Birds of Chignik Lake: Glaucous-winged Gull – So… What’s Up with the Red Dot?

One of Chignik Lake’s Glaucous-winged Gulls, in non-breeding plumage, surveys the shoreline for salmon scraps. (Chignik Lake, November 2, 2016)

Rubbery-looking pink legs and feet, splotchy-brown neck and head (in non-breeding plumage), thick bill and overall large size quickly narrow the choices when trying to determine the identity of this gull. If you’re in the Pacific Northwest, possibilities are further whittled down. Check for a dark brown iris. Finally, if the gull you’re looking at has wingtips of gray rather than black, it’s a Glaucous-winged.

Perched on an abandoned lakeshore house on a rainy day. Note the toenails. (Chignik Lake, November 12, 2016)

Although there are even more Glaucous-wingeds at Chignik Lagoon and along the nearshore ocean, as long as there is open water there are bound to be a few of these omnivores cruising the lake and river. When it comes to food, virtually anything is on the menu – including the eggs and chicks of other birds and even of their own species. These birds have no qualms about hanging out at the local dump.

This is a second winter Glaucous-winged. Note the overall more brownish-gray plumage and the dark bill tip. Glaucous-wingeds don’t begin breeding until at least their fourth year. (Chignik River, October 9, 2017)

In breeding plumage, the Glaucous-wing Gull’s crimson bill spot contrasts distinctively with its amber-yellow bill. (Chignik Lake, August 19,  2016)

During summertime visits to a seashore or lake, you’ve no doubt noticed the bright red dot on the lower bill of some gulls. Well, we can thank Dutch scientist Niko Tinbergen for figuring out its purpose.

He noticed that adults returning to the nest didn’t feed the chicks until the chicks pecked at the dot. He devised experiments in which he changed or covered the dot. The result was that the chicks didn’t get fed. So this dot – which is particularly obvious during nesting season – is a vital marker in triggering a response from chicks to tap the adult’s bill, and for the adults to then regurgitate a meal.

As the behavior of the chicks appeared to be instinctive, Tinbergen’s observations became important in debates regarding animal behavior: how much is learned verses how much is innate. For his contributions to the science of ethology, in 1973 he was awarded a Nobel Prize.

Glaucous-Winged Gull. (Chignik Lake, August 19, 2017)

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

Glaucous-winged Gull Larus glaucescens
Order: Charadriiformes
Family: Laridae
Larus: from Latin for (large) sea bird
glaucescens: New Latin glaucous from Greek glaukos. In English – dull grayish green or blue in color

Status at Chignik Lake, 2016-19: Common mid-Spring through fall; Uncommon or Absent in Winter

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

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

Aniakchak National Monument and Preserve Bird ListPresent

loon silhouette

Previous: Mew Gull – The Gull of The Lake

Next Article: Great Horned Owl

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

Birds of Chignik Lake: Mew Gull – The Gull of The Lake

In breeding season, the Mew Gull’s eye ring becomes brilliantly erubescent. (Denali National Park, July 7, 2017)

Approximately 10,000 Mew Gulls populate Alaska during the summertime nesting season, making it one of the gulls you’re most likely to encounter – particularly if you are around a large inland lake or river. They begin showing up at Chignik Lake in mid-spring and hang around well into fall, their ongoing crying and calling a welcome sign of warmer days.

This is an act of courtship rathe than aggression. Potter Marsh, near Anchorage, is an excellent place to observe Mew Gulls nesting. Unlike our Chignik Birds, the Potter Marsh birds are habituated to humans and are reasonably tolerant of photographers. (June 24, 2017)

When it comes to gull identification – often a vexing matter – in one way Alaskans are fortunate. The gull most likely to be confused with Mews, the Ring-billed, doesn’t make it this far north. So if you see a gull that looks like a Mew – smallish, rounded white head, relatively thin bill, light gray back, dark wingtips with a splotch of white – it’s probably a Mew. When not in breeding plumage, the red orbital ring disappears. So, as with the color of the Mew’s iris (lighter in breeding birds, very dark in non-breeding birds) it can’t always be relied on as a field marker. However, there are two other characteristics worth noting. In Alaska, other than kittiwakes, as adults Mews are the only yellow-billed gull that lacks a red or black marking near the tip of the bill; (Young birds do typically have a dark bill tip.) The other feature is the adult Mew’s greenish-yellow legs. This shows up well in good light.

