About Jack & Barbra Donachy

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

Birds of Chignik Lake: Bufflehead – Our Smallest Diving Duck

Seen from a distance, Buffleheads often appear black and white – like plump, buoyant miniature Panda Bears bobbing on a lake surface, Viewed more closely and in the right light, the purples and greens on heads of this species’ males are brilliant and stunning. (Chignik Lake, December 31, 2016)

Averaging only 13 to 16 inches from bill to tail, Bufflehead are small but striking. Their diminutive stature plays to their advantage when it comes to nesting. Like their cousins, the goldeneyes, Bufflehead are cavity nesters. But thanks to their small size, they can make use of the not particularly large holes made my Northern Flickers, a medium-sized member of the woodpecker family.

The Chignik River in late winter is often a good place to see various species of ducks biding their time till waters further north become ice free. Beginning at nine o’clock and proceeding clockwise: female Bufflehead; 3 Mallard drakes; Mallard hen; Ring-necked drake; Bufflehead drake; Mallard drake; Greater Scaup hen; and at seven o’clock, that’s a Ring-necked hen on the outside and a Bufflehead drake on the inside. (Chignik River, March 14, 2017)

Buffleheads’ diets shift with seasons and habitats. I’ve seen them eat sculpins in the Chignik system, but they take in all manner of aquatic invertebrates as well as some plant material. Quick and wary, they’re agile divers – a headlong leap and disappear below the surface. Relatively easily fooled by decoys and relentlessly hunted and shot in the early part of the 20th century, their numbers have never fully recovered, though they remain fairly common.

The white sides and black back are consistent, but in the right light the drake’s head lights up with various shades of purple, blue and green. (Chignik Lake, January 27, 2017)

As with most other cavity nesting birds, this species is a good candidate for the benefits of strategically placed nesting boxes. Because their breeding range is generally limited to areas where Northern Flickers live, boxes could help Buffleheads expand their range and shore up their numbers elsewhere. Boxes suitable for Buffleheads might also attract small owls, which would also be interesting.

Even at a distance, it’s easy to identify the ducks this Bald Eagle is strafing as male Buffleheads. There’s no need to worry about anyone’s safety here; unless one of the ducks is injured or sick, they’ll all easily disappear beneath the water before the eagle closes in further. (Chignik Lake, December 31, 2015.)

Bufflehead drakes in flight, Chignik River. (December 3, 2016)

This is about as close as I’ve been able to get to one of these shy little ducks. Clearly if I’m to improve my photographs of this species, I’ll need to set up a blind and put patience to practice. (Chignik River, January 17, 2017)

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

Bufflehead Bucephala albeola
Order: Anseriformes
Family: Anatidae
Bucephala:  Ancient Greek, boukephalos = bullheaded
albeola: from Latin albus = white

Status at Chignik Lake, 2016-19: Common in late Fall, Winter and early Spring

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

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

Aniakchak National Monument and Preserve Bird List: Present

loon silhouette

Previous: Barrow’s Goldeneye

Next Article: Common Merganser – She Wears the Crown

*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.

Crispy, Crunchy, Homemade Rice Crackers

We’re at that clean-out-our-pantry time of year when we begin working through stores in earnest, cleaning out freezers and cupboards while we anticipate our annual summertime BST – Big Shopping Trip. This year? Plot Twists. First off, there’s the CoronaVirus. Here in Newhalen, if we’ve needed an additional ingredient, we’ve been able to drive over to our local general store – a small place that happens to have just about everything a person could ever need. We’re fond of saying, “If it’s not at the Iliamna Trading Company, you don’t need it.” Anchovies? They’ve got ‘em. Smoked oysters? They’ve got ‘em. Sanma, those delicious little tinned fish from Japan? No. Of course they don’t have those! I said it was a small store.

The other plot twist is an impending move. Wait. Did she just say “move?” Again? Didn’t she just move? And, like, for about the 80th time in the last 10 years?

