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.

Birds of Chignik: Red-faced Cormorant

Chignik red-faced cormorant

After a morning’s feeding, Red-faced Cormorants rest at a favorite roost near the outlet of Chignik Lagoon. 

Red-faced Cormorants are abundant in the sea near the villages of Chignik and Chignik Lagoon, and according to biologists their numbers appear to be increasing. They often roost and feed in mixed flocks alongside Pelagic and Double-crested Cormorants. Like other cormorants, they are primarily fish eaters, though they occasionally take crabs, shrimp and other marine invertebrates.

This beautifully colored Red-faced Cormorant was photographed by Lisa Hupp, USFWS, courtesy Wikipedia. The red face is actually bare skin which loses some of its color when the bird is not in breeding plumage.

Red-faced Cormorant Range Map: By Netzach, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=45316418

Red-faced Cormorant Phalacrocorax urile
Order: Suliformes
Phalacrocorax: Latinized Ancient Greek = cormorant
urile: ?

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 (This is a marine species.)

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.

Birds of Chignik Lake: Great Blue Heron – a Rare Visitor to The Lake

Great Blue Heron

A young Great Blue Heron stalks the shadow cast by a skiff in search of Chignik Lake’s char. Although this bird stands three-and-a-half feet tall or perhaps somewhat taller, it probably weighs only five pounds or so. This is quite likely the first photographic documentation of this species on the Alaska Peninsula.

“A tiger – in Africa?!” The line is a favorite line from Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life, pointing out the improbability that it is a tiger that has bitten off the leg of Eric Idle (playing army officer Perkins) while he was sleeping. Nor is the Latin for tiger Felis horribilis as is proclaimed by Graham Chapman in his role as Dr. Livingstone. The film came to mind one cold November morning when in the predawn light beginning to illuminate the beach outside our window, I suddenly noticed the unmistakable silhouette of a heron.

(All) ” A heron?! At Chignik Lake?!”

Yes, Ardea herodias paid us a visit. In fact, as of this writing, I believe the bird is still here despite snow on the ground, freezing temperature and the imminent probability of the lake freezing in the next few days. I saw our new friend briefly perched on a utility pole near the lake last night, though this morning’s frigid 12° F temperature surely gave him pause. I use the pronoun “him” advisedly. Letting aside the fact that the English language’s “it” seems unduly impersonal in talking about living beings, it is generally young males of any given bird species that are the first to push the boundaries of range maps.

Great Blue Heron catching Dolly Varden

Two char in one grab! The overall dark, non-contrasting plumage indicates an immature bird. Despite its youth, this heron was nonetheless an efficient fisherman. We watched him work the shoreline taking one Dolly Varden after another. His best success came in the shadows of beached skiffs. The wary bird has been feeding in the twilight of dawn and dusk, which makes me grateful for a camera that will handle high ISO values.

As can be seen on the map below, Great Blue Herons normally range as far north as coastal Southeast and South Central Alaska. With the population of this species growing in the lower 48 and as the climate continues to warm it will be interesting to see if herons become a more common part of the Alaska Peninsula’s avian fauna.

Great Blue Heron Range Map: with permission from The Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Birds of the World

Great Blue Heron Ardea herodias
Order: Pelecaniformes
ArdeaLatin = heron
herodiasAncient Greek erōdios = heron

Status at Chignik Lake: Rare to perhaps occasional visitor. Unconfirmed sightings have been reported by local residents of Chignik Lake as well as at Chignik Bay and, further down the Peninsula, Perryville. 

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

Alaska Peninsula and Becharof National Wildlife Refuge Bird List, 2010:
Not observed

Aniakchak National Monument and Preserve Bird List: Not observed

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

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

 

Birds of Chignik Lake: Water Dancer – the Fork-tailed Storm-Petrel

Truly akin to avian ballet dancers, Fork-tailed Storm Petrels patter across the water’s surface gleaning zooplankton and small fish as well as the oil from carcasses they might encounter.

The last of the huge winds that had been buffeting the peninsula were still putting heavy chop on the river as we surveyed the pool below the boat landing. These kinds of storms, often packing winds that would make the national news if they occurred elsewhere, can occur any time of year in the Chigniks. The very place name is, in fact, Alutiiq for “big winds.” Downriver towards the islands, shrill squawks drew our attention to a flock of small, grayish birds hovering, wheeling and diving. Some of them appeared to be running across the water’s surface.

Terns? I said to Barbra. Yeah. They must be some kind of tern. 

Even as I spoke, I knew what I was saying didn’t make sense. The Chignik’s Arctic Terns had long since fledged their young and migrated out. Besides, these birds didn’t really look like terns. Not like any I’d ever seen, anyway.

They’re not terns, Barbra replied. They can’t be terns. They’re cool. Look at them dance!

In that instant, it hit me. Petrels!

I’ve gotta get home and get my camera like, right now! I exclaimed. I’ve read about these! This might be my only chance to get them on the river! We hopped on our honda and sped the three-miles home over the hilly dirt and gravel road. I gathered up my tripod and the camera with the big lens attached, hurried into a pair of waders, and made haste back to the landing.

Fortunately the birds were still there. Better yet, they took little notice of me as I scurried down the shoreline and waded out into the river toward where they were foraging. There were perhaps 20 of these small, Purple-Martin-sized seabirds. The blue-gray cast of their plumage at times made them difficult to pick out against the blue-gray sky and river. These are going to be difficult, I thought to myself.

The birds would hover, descend, and then dance across the water. It very much put in mind a production of Swan Lake. Certainly it was one of the most beautiful foraging displays I’d ever witnessed. What little light was left in the cloud-covered late afternoon sky was going fast. But I stayed with it and eventually began making some decent photographs.

fork-tailed storm petrel

The foraging birds didn’t rest for but a blink. Storm-Petrels belong to a group of pelagic seabirds called Procellariiformes – tubenoses. The hollow atop the petrel’s beak aids in expelling excess salt.

I was lucky to encounter this species on the river. David Narver reported seeing this bird on the open seas just once on the Chignik, then too after a heavy storm.

Fork-tailed Storm-Petrel Range Map: with permission from The Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Birds of the World

Fork-tailed Storm Petrel Oceanodroma furcata
Order: Procellariiformes
Oceanodroma: from ancient Greek okeanos = ocean + dromos = runner
furcata: Latin meaning forked

Status at Chignik Lake: Rare in the freshwater drainage, but probably common in or near Alaska Gulf offshore ocean waters

David Narver, Birds of the Chignik River Drainage, summers 1960-63: One observation on Chignik Lake after a severe storm

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

Aniakchak National Monument and Preserve Bird List: Presence Documented

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

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

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

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