Behavior is often an excellent clue as to a species’ identity. Mew gulls have a penchant for perching in trees. In fact, they are the only white-headed gull to sometimes nest in trees – though in most locales they more commonly make their nests on the ground. Note the green cast to the legs of this specimen. (Denali National Park, July 7, 2017)

In past years, we haven’t been able to arrive at The Lake until August. By then, the nesting season is over. But we’ve seen enough very young Mews to conclude that they breed locally. As the fall salmon runs dissipate, most of Chignik Lake’s gulls leave. But throughout winter, from time to time a gull or two might show up . They’re opportunistic feeders – small fish, aquatic invertebrates, berries and carrion – particularly dead salmon – all figure in their diet. They can even catch insects on the wing.

Adult Mew Gull and chick, Savage River, Denali National Park. (July 7, 2017)

A first-year Mew Gull glides above the Chignik River in early winter, perhaps searching for salmon scraps. Note the dark bill tip. Even at this late date, there are still salmon in the Chignik system. (Chignik Lake, January 4, 2017)

Wingtips on Water – Chignik Lake, August 17, 2018

As is likely the case with many birders, when I first took on this project not only did I not know much about gulls, I wasn’t sure I wanted to know much about them. Blasé white and gray ice-cream cone thieves, parking lot patrollers, I just couldn’t make myself care very much about which species I was observing.

But I’ve come to care. These are beautiful birds, adapted to all kinds of environments. Far from garbage dump parasites, Mews generally avoid human traffic, preferring instead pristine lake, river, woodland and tundra environments where they assiduously rear their chicks. Chignik Lake is a more vibrant place with them.

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

Mew Gull Larus canus
Order: Charadriiformes
Family: Laridae
Larus: from Latin for (large) sea bird
canus: Latin – gray

Status at Chignik Lake, 2016-19: Common mid-Spring through fall; Uncommon in Winter

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

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

Aniakchak National Monument and Preserve Bird List: Present

loon silhouette

Previous: Wilson’s Snipe – Ghostly Sound of Spring

Next Article: Glaucus-winged Gull – So… What’s Up with the Red Dot?

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

Birds of Chignik Lake: Wilson’s Snipe – Ghostly Sound of Spring

Not an easy capture, finally getting a decent portrait of a Wilson’s Snipe represented a culmination of persistence, patience and study. I made this photograph in a a marshy area in the middle of our village. It is probable that these secretive birds nest in this area. (Chignik Lake, June 4, 2019)

By mid to late March, as evening twilight envelopes the Chignik Lake landscape, an otherworldly sound can be heard – one which no doubt has frightened the bejeezus out of more than one young camper whose head might have been stuffed with ghost stories around the campfire.

Winnowing snipe. At an air speed of about 25 miles an hour, air passing through the snipe’s rectrices (outermost tail feathers) creates some of the strangest avian music in North America.* (Click the highlighted text to listen.)

Migration. Wilson’s Snipe departing Point Hope, Alaska, August 25, 2018.

Country jokes involving nighttime forays into dark forests with flashlights and burlap bags aside, snipe hunts, these are fascinating birds. Grouped along with yellowlegs and tattlers as shorebirds, their more chunky appearance is owing to impressively large breast muscles. These muscles -prized by hunters as a delicacy – enable snipe to achieve astounding aerial speeds of over 60 miles per hour.

We had consistently flushed a snipe from edge habitat on hikes through a corner of the berry bog. Assuming the bird was a nesting hen, we avoided lingering in the area. Then, in early May, we happened upon this egg shell near where we’d been encountering the snipe. The early fireweed shoot in the foreground (lower right) tells the tale of a species that arrives in The Chigniks early, fledges its young, and departs before summer’s end. (Chignik Lake, May 4, 2019)

With a sharp eye, you might find an old nest – a subtle, grass-lined depression about the same size as your hands placed side by side. Only the hen broods the clutch of four mottled brown, sharply-pointed eggs. Chicks hatch out in less than three weeks and almost immediately leave the nest, downy little ping-pong balls perfectly capable of scurrying along after their mother as she hunts for insects and worms. Her bill is equipped with sensory receptors enabling her to probe deep into marsh and muck to feel for whatever might be available there. In fact, she can even move the flexible tip of her upper bill to grasp and pull in small invertebrates.