Yep. Impeding move. We are heading back to the village where we left our hearts, back to Chignik Lake. Thankfully for everyone, enrollment appears to have stabilized at a number comfortably above the state-mandated minimum of 10. Of course, due to Shelter-in-Place orders and the wise decision among Alaska’s bush villages to prohibit people from flying in, we don’t know when the actual move will occur. It’s a good time to be staying close to home, cooking and baking through the larder.

The other day, I noticed that we still had a couple bags of dried chickpeas in our cupboard. I recalled that these bags had come with us last summer when we moved to Newhalen. “No way do these get on another plane,” I thought to myself. Fortunately, we had all the ingredients I needed to make a giant batch of hummus. Even lemons – which we hardly ever had at The Lake. Proof enough that Newhalen truly is the “Cush Bush.” (I’m smiling. It has been an easy and enjoyable year.) As soon as it the hummus was ready, we got out the last of our rice crackers and dug in.

But…

…thin, crispy, salty cracker by delectably thin, crispy, crunchy cracker…

Before I knew it, we were confronted with a problem. A big problem. I mean a Really Big Problem. All this fresh, delicious hummus and we had finished off the crackers! I sliced carrots thin and tried to substitute those. It was… well, if one must. We wanted crackers. Iliamna Trading would have them, but we’ve really been trying to honor the shelter-in-place edict.

Our dilemma got me to thinking about homemade crackers. This wouldn’t be my first rodeo in the world of crispy and crunchy. I’d made graham crackers, wheat thins, cheese-its, and more. But I’d never made rice crackers.

I found a base recipe and gave it a go. I’ll be honest, I worked and reworked this recipe before I met with success. I thought the last batch came out great. This was confirmed by Jack, “Forget about making dinner. Let’s just have crackers and hummus and watch old Suits episodes tonight!” he said as he reached for another cracker. Winner winner, hummus dinner!

They key turned out to be making the crackers really thin. After trying a rolling pin and then a pasta roller, I found the best way to make the dough thin enough was to flatten it using a tortilla press. By rolling the dough into marble-sized balls, I was able to press four crackers at a time. I know, that sounds like a lot of work for crackers. But, hey, I’m sheltering in. There’s time! And, man are they good!

Homemade Onion Rice Crackers

Ingredients

  • 1 cup rice flour
  • 1/3 cup water
  • 1 tbsp unsalted butter, melted
  • 1/2 tsp salt, non iodized will taste better
  • 1 tsp onion powder (or experiment with other spices and herbs)

Directions

  1. Preheat oven to 325°F.
  2. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper. Set aside.
  3. Cut the sides off of a ziplock bag to use to line the tortilla press later.
  4. Place all ingredients in a bowl.
  5. Stir with a fork until dough has crumbly chunks, like pie dough.
  6. Knead together. If it doesn’t come together, add water by teaspoons until it does.
  7. Using a teaspoon, scoop out some dough.
  8. Using your hand, roll it into a ball. The ball should be the shape and size of a marble.
  9. Place the ball between the cut ziplock sheets on a tortilla press.
  10. Press the ball with the tortilla press.
  11. Peel flattened ball off the plastic and place it on prepared baking sheet.
  12. Repeat with remainder of dough. You should be able to fit 4 dough marbles on your tortilla press once you get the hang of it.
  13. Bake crackers for 15-18 minutes. Keep an eye on them to make sure they don’t get overdone.
  14. Crackers will be slightly brown and crispy when they are done.
  15. Store cooled crackers in an airtight container.

Sugar-free, Sweet and Satisfying Banana Custard

A brûlée crust does take this dish out of the sugar-free category. It tastes wonderful without the crust. It just doesn’t look very beautiful.

We are the consummate rescuers of nearly wasted bananas. Over this past year, we’ve collected aged very brown bananas from various places and have been enjoying them in a variety of recipes. Our favorite, as of late, is a custard made out of the overripe bananas.  It’s fantastically easy. It tastes wonderful. We’ve been regularly stocking our fridge with a batch and have guilt-free snacks for dessert on demand.

Since it’s made from overripe bananas, it has the not so lovely color of said fruit. The first batch we made, we served it with vanilla ice cream to mask the custard. On the next batch, I drizzled a chocolate ganache to pretty it up. Then I tried a brûlée top. If you are having a fancy dinner party, any of these options beautify the custard. But honestly, none of that is necessary. It tastes great just as it is. And, of course, it’s healthier au natural.

