About Jack & Barbra Donachy

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

Birds of Chignik: Black-Legged Kittiwake

Black-legged Kittiwake nesting

You can imagine the high-pitched clamor as a boat draws near a colony of nesting kittiwakes. The gregarious gulls cram into every available ledge, adding their own beds of mud, grass and seaweed. There the females will lay one to three eggs in hues that might range from blue to olive to brown. (Resurrection Bay, Alaska, June 22, 2013)

Fancifully named for a cry that resembles kit-ti-wake, Black-legged Kittiwakes are generally the most common gull – and at times the most common seabird – along the Chignik Coast. At an average size of 17 inches, the relatively slender kittiwake is a graceful master of the salt air, soaring and coasting effortlessly until it spies a herring or other small fish at which point it dives tern-like into the water. Because they snatch fish from near the surface, kittiwakes are the friends of fishermen and whale watchers alike; flocks of these smallish gulls crashing the ocean surface for baitfish are reliable indicators that cod, salmon, halibut or other gamefish – or whales – are pushing the small fish to the surface. Kittiwakes have an uncanny capacity for somehow knowing when whales are about to surface – cueing photographers as to where to focus.

Black-legged Kittiwake with herring

Some have described the kittiwake as a “dainty” gull, but there’s nothing dainty about that bill. Note the bright red mouth of this bird in breeding plumage. It will cram as many of these herring as it reasonably is able to into its stomach and regurgitate a good portion of them to feed its young. (Chignik Bay, Alaska, June 28, 2020)

With the exception of breeding season, these are birds of the ocean, seldom venturing inland. While they may follow fishing boats and other vessels in search of fish that might be disoriented in the wake, kittiwakes will not be found at garbage dumps as are some other gulls. In addition to diving from the air to catch fish, kittiwakes sometimes sit on the surface and catch prey.

Black-legged Kittiwakes Chignik Bay

Following a morning of feeding, a flock of kittiwakes rests on Eagle Rock in Chignik Bay. (July 28, 2020).

Black-legged Kittiwake flight

Look for distinctive black wingtips, a dark eye, an all yellow bill, angular, somewhat tern-like wings, and a more slender profile than that of most other gulls.

Black-legged Kittiwake nonbreeding plumage Kenai Fjords

The dark splotch on the back of the head is indicative of a nonbreeding kittiwake. Juveniles will also have this splotch as well as a dark collar, a distinctive dark pattern on their wings, and a dark bill. (Kenai Fjords National Park, Alaska, August 2, 2009)

As the climate continues to warm and overfishing throughout the world persists, kittiwakes are a species to keep a a concerned eye on. Although their populations worldwide are in the millions, steep declines have been observed in recent years.

Black-legged Kittiwake Range Map: with permission from The Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Birds of the World

Black-legged Kittiwake Rissa tridactyla
Order: Charadriiformes
Rissa: From Rita, the Icelandic name for this bird
tridactyla: Ancient Greek tridaktulos – three-toed. The kittiwake’s rear toe is reduced in size, giving the appearance of just three toes.

Status at Chignik Lake: Abundant in Chignik Lagoon and Chignik Bay, particularly in summer

David Narver, Birds of the Chignik River Drainage, summers 1960-63: Occasional in Chignik Lagoon

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

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

Birds of Chignik Lake: Willow Ptarmigan – Once Abundant at The Lake; Now Nearly a Cryptid

Willow Ptarmigan male

Hmm… I wore white slacks something like these to my high school senior prom. I think they are better suited to this dapper male Willow Ptarmigan. While on a backcountry backpacking excursion in Denali National Park a few years ago, we had an opportunity to observe and photograph Willows in frame-filling portraits like this. The male’s “potato! potato! potato!” call woke us each morning in a breathtaking landscape we shared with carpets of wildflowers, rushing glacial rivers, Grizzlies, Dall’s Sheep, Caribou, Moose, Wolves and Wolverines. (Denali National Park, June 9, 2017)

In choosing photographs for this project, I try to use pictures taken of local birds and, to the extent possible, to use my own captures. At the same time, I strive to select at least one photo for the article that clearly depicts characteristic markings and coloration of that species. Sometimes that’s not possible. I have yet to get any photograph at all of the Gyrfalcons that occasionally cruise through our valley. Clear captures of a few other species I’ve positively ID’d have eluded me as well – Northern Harriers gliding in an unphotographable distance, a Saw-whet Owl who evaded being photographed through high winds and rainstorms and his own secretive habits during a brief visit to our village being among examples.