The berry bog drains into an almost Everglades-like grassy marsh where shallow water flows through wild violets, cottongrass, irises and other flowers. It’s a favorite feeding ground of both snipe and cranes. (Chignik Lake, June 2, 2019)

Apparently snipe sleep quite a bit during the day, so the best time to see them going about their business is in early morning and again in the evening. Because their eyes are set far back on their heads, they have nearly a 360 degree field of vision, making them difficult to approach. A good strategy for observing them is to locate a place they are frequenting and then, armed with binoculars, conceal yourself and wait quietly. They’ll occasionally perch on posts or trees and yelp, producing a call almost like that of a hen turkey.

Before the fall hunting season opens in September, the last of the Chignik’s snipe are long departed. They’ll overwinter in marshes and wetlands further south, and sometime in March head north to the Alaska Peninsula again, bringing with them another sound of spring.

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

Wilson’s Snipe Gallinago delicata
Order: Charadriiformes
Family: Scolopacidae
Gallinago: New Latin for snipe or woodcock: gallina = hen + ago = resembling: 
delicata: Latin – dainty

Status at Chignik Lake, 2016-19: Common mid-Spring through late Summer

David Narver, Birds of the Chignik River Drainage, summers 1960-63: Common in the Watershed (listed as Common Snipe)

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

Aniakchak National Monument and Preserve Bird List: Present

loon silhouette

Previous: Wandering Tattler – Sojourner from Far North Mountain Streams to Tropical Pacific Islands

Next Article: Mew Gull – The Gull of The 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: Wandering Tattler – Sojourner from Far North Mountain Streams to Tropical Pacific Islands

It seems fitting that my first known encounter with Tringa incana was on Tattler Creek in Denali National Park – the very mountain stream where the first Wandering Tattler was discovered. (July 15, 2017)

Wandering Tattlers aren’t mentioned in my 1917 copy of Birds of America. As best as I can determine, the species hadn’t yet been discovered. Denali National Park wasn’t created until 1917 – and was known back then as Mount McKinley National Park. The first Wandering Tattler nest wasn’t found until 1923 along another Denali creek. In any event, the omission is interesting – a reminder of how new the world still was just 100 years ago.

Like the Greater Yellowlegs of the previous article, tattlers are classified as shorebirds, and except for the nesting season rocky shorelines are generally the best places to find them. (Chignik River, August 29, 2016)

I stated above that my first known encounter with this species occurred in Denali National Park. It turns out, I had seen a pair a year earlier along the Chignik River. Inexperienced at bird identification at the time, I labeled the photos I took “Yellowlegs.” But a closer look at the above photo reveals a number of differences between these two species of the genus Tringa, both of which nest inland and often perch in trees.

With more experience, Greater Yellowlegs (above)  and Wandering Tattlers (previous photo) appear to be rather dissimilar. However, in 2016 I didn’t know that there was such a thing as the latter species. (Chignik River, August 20, 2018)

As I write this, I’m in Newhalen, Alaska – on hold as is the case with most of the rest of the country. I am eager for the Coronavirus-related travel ban to be lifted so that I can get back Chignik Lake. I have a couple of suspicions as to which creeks our tattlers nest along – stony, remote flows with steep gradients. There is still comparatively little documentation regarding this species – small wonder when one considers the isolated mountain streams in their far north breeding territory. And so there are contributions yet to be made.

Wandering Tattlers heading south along the Chignik. Eventually, their migration flight might take them to the west coast of the Lower 48, to the rocky coasts of Pacific Islands, or even as far as Australia. (Chignik River, August 29, 2016)

Range Map for Wandering Tattler

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

Wandering Tattler Tringa incana
Order: Charadriiformes
Family: Scolopacidae
Tringa: New Latin, from Ancient Greek trungus = white-tailed, bobbing shorebird mentioned by Aristotle.
incana: Latin – hoary or grayish white

Status at Chignik Lake, 2016-19: Uncertain. Probably an uncommon but regular resident and breeder along certain rocky tributaries. As Narver observed, probably more likely to be seen in late summer along main river, after chicks have fledged.

David Narver, Birds of the Chignik River Drainage, summers 1960-63: Common along Chignik River after about July 20

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

Aniakchak National Monument and Preserve Bird List: Present

loon silhouette

Previous: Greater Yellowlegs – Shorebird of the Treetops

Next Article: Wilson’s Snipe – Ghostly Sound of Spring

*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: Greater Yellowlegs – the Treetop Shorebird

Fattening up for the fall migration, this Greater Yellowlegs took advantage of high water on the lake to snag a few Nine-spine Sticklebacks tucked up in grass beds. (Chignik Lake, August 20, 2018)

The Greater Yellowleg’s piercing call can sound something like a car alarm going off, plenty loud enough to have stirred us from sleep during their spring and fall migration through The Chigniks. If you happen near their nest, you’ll know it. These are fairly large as shorebirds go, averaging about 14 inches in length, and they fiercely defend their territory with ear-piercingly shrill cries.

