Finches of the Dandelion Jungle

With just a few days remaining for us in Chignik Lake, we continue to add to our project documenting bird species within a three-mile radius of this tiny, remote village on the Alaska Peninsula. With approximately 75 different types of birds observed – and good photographs of most of those species – much as been accomplished, including getting photographs of birds that, to the best of our knowledge, had never before been recorded out here. But, as with any project of this scope and complexity, much remains undone. We only now are getting into making videos and immediately have been intrigued by the unique possibilities this medium offers. With open invitations to return for future visits, we hope to make it back to this paradise by The Lake.

Aside from brief clips of a Fox Sparrow in song, Pine Siskins coming to Barbra’s hand for seed, and a Red Crossbill going to town on White Spruce cones, this is the only bird video we’ve made. It’s the first video we’ve planned out and edited.

For the past few days, dozens of finches – Pine Grosbeaks, Pine Siskins and Common Redpolls – have been foraging virtually nonstop on dandelion seeds in the unmown lawn outside our front door. We’d been enjoying watching this show (and listening to the constant, cheerful bird chatter) from our kitchen and from the boardwalk leading from our house to the school where Barbra teaches. The Pine Grosbeaks in particular have been quite tolerant of our presence – if not downright curious to the point of approaching us. (I once had a Pine Grosbeak land on my head as I was photographing them.) In fact, individual of all three species have approached so close at one time or another we might have reached out and touched them.

The siskins’ numbers appear to be populated by recently fledged members. Earlier this past spring, we saw a redpoll with nesting material and they, too, appear to have young among them. We’re not sure about the Pine Grosbeaks. At present there are about eight grosbeaks – an even number of male and female birds – and although this species might be seen in any season here in Chignik Lake, we’re not sure if these are individuals that overwintered here and filled the spring air with their beautiful song, or whether this a group that is merely passing through. In any event, although David Narver who, back in the early 1960’s compiled the only other detailed list of birds occurring in we’ve been able to find, reported redpolls as “uncommon” and made no mention at all of Pine Siskins and Pine Grosbeaks, redpolls and grosbeaks have been common during our entire three years here. Siskins showed up for the first time two winters ago and have been common since. At times, we’ve counted upwards of 60 birds in flocks of redpolls and siskins, and at least 40 in a flock of Pine Grosbeaks that spent a week or two in the village stuffing themselves on alder cones.

After the Fog Burned off – Eagles

As swallows swooped and soared, this pair of Bald Eagles began a chorus of their characteristic high-pitched piping. The sunshine must’ve felt as good to them as it did to us.

Two days in a row we’ve woken to heavy fog here at The Lake. It wasn’t forecast either day. Yesterday by mid-morning, the mist had burned off. When it did, the birds came out in force. From our vantage point on the deck outside my “office,” Barbra and I saw or heard Pine Grosbeaks, Pine Siskins, Redpolls, Wilson’s Warblers, Ravens, Magpies, Golden-crowned Sparrows, American Robins, Fox Sparrows, Violet-green Swallows, Tree Swallows and out on the lake a small group of Black Scoters and a few passing Glaucus-winged Gulls. But the stars of the morning were a pair of mature Bald Eagles that took up perches on a favorite utility pole near the lakeshore.

This was the view from our dining room window yesterday morning just after dawn. The village of Chignik Lake lies only a few miles upriver from a bay on the Alaska Gulf, so we get our share of wet weather. 

As the sun began peeking through the fog, the first eagle to arrive did its best to dry its soggy wings. Either that, or this is one of those rare Peacock Eagles.

His (her?) mate hadn’t yet arrived and I moved a little closer to capture a portrait. Once the fog lifted, we had a day of blue skies. Temperatures climbed into the 60’s so we took the opportunity to work on our “Alaska Tans” – defined as tans that cover the backs of one’s hands, face and neck down to the level of a shirt or coat collar. But by early afternoon, it was warm enough (mid-60’s) to sit outside in a just a shirt, shorts and bare feet and read (Barbra) and play guitar (me).

While I worked on photos, Barbra scanned for birds from the deck outside her former classroom. Off in the distance to the right, along the far edge of the lake, the second eagle can be seen soaring low. (You might have to enlarge this photo.) The duplex in front of Barbra is where we live – on the righthand side. 

