A little over a month ago with darkness still falling early and Chignik Lake yet locked in ice, we were engaged in a familiar evening time routine. Standing at the dining room windows with binoculars pressed to her eyes, Barbra was scanning a patch of open water for ducks, seals and otters as well as the frozen lake and shoreline for foxes, moose and whatever else might happen along. Meanwhile, I was in the kitchen preparing the evening meal. In fact I already had the broiling griddle preheating in the oven for the marinated pork which would become the night’s pulled pork sandwiches. Deep into my own thoughts, I only half heard Barbra’s musing as she glassed the lake, words along the lines of…
Two mornings ago upon walking outside, we were greeted with a cheerful song that was both new and yet familiar. I spun around, went back for my binoculars, and found the year’s first Fox Sparrow trilling from a perch near the top of a White Spruce. Here in Southwest Alaska, there is no more certain emissary of Spring.
Our first connection with Fox Sparrows occurred back when we used to spend our summers in Seward, Alaska. There, in late spring, one served as our alarm clock. Perched just outside our camper his lilting song – delivered at a volume startling for a being so small – was generally among the first sounds of the morning.
“Foxy” sings three time during this minute-long clip. Redpolls, which continue to course through the village each day scavenging for spruce cone seeds and other food, can be heard in the background vocalizing with a mix of electric zaps, trills and cat-like mews.
Here along the Pacific Northwest Coast, Fox Sparrows are predominated by the “Sooty” race. Note the way the spots and blotches on his chest come together to form one large blotch in the center. Overall, Sooty Fox Sparrows have dark, uniformly brown backs. However, as with many passerines, there can be a great deal of variation in coloring. The individual in the photos accompanying this article is neither as dark nor as heavily splotched as other Sooties we’ve seen, and there’s a little slate coloring on his head.
Hopefully our new friend will find a mate in the coming days. We’ll be looking for their nest with its four or five pale cyan, speckled eggs on the ground beneath one of the village’s White Spruce trees or perhaps under an especially thick swatch of alders.
In any event, regardless of where you are, we hope your spring (or autumn, if you’re in the Southern Hemisphere) is off to as good a start as this little fellow’s.
The range of Sooty Fox Sparrows is generally confined to the Pacific Coast. Other recognized forms of Fox Sparrows include “Slate-colored” and “Red.”
I didn’t even own a camera at the time, but as I admired a photograph of a Bighorn Sheep in a national magazine featuring animals of the Rocky Mountains, I knew that if and when I ever did get a camera, high on my list of hoped for captures would be that iconic orange eye. And while I have yet to score a great shot of a mature male with a heavy, curling rack, one of the keys – perhaps the key as I evaluate much of my wildlife photography is the quality of the eye in the photo.
A sharp, clear eye showing a little color and reflecting catchlight can make or break a wildlife portrait. So once I have a decent photographic record of a given species, I start working to get an eye-catching eye.
Even in low light, you can usually find an angle where some light is reflected in the animal’s eyes. This might mean waiting for the animal to change its position, or it might mean changing your own position. The other key is to not focus on the animal, but on the eye of the animal.
Just as with portraits of humans, the eyes are critical to animal portraits. Here in Chignik Lake, several foxes regularly visited the village this past winter. Each was unique – not just in size, coat color and facial markings, but in personality as well. As we studied these foxes, we gave them names. Skit, a young fox who was a frequent visitor to the White Spruce Grove that we check daily for birds and other wildlife, had a tough go of it during this especially harsh winter. An injury to his right eye no doubt impeded his ability to hunt as well as to guard against adversaries. There were times when he looked like he might be nearing his last leg.
Despite hardships, he seemed to exude a puppyish curiosity and resilience. And somehow he managed to scrape through. When we last saw him a couple of weeks ago, his coat looked healthier than it had since the beginning of winter and his eye appeared to have healed.
As visual creatures, we’re drawn to eyes, even ascribing spiritual qualities to them. Glint and shine and rich, saturated iris colors suggest to us intelligence and vitality, traits that in turn give a subject charisma.
While catchlight can be added through the magic of digital technology, the more satisfying – and realistic-looking – achievement is to capture it as you’re making the picture. Watch the light and look for it reflected in your subject’s eyes. A little shimmer can really make a photo pop!
Determining the population status of birds in the Chignik area can be challenging. Common Redpolls (Acanthis flammea) are a case in point. Overall, there are estimated to be about 13,000,000 of these crimson-splashed passerines in Alaska – a number which surely fluctuates considerably from year to year. At home in a range of habitats including Arctic tundra, scrub alder and boreal conifer forests, their call, an electric zapping buzz, is frequently heard from high in the sky even when the birds themselves can’t be located.
*Click to listen to redpolls calling.
But how common are redpolls on the Alaska Peninsula? They aren’t included among the over 200 species of birds listed on the Alaska Peninsula and Becharof National Wildlife Refuge Bird List. Conversely, a checklist for the peninsula’s Aniakchak National Monument and Preserve denotes them as “common.” And finally, according to a Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s eBird reporting list, it is “rare” to encounter more than a couple of redpolls on a given outing in this area.
In recent months, redpolls have been a part of most daily walks, and while often I get only a fleeting glimpse of a few birds, there have been times when as many as 80 redpolls have swept through the village, lingering to feast on the seeds of White Spruce cones.
It is those trees that seem to hold the key, as they provide both an abundant source of food as well as shelter from winter winds and snow.
Although redpolls occasionally descend to lower latitudes, they are typically birds of the far north, common in suitable habitat the world over. In fact, we encountered redpolls in Mongolia along Ulaanbaatar’s Tuul River. Unsurprisingly, the species has evolved to survive in conditions that are often harsh.