A treetop is generally not the place to look for shorebirds, but rules have exceptions and so it is with Greater Yellowlegs. While most of the year marshes, mudflats and other wetlands are a good place to look for this species. when they’re on their breeding grounds, check the trees. Yellowlegs use the vantage to keep watch over nests. (Chignik Lake, June 4, 2019)

Their nests are often located near small trees or other features in boggy terrain, which makes the landscape around Chignik Lake ideal breeding ground. While nesting, their diet consists mainly of insects. But during migration, they typically switch to meatier fare such as small fish. Active hunters, watching one high-step along a shoreline as it deftly uses its bill like chopsticks to capture whatever two-inch species might be available is to study a true master. The ones I’ve seen need work at at it only briefly before getting a full belly and treating themselves to a nap.

Stepping along the shoreline. (Chignik Lake, August 20, 2018)

With a salmon parr (probably Sockeye). (Chignik Lake, August 20, 2018)

Nap time. (Chignik Lake, August 20, 2018)

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

Greater Yellowlegs Tringa melanoleuca
Order: Charadriiformes
Family: Scolopacidae
Tringa: New Latin, from Ancient Greek trungus = white-tailed, bobbing shorebird mentioned by Aristotle.
melanoleuca: from Ancient Greek melas = black + leukos = white

Status at Chignik Lake, 2016-19: Common Spring through early Fall

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

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

Aniakchak National Monument and Preserve Bird List: Present

loon silhouette

Previous: Sandhill Crane – Wild, Resounding Tremolo (Check out the video/audio clip!)

Next Article: Wandering Tattler – Sojourner from Far North Mountain Streams to Tropical Pacific Islands

*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: Sandhill Cranes – Wild, Resounding Tremolo (Check out the video/audio clip!)

Gingerly lifting a muddy foot as he displays his stunning plumage, a Sandhill Crane steps through the Berry Bog and wild Iris leaves. Birders who observe Sandhills only in their wintering range may think of their plumage as gray. But on breeding grounds, cranes’ feathers take on a rich, rusty hue. (Chignik Lake, May 22, 2019)

One of the aspects of rural life we most enjoy is the changing of the seasons and the wild music that accompanies those changes. Springtime in The Chigniks ushers in a concerto of rainfall drumming on roofs, wind-driven waves lapping the shore, the crunching tread of bear paws on wet sand, owls hooting in the night, and all manner of songs from birds returning to their familiar breeding grounds: the eerie reverberations of winnowing snipe, the Golden-crowned Sparrow’s plaintive melody, geese cackling high over head, and myriad soli performed by robins, warblers, sparrows, thrushes, wrens, ducks and gulls. But without a doubt, the most iconic of all these vocalizations is the trumpeting tremolo of the Sandhill Crane. We were lucky enough to record a mated pair, heads thrown back, singing in full throat at a very close distance. If you’ve never heard such a performance, you’ve got to click on the video below.

We found this male feeding in a small, winter-browned field with his mate on a rainy day in Spring. (Chignik Lake, May 7, 2019)

These are huge birds. Fully grown they can measure over four feet in height (120 cm+), and if you are lucky enough to be near one, you might swear they go a foot beyond that. The Chigniks abound in the kind of wet, boggy habitat these birds are drawn to both for nesting and for feeding. They’ll eat just about anything – insects, small animals, berries and other plant material all figure into their diet.

Sandhills begin breeding as early as the age of two or as late as the age of seven, and once they have found each other they will remain bonded for a lifespan that might reach into the mid-thirties. They lay one or two eggs. A day after hatching, chicks are ready to follow the parents. Both feed their offspring. ((Chignik Lake, May 4, 2019)

Cranes generally arrive at Chignik Lake in late April, their brassy calls resonating across the lake. At the end of summer, after the chicks have been reared, they depart for wintering grounds to the south. Although they are hunted in some areas, Sandhill Crane numbers are stable. In fact, they appear to be expanding their wintering range to include locations further north.