Willow Ptarmigan nest eggs

We startled ptarmigan from their nests several times while hiking through willow thickets in Denali. The best procedure is to give the nest a respectable berth and continue hiking, but on this occasion I took the opportunity to snap a quick photo – with a telephoto lens and not disturbing the vegetation surrounding the well-concealed eggs. The hen soon returned. Willows may lay as few as four or as many as 14 inch-and-a-half to two-inch eggs. (Denali National Park, June 7, 2017)

The Willow Ptarmigan presents a somewhat different challenge.

We’ve never seen one here at The Lake. Or anywhere near The Lake.

Nor heard one, though we are familiar with their calls.

Nor found their scat, though we know what that looks like and have searched likely places for it.

willow ptarmigan scat

Willow Ptarmigan scat… in case you were wondering… (Denali National Park, June 14, 2017)

No one else has seen a clue of this species around here in recent years either, though everyone agrees that they were once abundant. “We used to sometimes find them in the swamp (marsh) right in the center of the village,” a guy my age told me. “Yeah, they used to be everywhere,” another friend observed. “Especially around Black River and Upper Lake.”

Not anymore. Whether they were locally shot out (they are famously unwary), overcome by  disease or simply no longer find the habitat here suitable is uncertain. In recent years they have been absent, and there are enough eyes looking out for them that if any were around, it would be known.

Willow Ptarmigan unwary

They’re not guarding nests. They’re not tame. They haven’t been baited. They’re just Willow Ptarmigan being Willow Ptarmigan, and as Barbra could as easily be approaching with a 20 gauge shotgun as with a camera, they’re illustrating a susceptibility to being locally extirpated by hunters. They aren’t merely “dumb.” Ptarmigan have been known to exhibit playful behavior with each other and they’re well adapted to the harsh environments they thrive in. But perhaps they trust the camouflaging qualities of their plumage – which becomes white during wintertime – a little too much. (Point Hope, Alaska, September 2, 2013)

And then, just a few weeks ago one morning while Barbra and I were out exploring after a fresh carpet of snow had been lain down, there they were. Not the birds themselves, but tracks. Unmistakable. Miniature three-toed snowshoes gently pressed into the powdery snow. Ptarmigan. No cryptozoologist on the trail of Bigfoot could have felt their heart soar higher than did ours at the finding. We stood rock still and listened. We watched, our eyes peering as far up the trail as we could see and into every little pocket and open space along the way searching for movement, a dark eyeball, anything. We quietly followed the tracks, not even daring to whisper till they abruptly disappeared. We continued our hunt in ever broadening circles, eyes sharp for a bird we knew would be as white as the snow itself this time of year.

No birds.

Yet.

But maybe they’re coming back. Oh, happy day!*

Willow Ptarmigan hen on nest

The portent of good things to come – and a scene we’d like to find near The Lake: a Willow hen brooding her eggs. Members of the grouse family, Willows are the only grouse species in which the males regularly assist in raising the young. (Denali National Park, June 8, 2017)

Willow Ptarmigan Range Map: with permission from The Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Birds of the World

Willow Ptarmigan Lagopus lagopus
Order: Galliformes
Lagopus: Ancient Greek Lagos = hare + pous = foot: hare foot, for its heavily feathered feet which, as with hares, allows the ptarmigan to more easily walk on snow
lagopus: as per genus definition above

Status at Chignik Lake: Now rare, but as Willow Ptarmigan are seen elsewhere on the Alaska Peninsula, could repopulate in the future

David Narver, Birds of the Chignik River Drainage, summers 1960-63: Common around Chignik Lake; Abundant around Black Lake

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

Aniakchak National Monument and Preserve Bird List: Present

*From Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Part 2. Bardolph: “Oh Happy Day! I wouldn’t even trade a knighthood for my new, good fortune.”

