the breeze was soft. Sitting on the little hillocks, you can grab small handfuls at a time of the small red gems. At their varying stages of growth, they range in color from candy apple to a deep merlot. Their sizes, too, vary – with lunkers attaining the size of a large pea. Some people like to use a rake-like scoop (that works a lot like a bear claw) to pick the little berries. I enjoy picking them by hand. I find it is more satisfying to pick this way and it produces a cleaner haul.

The hike to the bog that day was beautiful, the trail colored up with the fiery reds and oranges of fireweed and wild geranium leaves, and the yellows, golds and browns of fall willows and grasses. Sometimes we pick together and talk quietly. On this day we were in sight of each other, but enjoying our immersive experience separately. I got so engrossed in my task, I didn’t notice the others who had joined us in the picking until movement in the corner of my eye caught my attention. About a football field away was a mama bear and her two fat cubs. The big babies were tussling about while mama raked up berries with her long claws and feasted. I looked over at Jack, who was also a football field away from me in a different direction to see if he noticed. Sure enough, he and his camera were capturing the scene. The mama bear sniffed in our direction to ensure her babies were safe. Having detected no need for concern, the little family grazed for a while longer and then ambled on their way. What a place we live in, where we can safely berry pick alongside these great beings. The only other sound the entire time we picked was that of the breeze rustling through the vegetation and a few late sparrows chirping from the hillside.

When we got home, I rinsed and dried the berries and then popped them into the freezer for later use. Today’s recipe is made with one of my favorite jams, banana lingonberry. The recipe comes from a publication put out by the University of Alaska Fairbanks. It might seem like a strange combination of fruits as both bananas and lingonberries both have strong flavors. However, together they are quite complementary. Of course, the breakfast roll recipe can be made with any flavor of jam. These lingonberry gems were made in honor of the beautiful outing picking berries.

Wild Berry Jam Breakfast Rolls

Ingredients

  • 1 ½ cups all-purpose flour
  • ¼ cup whole wheat pastry flour
  • ½ tbsp yeast
  • 1 ½ tbsp granulated sugar
  • 2 tbsp milk powder (can use whole, nonfat, buttermilk)
  • Generous pinch salt
  • ½ cup warm water
  • 2 ½ tbsp unsalted butter, room temperature
  • 6 tbsp wild berry jam

Directions

  1. In a stand mixer fitted with a paddle, combine ½ cup all-purpose flour, whole wheat pastry flour, yeast, sugar, milk powder and salt.
  2. Mix in water and butter.
  3. Beat in remaining flour, ½ cup at a time, until dough pulls away from sides of bowl.
  4. Switch to dough hook and knead for a couple of minutes. Dough should be smooth, soft, and springy.
  5. Transfer dough to an oiled bowl. Cover loosely with plastic wrap and let rise until puffy, about 60 minutes.
  6. Grease an 8-inch cake pan or a 9-inch pie plate.
  7. Cut dough into 8 pieces.
  8. Roll dough into balls and place into prepared pan with space around them.
  9. Using your thumb, make a depression in the center of each dough ball.
  10. Cover pan with a double layer of plastic wrap and refrigerate overnight.
  11. Remove from refrigerator 30 minutes before baking.
  12. Divide jam evenly into each depression in the rolls.
  13. Place the pan in a cold oven and turn the heat to 350°F.
  14. Bake for 25-30 minutes. Rolls will be golden brown when done.
  15. Let cool slightly on a wire rack.
  16. Serve warm from oven as is, or drizzle with powdered sugar glaze, or dust with powdered sugar.

Kita the Kitten: Welcome to a Life of Adventure, Chapter I

We’d been considering adding to our family for quite awhile, but the timing and the situation never seemed quite right. After having Buster in our life, we felt the urge even more strongly. He was such a great dog – an eager hiker, a terrific optimist and a joy to be around. We could easily imagine going on hikes and trips with a dog just like him. So, we began watching dog training videos. But when it came to envisioning how a dog might fit into our sometimes unpredictable lives, we had to conclude that now was not the right time.

Then there was the idea of a cat. We loved having Franny in our life back when we lived in Sacramento. She loved chatting, playing and being part of our lives. Her mischief was confined to unrolling toilet paper and pulling socks (only mine) out of drawers. Her lone drawback was that she hated being in a car. And so, her adventures were confined to our home.

Out of curiosity, I began doing some internet searches on pet adoption in Anchorage. There are a surplus of dogs and cats needing forever homes. I suppose this is true of most cities. Jack and I would “aww” over all sorts of pictures, all the while becoming more and more serious about adding a new family member. The more pictures we looked at, the more honed in we became on what sort of pet would fit into our family. This furry friend would need to be friendly, communicative, and happy to go on adventures.

After much deliberation, we decided a cat would make for the best fit. We thought we could find a kitten that we could leash train and also one that could be taught to understand that car noises are not scary. The hope is that one day she would be on the road with us, traveling around the country in our camper. Once our search began in earnest, as often is the case, things quickly fell into place.

There are several organizations in Anchorage that adopt out cats and kittens. My internet searches kept bringing me back to the Alaska Cat Adoption Team’s (ACAT) website. There was a picture of this one kitten… how can a picture tug at heartstrings, I’ll never know. But it did. I showed Jack. Same reaction. Love at first sight. In our conversations, we had already named her Kita, which means North in Japanese.

I contacted Kita’s foster care person, Terri, to see what the process was. Terri, of course, turned out to be a big-hearted lady with a commitment to helping the growing feral cat population in Anchorage. She told me stories of her recent rescues and about the kittens she was currently fostering. Then she broke the news that someone was coming to look at Kita that very day.