There are at least 50 nesting boxes in this bird-loving village of only about 50 to 70 residents. The boxes are occupied almost exclusively by either Violet-green or Tree Swallows. Both species seem inclined to investigate anything out of the ordinary in their neighborhood – us, eagles, other birds. The real threats to swallows are Chignik Lake’s abundant Magpies – notorious nest robbers. In years past, Merlins, Northern Shrikes and occasional Sharp-shinned Hawks have also posed a threat, but none of these species appear to be present this year – at least so far.

A mated pair? Siblings? Friends? (Do eagles have friends?) It was interesting to watch these two repeatedly mirror each other’s behavior. We’ve read about these dreaded Dracula Eagles – another rare sighting.

As I mentioned, we’ve had two consecutive mornings of heavy fog. Inspired by the way the morning cleared up yesterday, last evening we prepared our pack raft in anticipation of doing a three-mile river float today. Unfortunately, the weatherman got it completely wrong. The fog only grudgingly lifted late in the morning and instead of the calm that had been forecast, winds – the bane of rafting – kicked up. So I spent the morning working on photos. Yet hope springs eternal. The prediction for tomorrow morning is for partial sunshine and calm, so perhaps we can get in one last river float before we have to pack up the gear and mail it to Newhalen. Every hour of these final days at The Lake is a time to savor.

If you enjoyed this post and would like to see some of the birds mentioned and more of the landscape around Chignik Lake, check out the link below:

Morning Nature Walk, the Chigniks

Hope your day is going well!

Vacancies at Chignik Lake’s New Nesting Boxes are Filling Fast: Tree Swallows have Arrived!

We knew that with Violet-greens having returned, Tree Swallows wouldn’t be far behind. This pair didn’t let much daylight burn before checking out a homesite. They may have used this same box last year. That’s the female perched on top of the box while the male, decked out in shimmering shades of blue, assesses the nesting quarters.

Just before leaving The Lake for our epic 65-day bicycle tour of Hokkaido last spring, we installed four new nesting boxes. We left just as the swallows were returning, but when we got back we were informed that our boxes had immediately attracted new tenants. So we’ve been keeping our eye on them, eager for the arrival of Violet-green and Tree Swallows this spring to see who might move in. Violet-greens first showed up on May 14 and headed straight for a set of older boxes at a neighbors’ house. But even with some 40 boxes in the village, we knew every available site would soon have a pair of nesting birds.

This morning when I stepped outside, I lifted my binoculars to scope out silhouettes on a power line near two of our boxes. Tree Swallows – the season’s first! With the early morning sun buried behind gray clouds, there wasn’t much light. But the office where I work on photos and writing has a view of one of our boxes, so I kept my eye on things. Within a couple of hours, new arrivals were checking out the two boxes closest to our home. And then the sun popped out, giving me an opportunity to make a couple of pictures of birds beginning to set up housekeeping at each box.

For awhile, several birds sallied back and forth around this box. Finally a female entered and stayed put for quite awhile. Here the male is checking up on her.

Interested in attracting your own mosquito-eating backyard friends? Check out our previous post on Violet-green swallows where you’ll find tips for putting up nesting boxes as well as the article below that for tips on placing your new boxes. Establishing nesting boxes is way more interesting (and way, way more ethical) than plugging in those nasty electric bug zappers. Click the links below!

Our Violet-greens are Back at The Lake!

New Homes Available! Swallow Nesting Boxes at Chignik Lake

Our Violet-greens are Back at The Lake!

A single Violet-green Swallow can consume hundreds of mosquitoes and midges a day. With 40 or so nesting box cavities scattered throughout the village of Chignik Lake (population 50), these iridescently-plumaged little fellows and their Tree Swallow cousins are local favorites.

Chignik Lake’s first swallows, multi-hued Violet-greens, made their seasonal debut yesterday, May 15. This morning we went out to get photos of these much anticipated first arrivals. Tree Swallows, which will also use the dozens of nesting boxes residents have put up, should be arriving any time now along with the Bank Swallows that have established a colony on a bluff a mile or so down the Chignik River.

The Native American tradition of hanging nesting cavities for swallows goes as far back as anyone knows. Writing in the 1800’s, John J. Audubon noted that:

The… Indian is also fond of the Martin’s company. He frequently hangs up a calabash on some twig near his camp, and in this cradle the bird keeps watch, and sallies forth to drive off the Vulture that might otherwise commit depredations on the deer-skins or pieces of venison exposed to the air to be dried. The slaves in the Southern States take more pains to accommodate this favourite bird. The calabash is neatly scooped out, and attached to the flexible top of a cane, brought from the swamp, where that plant usually grows, and placed close to their huts. Almost every country tavern has a Martin box on the upper part of its sign-board; and I have observed that the handsomer the box, the better does the inn generally prove to be. 