Banana Custard Au Natural

Ingredients

  • 4 overripe bananas
  • 3 eggs
  • 3 tbsp coconut milk powder
  • 1/2 tsp vanilla extract, optional

Directions

  1. Preheat oven to 350° F.
  2. Put all ingredients in a bowl.
  3. Use a stick blender to blend until smooth.
  4. Pour custard into 4 ramekins.
  5. Put ramekins in a glass baking dish.
  6. Fill baking dish with hot water. Water should surround ramekins as best you can (without spilling, of course)
  7. Bake for 45 minutes.
  8. Remove ramekins from water bath and allow to cool a bit before serving. Serve warm. Or store in refrigerator and eat chilled.

Add a Little Zip to Your Morning – Ginger Crumbled Rhubarb Muffins

Spiked with a warm hit of ginger, rhubarb jam muffins quickly turn the feeling in our home from a dreary shelter in place to cozy and safely tucked-in.

A friend asked to trade some freshly laid eggs for some baked goods. With no dietary restrictions and no allergies I had a blank slate in front of me. I flipped through my mental recipe book of favorites. What a fun task! I visualized braided bread, focaccia, soft pretzels. Then I switched to sweets – mocha bars, monster cookies, blueberry pie. Last summer’s many warm and sunny harvesting days yielded gallons of berries and stalks upon stalks of rhubarb. I had made rhubarb sauce that went so well dolloped on warm brie cheese. I still have a few jars left of this concoction. With the snow falling outside, I thought the ideal baked good should conjure summer days. It was decided – rhubarb muffins. I thought a crumble crown would jazz up a potentially plain looking muffin. A bit of ginger and cinnamon added to the crumble finished out the flavor ensemble. The finished product came out moist and flavorful. A fresh cup of french roast, a rhubarb muffin and a fried egg – now that’s a warm and cozy breakfast!

Ginger Crumbled Rhubarb Muffins

Ingredients

For the crumble

  • 3 tbsp granulated sugar
  • 3 tbsp brown sugar
  • 1/4 tsp cinnamon
  • 1/8 tsp ground ginger
  • pinch salt
  • 4 tbsp unsalted butter, melted
  • 3/4 cup all purpose flour

For the muffins

  • 1 cup all purpose flour
  • 1/2 cup whole wheat pastry flour
  • 2 tsp baking powder
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 1 egg
  • 3/4 cup whole milk
  • 1/4 cup vegetable oil
  • 1/4 cup granulated sugar
  • 2 tbsp honey
  • 1 cup rhubarb sauce, or substitute your favorite jam

Directions

  1. Preheat oven to 375° F.
  2. Grease a 12-muffin pan. Set aside.
  3. Mix together all crumble ingredients.
  4. Break apart large chunks into pea-sized pieces. Set aside.
  5. For the muffins, in a large bowl, whisk together flours, baking powder, and salt.
  6. In a separate bowl, whisk together egg, milk, oil, sugar and honey.
  7. Stir egg mixture into flour mixture. Don’t overmix.
  8. Stir in rhubarb sauce.
  9. Evenly divide batter into muffin pan.
  10. Top each muffin with crumble mixture.
  11. Bake for 20-25 minutes. Muffins should be browned and an inserted wooden pick will come out clean when finished.
  12. Let cool on wire rack for about 10 minutes before removing from pan.

Birds of Chignik Lake: Barrow’s Goldeneye – a Duck that will Nest in a Box

This fortuitous capture illustrates three key diagnostic differences distinguishing Barrow’s Goldeneye (forward) from the Common Goldeneye (back). 1) The back of the Barrow’s is distinctively more black. 2) The Barrow’s white facial marking is crescent-shaped as opposed to the Common’s rounded patch. 3) The Barrow’s crown is more flattened; the Common’s has a rounded peak. Still, the two species are similar enough that it pays to glass flocks. Females are so similar as to be difficult to distinguish. (January 14, 2019)

Barrow’s Goldeneyes visit the lake and river just frequently enough to make it worthwhile to keep a look out for them. My records indicate that we encountered at least one specimen each of the three years of this study, always a distinctively marked drake. However, one of those sightings involved a bird mixed with a flock of mergansers and (probably) female and juvenile Common Goldeneyes that was so far off I didn’t pick it out till I put the photo I’d taken on my computer.