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

Birds of Chignik Lake: Least Sandpiper – the Tiniest Peep… And Why the Serrated Bill?

Least Sandpiper Chignik River

Although he’s got some bulk to him, at a mere five to six inches from bill tip to toenail, this ball of white and russet feathers would have to look up to make eye contact with a House Sparrow. But to the tiny crustaceans and other small invertebrates that make up most of his diet, the Least Sandpiper is undoubtedly viewed as a formidable predator. (Chignik River, July 24, 2020)

The Least is our smallest sandpiper, which makes it, I believe, our smallest shorebird. In fact, until a flock of them takes flight, they can easily be overlooked on pebbled shorelines where their size and plumage allow them to blend in almost perfectly. On the other hand, they’re numerous and widely distributed, making them one of the more frequently encountered peeps. In addition to their tiny size, look for yellowish legs. This characteristic distinguishes them from Western Sandpipers and most other similar birds which generally have dark legs. They use their long, slightly down-curved bills to probe mud, sand and silt or to glean suspended minutia from the water surface. Often found among flocks of other waders, it is reported that Least Sandpipers tend to feed a little higher up the flat or shoreline in slightly drier habitat, probably to avoid competition from larger birds. Alongside the Semipalmated Plovers and Western Sandpipers we saw them feeding among, they seemed to mix right in though, often wading up to their downy chests along the edge of the river.

It wasn’t until we returned home and uploaded the photos that the Least’s most interesting characteristic – to me – became evident.

least sandpiper serrated bill

Avian adaptations make for fascinating study in their own right. Questions beginning with “Why,” and “How” immediately pop into one’s mind when examining the unique characteristics birds have evolved to ensure success in their environments, though no degree of explanation can diminish one’s amazement at these adaptations. 

From the time when at a young age I first noticed the sharp, undulating teeth on a steak knife, serrations have fascinated me. I can’t resist running the pad of my thumb along the edge of a fossilized Megalodon tooth, and I have spent hours contemplating the fearsome saw-toothed edges of Atlantic Stingray tail spines. Although they no longer possess the dentition of the dinosaurs that preceded them, several species of birds – today’s dinos – have evolved serrated bills. Apparently Least Sandpipers are among those species. Why? 

Serrations make sense in dedicated piscivores such as Red-breasted and Common Mergansers, but how are they useful to these little peeps? The serrations don’t seem long enough to serve as filters; perhaps they aid in grasping any of the larger invertebrates that might be encountered as the birds probe beneath rocks and sift through silt.

least sandpiper feeding

This little gal or guy has some sort of tiny morsel in its bill. It can use water tension to transport small items such as this from its bill to its mouth.

The range map, below, indicates that this species might nest in the Chigniks, yet another reason to man the skiff early this coming year and resume exploring.

Least Sandpiper Range Map: with permission from The Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Birds of the World

Least Sandpiper Calidris minutilla
Order: Charadriiformes
Calidrisfrom Ancient Greek kalidris or skalidris, a term Aristotle used for some gray-colored shorebirds1
minutilla: Medieval Latin minutilla = very small

Status at Chignik Lake: Common on Chignik River gravel shorelines and bars for a few weeks in summer

David Narver, Birds of the Chignik River Drainage, summers 1960-63: Common

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

Birds of Chignik: Western Sandpiper – Elegance in a Tiny Being

Rufous scapulars and golden-brown highlights make the Western Sandpiper among our prettiest little shorebirds. Check out the tiny spoon at the tip of this little sandpiper’s down-curved bill. Such elegant detail in a tiny being. (Chignik River, July 24, 2020)

We had irregularly been encountering flocks of anywhere from dozens to perhaps a couple hundred small shorebirds on fishing trips to Devil’s Flats. Obsessed with putting flies in front of salmon and char, I had difficulty breaking away to attempt photographs of the little peeps. But as days passed and July headed toward August, I knew I’d better get with it before the visitors migrated out.