It’s sad to see those annoying, energy-wasting, indiscriminate electric bug zappers, which kill beautiful moths along with everything else, hung more often than nesting boxes in these modern times. A nesting pair of birds will do a better job keeping pests under control, add cheer to any property, and when the wooden box has seen its best days it can be be left to return to soil rather than discarded to fill our world with yet more plastic, toxic parts and slowly-decomposing metal.

If nesting boxes around our village are any indication, they need not be elaborate. All that’s needed is untreated wood, a saw, a means to cut a hole, nails or screws and the appropriate tool for securing that hardware. Although it is often recommended that boxes be cleaned out annually, we know of no one here who does so. The swallows themselves seem perfectly capable of spring cleaning when they arrive, as they have done with natural cavities for as long as swallows have been around. However, if you’d feel better about cleaning out the boxes once the nesting season is finished, by all means go for it; you’ll be creating a clean space for birds that use the boxes as overnight and foul weather shelters during wintertime.

Engaged in housekeeping (removing his offsprings’ excrement) this Violet-green and his mate made a nest behind a knothole in the side of a store in McCarthy, Alaska.  

Two additional tips for your own backyard nesting boxes:

  1. Do Not put any sort of ledge or peg in front of the hole. As you can see in the photo below, swallows and other cavity nesters don’t need a perch. Their claws are adapted to cling to the sides of trees. The only purpose a ledge or peg serves is to give nest-raiders such as magpies, crows and other predators a perch from which to get at eggs and nestlings.
  2. Give some thought to the species of bird you hope to attract, then research the size of entry hole and the size of the interior cavity that bird prefers.

To those tips, we’ll add a third. Invasive European Starlings and House Sparrows haven’t yet found us out here on the Alaska Peninsula. If they are a problem where you live, we urge that they be discouraged from nesting by any means necessary. Both of these birds represent a significant, growing threat to species diversity.

Don’t have the time or the right tools to build your own boxes? Consider purchasing. A cedar box will last a long time, making it an economical gift to birds for years or even decades to come. And don’t be discouraged if your boxes don’t attract guests right away. Sometimes it takes more than one season for birds to move in.

Flowers are blooming, insects are out, swallows are returning and salmon are beginning to stage in the bay for their annual spawning run up the Chignik River. It still feels like spring, but summer is just around the corner.

Sandhill Cranes Foraging and Vocalizing – Alaska Peninsula

Barbra’s school year ended on May 1st. With a new home waiting for us in Newhalen, Alaska, we could have left Chignik Lake the following day. But bears are waking, buds are bursting and springtime’s migrant birds have begun to return, so we’ll remain at The Lake till late June. We’ve been loving our decision. In the past few days we’ve scored photo upgrades of several Chignik species including Northern Pintails, American Widgeons and Harlequins. We just missed adding photos of a skittish dark morph Rough-legged Hawk as well, but we got nice American Robin photos (the ones that pass through the Chigniks are considerably more wary than the suburban birds we’ve known) and…

…our first really good photos of Chignik’s Sandhill Cranes.

The more we photograph birds, the more we appreciate how difficult it can be to predict their behavior. Years ago, we had a photo op with a pair of Sandhill Cranes foraging on a lawn in Homer. While Barbra crept around the yard with our “fledgling” camera gear snapping photos, the cranes very casually walked off a few paces to let her know when she got too close. After that, Barbra tucked in and shot away. We left before the birds did. We weren’t birders in those days. The encounter was one of our first with cranes, and so we concluded that cranes must not be particularly wary.

Years later and multiple mind’s eye images of Sandhills that saw us long before we saw them gliding off toward the horizon on six or seven foot wingspans have prompted revisions of our earlier ideas about these magnificent birds. Cranes are hunted, and like most species that are hunted, they can be exceedingly wary. Unless the cranes have located themselves in a refuge of some sort, it seems that your best chance of getting close enough for a decent look at them is to a) stay quiet and b) don’t look like a human.

The other day while birding, we lucked out. Using a truck as a blind, we were able to observe a pair of foraging cranes for about 15 minutes – plenty of time to add quality photographs to our library and to make a short video which, happily, caught them vocalizing. The male in this video stands over four feet tall. From now till September, their brassy, ratchety calls will echo through the Chigniks, carrying as much as two-and-a-half miles. In addition to the full-throated vocalizations, listen for the little croak the male gives early in the video. And incidentally, the songbird in the background is one of our recently-returned Sooty Fox Sparrows. (The chirping is the modified sound of Jack’s camera shutter.)