Depending on their position, it can require a sharp eye to spot a Barrow’s among a group of Commons. Got your pick? Keep reading to see if you nailed it. (Chignik Lake, January 14, 2019)

Near Lake Myvatn in Iceland, Europe’s only population of Barrow’s Goldeneyes nests in holes and crevices in lava fields. The population of about 200 birds is enhanced with nesting boxes locals have installed on the sides of barns and other structures, showing that in many cases a lack of nesting sites limits bird populations, while adding additional sites can help a population thrive.

Nesting boxes for ducks (and other birds) needn’t be complicated. These examples are supplied with nesting material to get things started. Note the mesh screening on the door below each hole – very important. It’s there so that the tiny ducklings can use their strong little legs and feet to climb out of the box on that magical day when mom calls them to enter the world. Photo By: Master Sgt. April WickesReleased

Want to help out ducks in your area? The Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s NestWatch website has loads of information on everything from building nesting boxes to sharing the information you collect with the Lab’s scientists. Check it out!

(In the photo of the group of Common and Barrow’s Goldeneye above, did you pick the third bird from the right?)

Barrow’s Goldeneye Range Map: with permission from The Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Birds of the World

Barrow’s Goldeneye Bucephala islandica
Order: Anseriformes
Family: Anatidae
Bucephala:  Ancient Greek, boukephalos = bullheaded
islandica: Latinized, of Iceland

Status at Chignik Lake, 2016-19: Uncommon on Chignik Lake and Chignik River

David Narver, Birds of the Chignik River Drainage, summers 1960-63: Only One Sighting Recorded – a Drake

Alaska Peninsula and Becharof National Wildlife Refuge Bird List, 2010Rare in All Seasons

Aniakchak National Monument and Preserve Bird List: Present

loon silhouette

Previous: Common Goldeneye

Next Article: Bufflehead – Our Smallest Diving 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.

Birds of Chignik Lake: Common Goldeneye

Dapper drake and handsome hen, a pair of Common Goldeneyes hang out at The Lake on a calm, midwinter day. (Chignik Lake, January 2, 2017)

From fall through spring, Common Goldeneyes are indeed common throughout the Chignik River system. Although they seem to generally prefer the lake, they readily shift to the river if ice takes that option away. In either location they spend virtually all of their time on the water, loafing, sleeping or diving for small fish such as sticklebacks and sculpin.

The shimmering emerald green on the drake’s head doesn’t always show; it frequently appears black and in the right light can even look purple. But they’re called “goldeneye” for good reason. (Chignik Lake, January 2, 2017)

Hunted and cautious, these ducks cast a wary golden eye on any indication of human presence. Getting the right combination of somewhat approachable birds on a day calm enough and with enough light to photograph well at a distance is rare in the windblown Chignik drainage. Picking up the binoculars, glassing out the living room window and seeing these white-bodied ducks was a common occurrence. Being granted favorable shooting conditions was far less so.

Seen from straight on, the head shape of many diving ducks is reminiscent of an old-fashioned lightbulb held upside down. I suspect the pronounced jowls have something to do with the prodigious  jaw muscles required for pulling clams out of muck, clamping down on fish and crustaceans, and yanking up weeds. (Chignik Lake, January 2, 2017)

Those bright amber-yellow eyes aren’t the only unmistakable goldeneye characteristic. Many times, Barbra and I have been standing waist-deep in the river casting flies for salmon when our thoughts were interrupted by an approaching high-pitched whistling sound.

“Goldeneyes!”

We didn’t even have to look up, although of course we always did.