Chignik River Western Sandpiper

I am occasionally taken aback with photographic evidence of just how modest some of my field estimations of numbers in flocks can be. I’d been saying “dozens” when we encountered these sandpipers, but there are well over 100 birds spilling out of this frame and there are still more birds in a separate flock nearby. If you’ve got a screen large enough to not result in eyestrain, it might be interesting to see how many birds you come up with in the above picture. (Photo by Barbra Donachy, Chignik River, July 24, 2020)

Yet, even equipped with the right photographic equipment and good intentions, it wasn’t until the evening of a day late in July that Barbra and I finally got our shots. The fishing had been good, but the birds had been no-shows. We’d called it a day and were heading back to the skiff when the peeps finally arrived. Suddenly 200 or so birds were winging their way up the river, heading straight for the gravel shores of the island where we’d beached Buster. We immediately dropped our fishing gear into a loose pile and began setting up to shoot as the birds lit down along the rocky shoreline.

western sandpipers chignik river

At an average length of just 6½ inches – only a quarter of an inch larger than a junco – these birds presented us with the usual challenges in photographing, wary, tiny, ever-moving wild birds. We found that by crawling slowly and keeping vegetation between ourselves and the feeding sandpipers – tufts of tall grass, burdock, willows – we could approach fairly close without disturbing them. For a short while, they scurried through the river shallows and rocks bobbing their heads and feeding frenetically. At times they appeared to be using their bills to pick something minute from the water’s surface; at other times they jabbed and probed between rocks; and at still other times they seemed to use their bills as a small plows, pushing them forward to stir up the silty bottom, chirping and cheeping with enthusiasm at the smorgasbord they were finding. For a little while, there was quite a lot of busy activity.

And then they did something that astonished us. Almost as one, the feeding stopped, the chattering quieted, and the little birds seemed to disappear. Before we knew it, most of them had nestled into comfortable places among the rocks, tucked their bills beneath a wing, and closed their eyes. I’d never considered shorebirds roosting after a meal as do other birds, but of course they must. Had we not known the birds were there, I doubt we’d have noticed them. Suddenly, the many times I’d been walking along a shoreline and was startled by a flock of peeps exploding into flight practically under my feet came into focus. Even a falcon passing overhead might miss these birds at rest. It is their movement that gives them away.

western sandpiper sleeping Chignik River

Of course, not all of the birds slept at once. Always a few remained vigilant, continuing to feed and looking about them as they did. However, we’d learned something that day, and on subsequent outings we tested ourselves by carefully looking over the ground near any actively feeding birds. At times we were able to find additional birds that were roosting, birds that in the past we would have missed.

Western Sandpipers flight Chignik River

We stayed with the shoot as long as we could, but by the end the sunlight had gone from this part of the river and a chill was seeping into the air. Who knows what prompts avian decisions? At some point the sandpipers lifted into the air and flew back downriver. I read a short essay on how it is that they manage to fly together, banking and turning in unison without colliding into each other. But I still don’t really understand it, which is well enough.

All things come to an end, and so it was with this day. Our Sockeyes for the year had already been caught, cleaned, filleted and freezer-packed, so on this day we had successfully cast to the river’s Dolly Varden Char and Pink Salmon, and whether foul-hooked or fair, a few Reds had found our flies as well. It was early still for Silvers, but we searched anyway and in so doing took note of a few King Salmon which we failed to entice. Jacob’s Ladder, Yellow Monkeyflower and River Beauty were near their peak, signs of active bears were everywhere, and on the way home I got nice photos of our fledgling Rough-legged Hawks.

The range map indicates that these sandpipers are migrants, on their way south after nesting further north. As we’ll be able to begin skiffing the river as early as we want to this coming year, an objective will be to keep a keen eye out for when these birds arrive on The Chignik.

Western Sandpiper Range Map: with permission from The Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Birds of the World

Western Sandpiper Calidris mauri
Order: Charadriiformes
Calidris: from Ancient Greek kalidris or skalidris, a term Aristotle used for some gray-colored shorebirds1
mauri: for the Italian botanist Ernesto Mauri

Status at Chignik Lake: Common on Chignik River gravel shorelines and bars for a few weeks in summer

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 & Fall; Uncommon in Summer; 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.