Oh no! ACAT has a strict policy about rehoming. They require the prospective owner to come and visit the adoptee in person to make sure there is a positive connection. ACAT is trying to ensure that their cats get placed in a forever home. Disappointed, I gave Terri my contact information and asked her to let me know if Kita’s adoption didn’t go through. Meanwhile, Terri offered to help me find another cat that might fit, so we left off our conversation on a positive note.

A few days later, I got a call from Terri. They guy who was going to adopt Kita kept missing his appointments, leaving her unsure that adoption was going to happen. Jack and I pounced on the opportunity. We were ready to happily commit to Kita’s adoption. We paid a reservation fee and I began organizing a trip to Anchorage. In the meanwhile, Terri called or emailed almost daily with reports and photos of our new little friend playing with her foster siblings, snoozing in different place, and generally being cute.

Kita is now in her new home, having survived her first adventure with her new family. I couldn’t tell the story as well as she can, so I’ll let her tell it.

Well, it’s been quite a couple of days! First, I went with my new owner to a hotel. It was a cool and strange scene. The place was almost devoid of smells and was humming with funny sounds. There were these curious glass panels with kittens behind them that looked just like me! By the time I was finished sussing out the place, night had fallen. I climbed up on a gigantic bed, nestled into a hundred pillows and proceeded to fall asleep. Then, all of a sudden, there were terrifying creaking sounds like the building was going to break. Fearing the worst and not knowing what to do, I jumped up and hid under the bed. A few minutes later a ringing sound made Barbra turn on the light and talk into a little machine. I heard her say “8.2 magnitude? Are you ok? I’m relieved to hear that.” She seemed worried for a bit. Finally, she quieted down, I climbed back onto the bed and we both fell asleep. A short time later, a loud alarm went off and scared both of us awake. Turns out it was a false alarm, maybe triggered by the earlier earthquake. At that point, both of us were too amped up to sleep. We turned our attention to playing games with the feather toy Barbra had brought for me.

Soon it was time to snuggle into my travel crate. I cuddled in with a blanket and a soft shirt that smelled just like Barbra. After a sleepy car ride, we waited in a warm building where kind people curiously peeked in at me. After a time, I noticed strange smells and some weird noises coming from other crates that looked kind of like mine but were much bigger. My crate was set atop these others and I was wheeled outside. One after another, we were loaded onto a plane. First the geese, then the pig, then a box of ducklings, and finally me. The smells coming from those crates were quite intense! I watched Barbra take a seat, the engine roared and we ascended into the air! When the plane stopped, all the smelly animals were disembarked and I got to sit right next to my friend, Barbra. This was much better.

The next time we landed, I met Jack. He put me into the truck cab and the three of us drove to my new home. Jack’s a very busy guy who likes to make noise in the kitchen. I could tell he loved me right away because he played with me and petted me very nicely. He even spoke to me in Japanese, which I couldn’t understand, but then he gave me some delicious salmon!

Let me tell you about my new home. It’s big and has very different noises than my foster home. I get all the attention from my two people. They love to play with me. They even made me some new toys. I love to sit on the windowsill and watch the birds at the window feeders. If I get tired, there are soft blankets for me to nap on. At nighttime, I get to share a bed with my new warm family. I think I’m going to have a great life with many fun adventures with these two.

Peach Melba Reimagined as Summertime Salmonberry Peach Muffins

Summertime around here is almost indescribable. At this time of the year, hundreds of thousands of salmon are ascending our river. Many shades of green have raced to the tops of the surrounding hillsides and to the highest points of all but the very tallest peaks. From riverbanks to the edges of mountaintop snow patches, there are flowers popping open in every imaginable color. And now the first berries of summer are starting to ripen – salmonberries. It is a well-documented fact that Alaska’s wild berries have an astonishing amount of health benefits due to our long sunlit days. But that’s not really why we pick them and eat them. They are beautiful and luscious.

The rainbow of colors that adorn ripe salmonberries is bewitching. They can be found in alluring golds, bright oranges, and deep reds. They can be as small as raspberries or as big as what I like to call lunkers, berries as big as a yellow school bus. I have a strong affection for all berries, but salmonberries in my opinion are the most beautiful.

This muffin recipe is inspired by the classic dessert – Peach Melba. This dessert showcases the complementary flavors of poached peaches and fresh tart raspberries. I’m sure this muffin recipe could be improved with the substitution of fresh peaches in place of canned. But thousands of miles from a fresh peach, canned sufficed in my remote Alaskan kitchen. What makes these muffins work so well is the technique of tucking the berries into the middle – a lovely surprise for diners.

These muffins taste like a celebration of summer. We enjoyed ours this morning with a big cup of French Roast coffee, a fried egg and a thick slice of our friend Michelle’s homemade bacon. Now we’re fueled up and ready to go for a hike up one of those beautiful green-sloped mountains.

Salmonberry Peach Muffins

Ingredients

  • ¼ cup sugar
  • 1 egg
  • 3 tbsp unsalted butter, melted
  • ½ cup milk
  • 1 cup all purpose flour
  • 1 tsp baking powder
  • Pinch salt
  • ½ of 15 oz. can peaches in light syrup, chopped
  • ½ cup fresh or frozen salmonberries

Directions

  1. Preheat oven to 375°F (190°C).
  2. Grease 6-muffin tin (I use a silicone pan without the butter).
  3. In a bowl, whisk together sugar, egg, butter, and milk.
  4. Stir flour, baking powder and salt into the mixture.
  5. Carefully stir in chopped peaches.
  6. Evenly divide ½ of the batter into each muffin cup.
  7. Evenly divide salmonberries on top of batter.
  8. Cover salmonberries with remaining batter.
  9. Bake muffins until golden and springy to the touch, about 25 minutes.
  10. Let cool in pan on rack for about 5 minutes before removing muffins.
  11. Serve warm as part of a delicious summertime brunch.