There are times when their numbers on the lake are in the dozens. Here four handsomely-marked drakes are followed by a more demurely-marked hen. Note the yellow at the tip of the hen’s bill. (December 31, 2016) 

The distinctive whistling sound goldeneyes in flight make has led to their nickname: Whistler. Clangula, their scientific specific name is misleading; they don’t seem to be nearly as vocal as other ducks. When feeding, they are quite active, paddling with purpose and diving in a sudden arch. They often join in with mergansers to cooperatively feed along a shoreline or underwater edge – birds of both species surfacing with wriggling fish.

Led by a mature female, this is very likely her brood winging and whistling down the Chignik River. (November 27, 2017)

Although goldeneyes visit The Chigniks, it is unlikely that they breed there. The reason: there aren’t any trees to speak of. Goldeneyes are among the several species of ducks that are cavity nesters, preferring holes in trees that have been hammered out by woodpeckers or that have occurred due to broken off limbs and so forth. The female chooses cavities only a few feet above the forest floor to several tens of feet high, leading to the drama of her brood being forced to literally leap into the world.

Except for a the few White Spruce trees people have planted in the Chignik villages, the area is devoid of large trees. No trees. No tree cavities. No cavity-nesting goldeneyes. With old-growth forests being relentlessly reduced to lumber throughout the boreal regions where goldeneyes breed, installing a nesting box or three (or more) would make an excellent citizen scientist project.

As is the case with other “green-head” drakes, Greater Scaup and Mallards, in certain light the head feathers of Common Goldeneyes can appear purple, as is the case with all seven birds in this photo. (Chignik River, March 12, 2017)

Drakes in Springtime. (Chignik River, May 14, 2017)

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

Common Goldeneye Bucephala clangula
Order: Anseriformes
Family: Anatidae
Bucephala:  Ancient Greek, boukephalos = bullheaded
clangula: Latin, to resound

Status at Chignik Lake, 2016-19: Common on Chignik Lake and Chignik River from late fall through Spring

David Narver, Birds of the Chignik River Drainage, summers 1960-63: Common on both lakes in Spring and Fall; rare in midsummer

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

Aniakchak National Monument and Preserve Bird List: Present

loon silhouette

Previous: White-winged Scoter – A Lone, Rainy Day Visitor 

Next Article: Barrow’s Goldeneye – a Duck that will Nest in a Box

*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: White-winged Scoter – A Lone, Rainy Day Visitor

In winter rain… White-winged Scoter. (Chignik Lake, January 6, 2017)

A species that only shows up once in three years at a given location would best be described as “accidental,” and so it is with the White-winged Scoter, a bird much more likely to be found in the salt chuck most of the year. There they take in the usual diving duck diet of mollusks, crustaceans and small fish. Formerly classified as conspecific with Europe’s Velvet Scoter (cool name), White-wingeds nest in boreal forests – and less frequently on tundra – from interior Alaska through western Canada.

With almost silky-black plumage, it’s easy to see why the European version (Melanitta fusca) is called Velvet Scoter. The colorful bill and Nike eye-swoosh add to the White-winged’s striking look. (Wikipedia: Len Blumin)

I’ve read elsewhere that White-wingeds can be quite difficult to get close enough to for a photograph, so I felt lucky to make good my one opportunity with a bird in flight showing his diagnostic white markings. He was probably passing from one side of the peninsula to the other on that windy, rain-soaked January day when he decided to give the lake a look.

White-winged Scoter Range Map: with permission from The Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Birds of the World

White-winged Scoter Melanitta deglandi
Order: Anseriformes
Family: Anatidae
Melanitta: from Ancient Greek: melas = black; netta = duck
deglandi: Latinization of Degland, for French ornithologist Côme Damien Degland

Status at Chignik Lake, 2016-19: Rare to Accidental on Chignik Lake

David Narver, Birds of the Chignik River Drainage, summers 1960-63: Rare on Chignik Lagoon

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

Aniakchak National Monument and Preserve Bird List: Present

loon silhouette

Previous: Black Scoter – Springtime Courtship on a Wilderness Lake

Next Article: Common Goldeneye

*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: Black Scoter – Springtime Courtship on a Wilderness Lake

Female (left) and male Black Scoters frequently visit Chignik Lake in springtime, usually in what appear to be mated pairs or small groups of hens and drakes. (Chignik Lake, May 3, 2018)

Formerly lumped together with coots and until fairly recently considered conspecific with European Common Scoters, not as much is known about Black Scoters as is known about most other North American Ducks. A few nests have been found – depressions the female lines with grass in treeless environments. I witnessed a pair mating on the lake, so it might be presumed that they intended to nest someplace not too distant.