1From the article “Calidris” in Wikipedia, which sites Jobling, James A (2010). The Helm Dictionary of Scientific Bird Names. London: Christopher Helm. p. 84. ISBN 978-1-4081-2501-4.

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

Birds of Chignik: Black Turnstone

black turnstone Chignik Lagoon

Note the sharp, well-defined toenails on this Black Turnstone. It shares this adaptive characteristic in common with Ruddy Turnstones, enabling the two species to easily walk on the slick, seaweed covered rocks they frequent. (Chignik Lagoon, July 27, 2020)

On the same day I photographed Ruddy Turnstones at Chignik Lagoon, I encountered their somewhat chubbier cousins, Black Turnstones. When we first arrived, there appeared to be a small flock of the Blacks, but they took wing as we beached our scow. I found the lone specimen in the above photo hanging out near a pair of Wandering Tattlers.

These stout, robin-sized birds get their name from the manner in which they use their chisel-like bill to turn over kelp, stones and other debris in search of invertebrates and fish eggs. They even use their bill as a plow, moving through washed up seaweed and dining on whatever is stirred up or uncovered. Black Turnstones also use their bills to hammer at and pry open barnacles and bivalves.

Because they are Pacific Coast residents rather than the long-distance migrants their Ruddy relatives are, they can be seen throughout the year on rocky coasts from the more southerly  parts of Alaska as far south as Mexico’s Baja Peninsula.

Black Turnstone Range Map: with permission from The Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Birds of the World

Black Turnstone Arenaria melanocephala
Order: Charadriiformes
ArenariaLatin arenarius. arena = sand; inhabiting sand
melanocephala: Ancient Greek melas = black +  kephale = head; black headed

Status at Chignik Lake: Occasional as a post-breeding migrant along the shorelines of Chignik Lagoon and Chignik Bay

David Narver, Birds of the Chignik River Drainage, summers 1960-63: Occasional at Black Lake

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

Birds of Chignik: Ruddy Turnstone – Birding, Boating & Procuring Fuel in the Alaska Bush

ruddy turnstone chignikThe Ruddy Turnstone’s harlequinesque plumage might seem impractical – until one finds them in a scene such as this, seamlessly blending in with an array of varicolored seaweeds. (Chignik Lagoon, July 27, 2020)

The village of Chignik Lake was out of gas. It happens from time to time, one of the generally minor inconveniences living in this remote community entails. All of our fuel, gasoline as well as diesel and propane, must be barged or boated upriver from The Bay or The Lagoon. When a handwritten cardboard sign on the village’s lone gasoline pump says “Out,” it’s out. There is nothing to do for it but pick a day when the weather is fair and a high tide makes the river navigable and make a fuel run. With gloriously long summer days upon us and all kinds of wildlife viewing, berry picking, fishing and general exploring beckoning, we needed gas for our hondas and the scow. And so on a favorable daytime tide, we packed the back of the scow with bright red plastic jerry cans and skiffed the six-miles downriver to Chignik Lagoon. And since you never know what you might see along the way, we brought along cameras as well.

It was just before high slack-water when we beached our boat at The Lagoon. Barbra and I carried the first of our jerry cans the short walk up a little slope where we were met at the gas pump by Jeremy. He turned on the pump for us, Barbra phoned our credit card information over to the village office, and after a few trips back and forth we had the tank on our boat as well as all the spare cans filled. No problem.

But you’ve got to keep an eye on the tide.

Chignik Lagoon Ruddy Turnstone

Ruddy Turnstone in non-breeding plumage – possibly a juvenile. (Chignik Lagoon, July 27, 2020)

With our chore behind us, we set about attempting to photograph the shorebirds we’d been noticing. A pair of dippers were flitting in and out from under the hull of a rusty barge on the beach and a few Least Sandpipers were working the shoreline, but a group of shorebirds with rich plumage and brilliant orange legs drew my attention. Although the tide was now dropping, with a jet-drive engine powering our little boat we were confident we’d have no problem making it back upriver. Nonetheless, we should have thought to push it off the beach as the tide pulled away. The double-hulled boat is deceptively heavy; if it doesn’t have water beneath it, it is a bear to move.