With an especially long, curling esophagus designed for volume, the music these birds produce is astonishing. Note that toward the end of this clip, it appears that the larger bird, which I presume to be the male, is taking subtle cues from the smaller bird. I kept this video low resolution for faster downloads. (Chignik Lake, May 4, 2019) 

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

Sandhill Crane Antigone canadensis
Order: Gruiformes
Family: Gruidae
Antigone: Etymology apparently is confused. Carlos Linnaeus chose this genus name after a Greek tragedy in which a character, Antigone, was first cursed when the goddess Hera turned her hair to snakes, but was later redeemed when other gods transformed her into a stork, which, Linnaeus’s either mistranslated or took as sufficiently close enough to crane as to merit the use of this appellation in identifying this genus. (The Antigone herein described is not to be confused with the daughter of Oedipus from the tragic play titled Antigone.)
canadensis: Latinized for Canada

Status at Chignik Lake, 2016-19: Common throughout drainage from approximately Late April through Early September

David Narver, Birds of the Chignik River Drainage, summers 1960-63: Occasionally observed but Commonly Heard at Black Lake

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

Aniakchak National Monument and Preserve Bird List: Present

loon silhouette

Previous: Peregrine Falcon

Next Article: Greater Yellowlegs – the Treetop Shorebird

*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: Peregrine Falcon

Falco peregrinus, John Gould, English Ornithologist, (1804-1881). Wikipedia

I was driving across the bridge spanning Young’s Bay near Astoria, Oregon on the lower Columbia River when, seemingly from the sky, a single drop of blood spattered on my windshield. It was, of course, too late to look up and gather a clue; I had already passed beneath the overhead girders where that drop had originated. But I had my suspicions.

As soon as I got to the end of the bridge and could turn around, I headed back along the course I had just traveled. Sure enough, perched on a steel beam, a Peregrine Falcon sat, claws buried in the remains of one of the bridge’s  Rock Doves – the latter known colloquially as common pigeon. In an instant I was transported decades back in time to Jean Craighead George’s magical novel My Side of the Mountain and Sam’s Peregrine Falcon, Frightful – boyhood fantasies of running off into the wilderness and living in a hollowed-out tree with my pet falcon and other woodland friends.

Duck Hawks, Louis Agassiz Fuertes, New York Ornithologist (1874-1927), Wikipedia. The original is housed in the New York State Museum. A print is used in Birds of America, Ed. T. Gilbert Pearson, 2017.

I haven’t gotten many good looks at these remarkable birds. Usually I see them as a blur while out fishing along some rocky coast. A duck or shorebird whizzes by in a panic, I look up, and there’s the falcon angling toward its intended prey, the pair gone in a flash, the outcome yet in question.

Formerly known as Duck Hawks, Peregrines are never abundant, but you might catch a glimpse of one or two along just about any rocky coastline in the world. Mudflats where shorebirds gather, too, are a good place to keep a sharp eye out. And don’t be surprised if you see a pair soaring among city skyscrapers. Building ledges make ideal nesting sites, and an abundance of the aforementioned pigeons ensure for a steady supply of food for adults and chicks.

We encountered a couple of them on a recent bicycle tour circumnavigating coastal Hokkaido, Japan’s northernmost island. Very occasionally, in fact rarely, we’ve looked up or down the Chignik Lake or River and caught sight of a specimen speeding one way or the other – southeast toward the Alaska Gulf; north toward the Bering Sea. At about 16 inches long and with a wingspan of 41 inches, Peregrines in flight appear nearly twice as large as the only falcon regularly seen along The Chignik, Merlins.

I’ve never seen a Peregrine perched along the drainage. The habitat isn’t quite right for them. These are birds of rocky cliffs. No doubt a better place to look for them would be on the Gulf side around Chignik Bay or Castle Cape.

Duck Hawks, John J. Audubon, American Ornithologist, 1785-1851. Wikipedia

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

Peregrine Falcon Falco peregrinus
Order: Falconiformes
Family: Falconidae
Falco: from Latin falcis = sickle
peregrinus: from Latin for traveller. The medieval Latin phrase Falco peregrinus originated with German theologian and scholar Albertus Magnus (before 1200 to 1280) who was referring to the manner in which young Peregrines were obtained for falconry. Because the nests were generally inaccessible, young falcons were taken while journeying to their breeding grounds.

Status at Chignik Lake, 2016-19: Rare

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

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

Aniakchak National Monument and Preserve Bird List: Present

loon silhouette

Previous: Merlin – Lady of the Lake

Next Article: Sandhill Crane – Wild, Resounding Tremolo

*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.