After making his intentions known with displays featuring wing-flapping and rearing up with his bill pointed to the sky, Sir mounted his Good Lady. With Narver reporting the species as common on both lakes during summers, Black Scoters must surely nest in the Chignik Drainage. (May 3, 2018)

Considered “sea ducks,” nearby ocean bays are likely where Black Scoters winter. I never saw them on the lake earlier than spring. With the male’s black plumage and bright orange bill, these ducks are unlikely to be overlooked. For that matter, the female too is fairly easily distinguished by her contrasting dark brown cap and pale, almost white, face. If you can get a look at the bill, check for a distinctive hook at the tip. This may be an adaptation for digging up shellfish, the Black Scoter’s favorite food.

Female Black Scoter in flight over Chignik Lake. Note the hook at the tip of her bill. (August 16, 2018)

Another nearly diagnostic characteristic is the call the drakes produce. Gentle, high-pitched tones sung in a minor key are the norm. At other times the whistling sounds slightly reedy, though still quite pleasant. It’s a music I’ve come to associate with springtime at The Lake.

A peaceful morning on Chignik Lake (May 3, 2018)

Perhaps Chignik Lake is only a stopover for this pair as they travel up the drainage to the marshy tundra around Black Lake where the female will make her nest. Or maybe they’ve already got a nest, above the tree-line on one of the mountains overlooking the lake. The Chigniks remain a wonderfully under-explored and seldom studied corner of the world. (May 3, 2018) 

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

Black Scoter Melanitta americana
Order: Anseriformes
Family: Anatidae
Melanitta: from Ancient Greek: melas = black; netta = duck
americana: Latin, of America

Status at Chignik Lake, 2016-19: Occasional on Chignik Lake

David Narver, Birds of the Chignik River Drainage, summers 1960-63: Common on both lakes (Reported by former name, Common Scoter Oidemia nigra

Alaska Peninsula and Becharof National Wildlife Refuge Bird List, 2010Common in all Seasons

Aniakchak National Monument and Preserve Bird List: Present

loon silhouette

Previous: Steller’s Eider

Next Article: White-winged Scoter – A Lone, Rainy Day Visitor

*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: Steller’s Eider

Female Steller’s Eider, Chignik River. Rarely seen on the river, Steller’s Eiders inhabit The Chignik’s nearby ocean bays and estuaries. (November 16, 2016)

Straight away I could see that the small, dark duck bobbing on the Chignik on a cold, windy, misty November day was something “different.” As it was milling around at a downriver location I couldn’t get to, I snapped a couple of photographs from a distance and hoped I’d be able to figure it out when I got home and could look at my Sibley’s Field Guide and the various bird websites bookmarked on my computer.

I was not guessing eider. New to birding, the only eiders I’d ever seen were further north – rocketing splashes of color pointed out to me by local Natives as they winged by. Brilliantly marked drakes. A friend at The Lake tells me he sees King Eiders down at The Bay. If I can get my boat out to The Lake…

Steller’s Eider drakes are, to say the least, eye-catching when they’re in breeding plumage. (Wikipedia: Ron Knight from Seaford, East Sussex, United Kingdom – Steller’s Eider Polysticta stelleri)

During the breeding season, Steller’s Eiders head to Siberia and the Alaskan Arctic. The rest of the year, the Aleutians and the Alaska Peninsula are good places to find them. As is the case with Brant, Cackling Geese and Emperor Geese, Izembek National Wildlife Refuge, located at the end of the Alaska Peninsula, is a good place to find them.

Like many other diving ducks, eiders are catholic in their diets. At sea they primarily go for mollusks, worms, small fish and crustaceans. While on their tundra breeding grounds, they consume fairy shrimp, insects, grasses, sedges, and berries.