I didn’t quite get the photographs I wanted of the Ruddy Turnstones, but I managed some nice documentation shots. It was Barbra who thought of the scow. “We need to get going!” she exclaimed with some alarm in her voice. “Look at the boat!”

It was almost, but not quite, high and dry. Oh boy. This was going to be work. Fortunately a passerby happened along on his honda. As is almost always the case around here, upon seeing our plight he jumped off and lent a hand. Inch by inch we swung the bow seaward. We said thanks, pushed off, and Barbra assumed the steering wheel, fired up the engine and we began the return trip toward home, another “learned by error” piece of savvy acquired as we expand our skill-set in this way of life.

Ruddy Turnstone Chignik LagoonAfter a brief stopover at the lagoon, these birds will be on their way south again. New Zealand? Australia? Some seldom seen Pacific Island? The migrations shorebirds and terns undertake boggle the mind… (Chignik Lagoon)

Based on the range map (below), it appears to have been happenstance that we ran into the Ruddy and Black Turnstones we encountered that day. Ruddy Turnstones that breed in Alaska and Siberia migrate northward from Australia and Pacific islands in spring, then return south via Alaska’s Pribilof Islands, the Aleutians and the Alaska Peninsula. So these were post-breeding migrants. As is the case with Semipalmated Plovers, the adults embark on the southerly migration first; the chicks don’t fledge until after the adults have departed and are therefore left to make the journey over many thousands of miles of the vast Pacific Ocean on their own.

How do they know where to go?

As their name indicates, turnstones employ their wedge-shaped bills to upend pebbles and other debris as they search for invertebrates. When nesting, insects, particularly mosquitoes and midges, figure heavily in their diet, but they also consume berries, vegetation and even carrion and the eggs of other birds.

This is a species in decline. Coastal development, plastic pollution and overfished horseshoe crab populations (some turnstones rely on horseshoe crab eggs as a major food source during migration) are among the culprits. The horseshoe crabs, in case you’re wondering, are used as conch and eel bait by commercial fishermen. Seems a waste… as are plastic bags, plastic bottles, and discarded cigarette butts.

Ruddy Turnstone Range Map: with permission from The Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Birds of the World

Ruddy Turnstone Arenaria interpres
Order: Charadriiformes
Arenaria: Latin arenarius. arena = sand; inhabiting sand
interpres: Latin for messenger

Status at Chignik Lake: Occasional as a post-breeding migrant along the shorelines of Chignik Lagoon and Chignik Bay

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

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

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

Birds of Chignik: Black Oystercatcher – the Bill that Fits the Bill

black oystercatcher chignik bay

A Black Oystercatcher works an intertidal mussel shoal at the base of Eagle Rock in Chignik Bay. 

A sharp eye is likely to pick out the crimson of a Black Oystercatcher’s bill before the entire bird can be made out. Although, as can be seen in the above photo, their plumage has more brown that black in it, they tend to blend in well with the rocky, mussel-strewn habitat they prefer. There seldom seem to be many of these birds in any one place, but from the Aleutian Islands to Baja Mexico they are frequently seen in pairs, as single birds or as small family groups.  I’ve read that at times flocks of these striking birds can number in the dozens or even hundreds – no doubt an amazing sight. Look for oystercatchers especially on small rocky islands or sloping shorelines, especially at low tide when barnacle and shellfish colonies are exposed.

black oystercatcher with kittiwakes

At 17.5 inches from bill to toe, the oystercatcher’s overall size compares with that of these Black-legged Kittiwakes, which measure about 17 inches.

Oystercatchers tend to be wary, taking flight with shrill yelps and piping whistles, so it pays to have a long lens or a good pair of binoculars when watching them forage. Contrary to what their name implies, their diet is fairly eclectic and includes a variety of bivalves, chitons, crabs, sea urchins, worms and other invertebrates. At times they may also feed on sandy beaches and mudflats.

black oystercatcher foraging mussel bed

Doubtless there is all manner of deliciousness to be pried from this bed of blue mussels, and the Black Oystercatcher has the bill that fits the bill. Why the bright color? Thees matters usually have to with intraspecies identification and mating, with a nice bright bill and eye signifying health and good genes to a prospective partner.