Have you Heard a Strange Bird Sound at Night? Snipe Returning

Most of the snipe I’ve seen have afforded only fleeting glances, but this Wilson’s Snipe sat still for a few moments in Alberta during a trip up the Alaska-Canada Highway. This is the same species we have here in Alaska.

I stepped outside at about 9:30 PM last night. From the willow and alder thickets near Post Office Creek, just a few dozen yards from my home, I could hear the unmistakable sound of migrating snipe winnowing – Spring’s first returning migrants here in Chignik Lake on the Alaska Peninsula. Made with their wings, it’s such a strange sound that once you’ve heard it you’ll never forget it.

Click the Wiki Commons link below for a listen.

Gallinago_gallinago.ogg ‎(Ogg Vorbis sound file, length 7.2 s, 134 kbps)

New Homes Available! Swallow Nesting Boxes at Chignik Lake

Construction Complete! Lovely one-room summer homes with lake and mountain views available now! Perfect for rearing a brood of chicks.

Reading John J. Audubon’s accounts of his journeys throughout the United States in search of every species of bird for his paintings, I’m always charmed by his portraits of communities and their abundant bird nesting boxes.

“Almost every Country tavern has a Martin box on the upper part of its signboard;” he wrote of 1840’s America, “and I have observed that the handsomer the box, the better does the inn generally prove to be.”

The prevalence of hollow gourds fashioned with holes and used as nesting sites in Native American villages is also well documented. Apparently the symbiotic relationship between swallows and humans goes back a long time and cuts across cultures. Virtually everyone seems to love these harbingers of spring, their artistic mastery of the air, and the serious damage they do to mosquito populations and to other annoying insects.

And so it is here in Chignik Lake. Upon moving here we were struck by the numerous swallow nesting boxes situated on posts, nailed to utility poles and affixed to buildings throughout the village. Here we have mostly Tree Swallows along with occasional Violet-green Swallows. In the absence of invasive species such as House Sparrows and Starlings – which take over nesting boxes -, and with a lake featuring copious hatches of midges and other insects, this is a perfect place for swallows to rear a brood of chicks. Magpies can be a scourge, so it’s important that nesting boxes not feature any sort of perch to allow them to access the eggs and chicks, but other than our Merlins, there are essentially no other serious threats to the swallows of Chignik Lake.

The major factor limiting the number of swallows Chignik Lake can accommodate is… accommodations. So this spring we did our part to help these birds out by putting up four new cedar nesting boxes. The first Tree Swallows showed up sometime around May 9, and the early birds have already begun choosing nesting sites. Our boxes may have gone up a bit late for this year’s birds, but after they’ve weathered for a year and the swallows have had an opportunity to check them out, we’re hopeful they’ll attract these welcome summer visitors in future years.

Location, location, location. High enough up, away from occupied buildings and busy roads, near a lake chock full of bugs, and a pesticide & herbicide-free environment. Heck, if we were Tree Swallows, we’d spend our summers here!

If you’d like to put up swallow nesting boxes in your area:

  • Place the boxes high enough off the ground to avoid predators
  • Although swallows like to feed and nest near water, position the boxes well back from the shore. Predators cruise shorelines.
  • Although swallows will at times happily nest in apartment-style boxes (a friend in Chignik Lake has a row of about a dozen boxes that fill up with residents every summer) it is generally recommended that for Tree Swallows and Violet-greens, boxes be placed at least 30 feet apart.
  • Do Not attach a roosting peg or ledge anywhere on the box. Swallows don’t need such a perch, but avian predators will use it to to prey on eggs and chicks.
  • Swallows prefer nesting boxes in open areas, at least 30 feet or so away from buildings. This is by no means a hard-and-fast rule, and don’t let a lack of open space prevent you from putting up nesting boxes. Boxes placed near shrubs and trees are likely to attract wrens, sparrows and other birds rather than swallows.
  • Do what you can to keep European Starlings and House Sparrows out of the boxes. These invasive species have had a negative impact on a number of native bird species. A hole diameter of 1⅛” – 1⅜” is said to be large enough for swallows but will keep starlings and sparrows out.
  • Keep cats indoors. This is a good general rule to protect wildlife, but is especially important if your aim is to attract birds. You don’t want to invite birds only to have them and their chicks fall prey to a pet.