Eiders, Point Hope, Alaska. (August 30, 2012)

These Arctic ducks are especially sensitive to a changing climate. Their numbers are in decline. Probably one reason for this is that as temperatures warm, various predators – particularly those of eggs and nestlings – are able to move northward.

Steller’s Eider Range Map: with permission from The Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Birds of the World

Steller’s Eider Polysticta stelleri
Order: Anseriformes
Family: Anatidae
Polysticta: from Greek: poly = many; sticte = varied or spotted
stelleri: Latinization of Steller – German zoologist/naturalist George Wilhelm Steller

Status at Chignik Lake, 2016-19: Rare Wintertime Visitor on Chignik River

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

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

Aniakchak National Monument and Preserve Bird List: Present

loon silhouette

Previous: Long-tailed Duck – Political Correctness or Respect… When is a Name Change Merited? 

Next Article: Black Scoter – Springtime Courtship on a Wilderness Lake

*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: Long-tailed Duck – Political Correctness or Respect… when is a Name Change Merited?

No duck dives deeper (up to 200 feet) or more frequently than the Long-tailed. To catch The Chignik’s handsome, Neapolitan-ice-cream-colored drakes at their most colorful, you’ve got to get out on the lagoon in late winter when they are at their most abundant and resplendent. Later in spring and on through summer, they’ll disperse to tundra ponds where they molt into drabber plumage and lose their eponymous tails. (Chignik Lagoon, March 9, 2019)

You can find passages in older texts in which Long-tailed Ducks are identified by their former moniker, Old-squaws, an appellation assigned to these stunningly beautiful creatures for their habit of gathering in large groups where their somewhat gull-like calls and melodies fill the air almost without cessation. The name is a trifecta of insult – besmirching women, elders, and Native Americans in one fell-swoop. Come to think of it, it doesn’t do any honor to the ducks either. Several thoughts tempt my fingers to give them voice on this keyboard, but I refrain.

On patrol for mollusks and whatever else might be presented during a dive, a Long-tailed (left) ambles along with a female scaup on Chignik River. (December 30, 2016)

When, in the year 2000, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Alaska petitioned the American Ornithologists’ Union Committee on Classification and Nomenclature to change C. hyemalis’s common name, the committee balked. Categorizing empathy for those who might be offended by the term Old-squaw as “political correctness,” members of the AOU took the position that such sensibilities alone did not justify new nomenclature.

One might reasonably counter, “For goodness sake, why not?” We’re talking about language here; shouldn’t the way we speak be permitted to evolve alongside insight, understanding, and other manifestations of enlightenment?

The above Long-tailed Ducks were part of a group of 13 we came across on an Arctic tundra pond near Point Hope, Alaska. (August 25, 2013)

The objections of some AOU members notwithstanding, the pressure was on. Refuge was found by couching the long overdue change as a matter of maintaining consistency with the rest of the English-speaking world where “Long-tailed Duck” had already long been designated.

The matter of naming birds (and other beings) is interesting. Wouldn’t we all be better served by appellatives that describe a characteristic of the animal in question rather than some anthropomorphized perception of their behavior, or more arbitrary still, the surname of whomever claims first to have “discovered” it?

In any event, in the matter of C. hyemalis, Long-tailed Duck it is. Though, I’ve got to say, I can’t look at a drake in late-winter plumage and not think of that tri-colored Neapolitan ice cream, the candy-red eye a cherry on the chocolate.

From Flattop Mountain, you can take in a view of the Chignik River flowing into Chignik Lagoon. The entire drainage is rich with aquatic vegetation, mollusks and other invertebrates, and small fish, all of which represent potential meals for the area’s waterfowl. (September 21, 2018)

Long-tailed Duck Range Map: with permission from The Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Birds of the World

Long-tailed Duck: Clangula hyemalis
Order: Anseriformes
Family: Anatidae
Clangula: from the Latin clangare = to resound
hyemalis: Latin, of winter

Status at Chignik Lake, 2016-19: Common. At times abundant on Chignik Lagoon; Occasional on Chignik Lake; Summer ?

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

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

Aniakchak National Monument and Preserve Bird List: Present

loon silhouette

Previous: Canvasback – The Duke of Ducks

Next Article: Steller’s Eider

*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.