Oystercatchers appear to mate for life. Females lay two or three eggs in a nest the male has casually scraped out above the tide line, usually on a small, rocky island. Though the young can walk soon after hatching, parents spend considerable time teaching them the ins and outs of foraging.

Black Oystercatcher Range Map: with permission from The Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Birds of the World

Black Oystercatcher Haematopus bachmani
Order: Charadriiformes
Haematopus: Greek haima = blood + pous = foot
bachmaniNamed by John James Audubon for his friend John Bachman

Status at Chignik Lake: This marine species is occasional along the shorelines of nearby Chignik Lagoon and Chignik Bay

David Narver, Birds of the Chignik River Drainage, summers 1960-63As this is a marine species, not reported

Alaska Peninsula and Becharof National Wildlife Refuge Bird List, 2010:
Uncommon in all seasons

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

Birds of Chignik Lake: Semipalmated Plover

semipalmated plover alaska

Semipalmated Plover, male in his striking breeding plumage. The partial webbing between this bird’s toes is visible; it is this partial webbing from which the term “semipalmated” is derived. Denali Highway, Alaska

As I may have mentioned elsewhere, finally obtaining a small boat here on the Chignik opened up new worlds in terms of wildlife viewing in general, birding in particular, fishing and all around exploring. As to the birding, with the greater range the scow provided we immediately began cataloguing species new to us in the drainage, The little Semipalmated Plover, already a favorite from other birding ventures, was among the first of these new-to-us Chignik species.

semipalmated plover juvenile chignik river

Semipalmated Plover juveniles, Chignik River, July 24, 2020. These plovers typically occurred on river gravel bars and shorelines in mixed flocks of Western and Least Sandpipers

As we didn’t acquire our scow until July, there is still documentation to be done. The Semipalmateds we encountered appeared to all be juveniles. According to Herbert K. Job, writing in Birds of America*, this isn’t unusual. He reported flocks of nothing but young birds migrating into the Atlantic seaboard in September, a month or so after adults had arrived from their northern breeding grounds. At any rate, we took lots of photos, searched through them carefully on the large screen of our computer, and found no adults. This coming spring, we will begin early searching the various shorelines, river bars and rocky islands for signs of adult birds and breeding.

semipalmated plover nest denali highway alaska

If you didn’t know they were there, you’d probably miss them, but even when you feel certain a nest may be nearby, the eggs can be quite difficult to locate. The nest itself is a barely discernible depression lined with twigs and leaves. The precocial young will leave the nest upon hatching and although the parents will stay close, the little ones will find their own food. There may be nothing in the avian world quite so cute as the scurrying ping-pong ball of fluff a young shore peep resembles. Approximately four weeks after hatching, they’ll be able to fly. (Denali Highway, Alaska)

Semipalmated Plover Range Map: with permission from The Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Birds of the World

Semipalmated plover Charadrius semipalmatus
Order: Charadriiformes
CharadriusLatin derived from Greek kharadrios for a bird found in river valleys
semipalmatusLatin – semi = half + palmatus = palm – referring to this species’ partly webbed feet

Status at Chignik Lake: Occasional to Common in Summer; Status in Spring uncertain; Absent in Fall and Winter

David Narver, Birds of the Chignik River Drainage, summers 1960-63Occasional

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

Aniakchak National Monument and Preserve Bird List: Present

able 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

Birds of Chignik Lake: Gyrfalcon – World’s Largest Falcon

Gyrfalcons Louis Agassiz Fuertes Birds of America

In the absence of a photo of my own of this magnificent species, here offered is Louis Agassiz Fuertes’ beautiful plate from the 1936 edition of the classic Birds of America*.

Twice this past fall a dark, bulky hawk-like shape quite unlike our resident Rough-legged Hawks and our occasional Peregrine Falcons flew close, directly over my head. In the first instance Barbra and I were cruising downriver in our scow, and although I had my camera with me, it was to no avail. “Gyrfalcon!” I shouted to Barbra over the noise of the two-stroke. We were fairly certain we’d seen this species at a distance in previous years, but this was by far our best look at one.

In the second instance I was by myself at the boat landing. With no camera along, I watched through my binoculars as the falcon cruised downriver along the far shoreline. Suddenly it veered my way, crossed the river, and for a few exciting seconds hovered low, directly over my head as though investigating me. I lowered my binoculars and, as Joel Sartore might say, simply enjoyed “petting the whale,” understanding that in that moment I was probably closer to a wild gyrfalcon than I ever again would be. As suddenly as it had changed direction to come my way, it was off again, this time heading for downriver islands where ducks and yellowlegs can often be found feeding in the shallows.

At a length of roughly two feet from beak to tail and bulkier even that most buteos, this is the world’s largest falcon. It is almost strictly a denizen of the far north where it typically preys heavily on ptarmigan. The “gyr” of gyrfalcon is pronounced “jer” according to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s Birds of the World. “Gyr” may have evolved from the Old High German or Norse for vulture, or it may have its roots in Greek and Latin indicating curving or circular flight bringing to mind the opening lines of Yeats’s poem The Second Coming:

Turning and turning, into the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer…

It’s one of the most frequently quoted poems in the English language, various lines showing up in everything from book titles to folk and rock music to film. It was especially frequently drawn from in the year 2016, a fact which might pique interest…

Although Gyrfalcons occur in both a dark, gray plumage morph and in what must surely be a spectacular white morph, the handful of birds we have seen along the Chignik Drainage have all been of the darker variety. This is a fairly rare species; encountering one is always a thrill. Look for a bulky silhouette with much more rounded wings than the related Peregrine Falcon.

Gyrfalcon Range Map: with permission from The Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Birds of the World

Gyrfalcon Falco rusticolus
Order: Falconiformes
FalcoLatin for falcon – from falx, falcis – sickle, as in the shape of the falcon’s talons
rusticolus: Latin – rus = country + colere = to dwell; country dweller

Status at Chignik Lake: Rare

David Narver, Birds of the Chignik River Drainage, summers 1960-63Rare, near Black Lake

Alaska Peninsula and Becharof National Wildlife Refuge Bird List, 2010:
Rare in all seasons

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

Birds of Chignik: Double-crested Cormorant

Chignik Double-crested cormorant

Next to Pelagic Cormorants (left), at first glance Double-cresteds are bulkier birds. The yellow lores and throat are diagnostic. As is also the case with Red-faced Cormorants, the coloration is due to bare skin, not plumage. Note, too, the Double-crested’s heavy, hooked bill.

From a distance, the Chignik’s three species of cormorants, like most cormorants worldwide, look pretty much the same: a gangly cross between a loon and a goose dressed in drab, brown-black plumage. But if you’re lucky enough to get near to a cormorant, you might find that they are actually quite striking.

Like our other cormorants, Double-cresteds are primarily piscivorous. They are far and away the most wide-spread and common of North America’s cormorants, and unlike our other species, Double-cresteds frequently nest in trees. This could account for the fact that they are more frequently seen in fresh water than Red-faced or Pelagic cormorants, though they are still at home on ocean waters.

“Mike” Michael L. Baird’s photograph captures the double crest of this Double-crested Cormorant in breeding plumage. CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1995289

In non-breeding plumage, look for the yellow-orange skin around the Double-crested’s face. Photograph  © Frank Schulenburg, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=79611808

From a distance, this Japanese Cormorant looked as black and nondescript as any cormorant, but a closer look revealed a pallet of subtle hues..

Double-crested Cormorant Range Map: with permission from The Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Birds of the World

Double Cormorant Phalacrocorax auritus
Order: Suliformes
PhalacrocoraxLatinized Ancient Greek = cormorant (from “bald” and “crow/raven”)
auritusLatin = eared (for its breeding plumage crests)

Status at Chignik Lake: Not observed in the freshwater drainage, but common in nearby coastal waters

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

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

Aniakchak National Monument and Preserve Bird List: Present

Table of Contents for the Complete List of Birds of Chignik Lake

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