One of their most interesting adaptations is an expanded esophagus which they can rapidly cram full of alder, birch or conifer seeds. Once their esophagus is filled, they’re able to retreat to the safety and and relative warmth of dense conifer boughs to digest their meal in leisure. Thus, redpolls can sometimes be heard softly vocalizing from deep inside the spruce trees even when they can’t be seen.
Look for their nests of four or five light green eggs with purplish to reddish spots in thick brush fairly close to the ground. Redpoll chicks are ready to leave the nest in about 10 to 12 days.
*Audio clip courtesy of The Cornell Lab of Ornithology, published in 2000 by Alan Knox and Peter Lowther
When we moved to Chignik Lake in August, 2016, we were interested amateur birders. Neither of us foresaw this minor side-hobby going further than that. But it soon became apparent that we have found ourselves in a truly unique situation to add to the comparatively limited data base and knowledge of the avian fauna of this remote part of the world.
Remote? The Lake and Peninsula Borough covers 32,922 square miles (85,270 square km) – roughly the size of West Virginia or South Carolina. Yet fewer than 2,000 people inhabit this rugged landscape, which has no roads connecting it to the world beyond. It is a place where wolves regularly show up on the edges of isolated villages and where Japanese glass fishing floats from a bygone era are found washed up on beaches in abundance.
Although concerted birding efforts are regularly conducted at the area’s several National Parks and Wildlife Reserves, it has been over 50 years since anyone specifically studied the birds of the Chignik area. While some things remain the same (the Great Horned Owls are still here), a lot else has changed. Among other things, several decades ago White Spruce trees were introduced to the Chignik Lake area from Kodiak Island. These conifers provide shelter, nesting sites and an abundance of food. This in turn sometimes results in uncommon, rare or previously unrecorded species showing up here and in some cases staying awhile.
One such species is the lone White-throated Sparrow (Zonotrichia albicollis) which has taken up residence in a grove of White Spruces this past winter. He or she seems to have gotten mixed in with a small flock of other young sparrows – 10 or 11 Golden-crowneds, an American Tree Sparrow and a first-winter White-crowned Sparrow. Between the feeders we’ve put up at The Grove and the abundance of conifer seeds and other forage, these sparrows, along with a few juncos, have hung in over the course of the harshest winter Chignik Lake has experienced in recent years.
Given that this young White-throated was first observed in late fall, it seems likely that it was a late-fledged bird migrating south. This suggests that it was Alaska-bred. If so, this is certainly an unusual occurrence for this species.
We’re lucky to live in a village where, by and large, people are at peace with their wild neighbors. Moose, caribou and the occasional duck and ptarmigan are harvested for food, and everyone takes advantage of the surfeit of salmon that ascend the river edging the village of Chignik Lake, Alaska, but most of the rest of our wild neighbors are left free to go about their business. River Otters swim the lake in pursuit of starry flounder and other fish, foxes keep the local population of voles in check, and some of the largest brown bears in the world amble unmolested right through the village as they head upstream and downstream in search of salmon which spawn from late March through November. Nesting boxes are liberally scattered throughout the village, awaiting the return of the swallows that will raise their chicks here and in so doing help to keep the mosquito population down – without the use of pesticides. Recently, Tundra Swans have begun showing up on the river and lake, suggesting to everyone that at last Spring is approaching.
Red Foxes are locally abundant, and several have taken up residence in or near the village. This has provided us the opportunity to really get to know this species, so much so that, as field biologists often do, we’ve learned to distinguish among individuals and have given them names. Guido is instantly recognizable by his dark flanks, lean build and furtive personality; Frost, the smallest and most vocal of our resident foxes, has a lot of frosty white coloring in her coat and on her face; Hank could pass for Speck’s brother (and may well be) with his freckled face; Skit’s eye injury is improving, but he’s had a tough go of it this winter; Kate is older and larger than the other village foxes and doesn’t often show herself, but when she does it’s obvious – Kate is drop dead gorgeous.*
Speck began showing up around our house at about the same time Frost began coming around. He combs the lakeshore for whatever scraps may be there, hunts the nearby open areas and likes to sun himself on the grassy bank in front of our home. Although his ears constantly and independently move like two radio dishes in search of sound as he rests, he’s a confident little guy and has become habituated to both our presence and, remarkably, to the presence of Buster, the big lovable village dog who frequently visits our house.
Soon voles and hares will begin multiplying in earnest and salmon will return to the Chignik River. Later in the summer, salmonberry and blueberry bushes will load up with ripe fruit and there may even be ground nesting birds to catch. All in all, Chignik Lake is a good place to be a wild fox. With any luck, we might discover a den with litter of kits in the coming months and thereby continue learning about these fascinating animals.
*Disclaimer: short of rolling a fox over on its back and performing a close inspection – which is out of the question with a wild fox -, we know of no practical way to determine if one is male or female. Thus, our naming system is arbitrary regarding sex.
A mother Orca and her young offspring push through the cold, rich Gulf of Alaska waters just offshore from Kenai Fjords National Park.
Established in 1980, the park is home to the vast Harding Ice Field, the headwaters, so to speak, of 38 separate glaciers. Covering just over 1,000 square miles, the park and adjacent seas are home to a dazzling array of wildlife. Land animals include Mountain Goats, Grizzly and Black Bears, Wolves, Wolverines, Alaska Moose, Lynx and River Otters. Marine life includes a variety of cetaceans – Orcas, whales and porpoises – as well vast shoals of herring and salmon, seals and sea lions, sea otters nearly 200 species of birds.
Sea lion rookeries and haul-out areas can be raucous, with lots of bellowing and barking (and by the scars on some of these hides, some real fighting) as individuals vie for the top turf.
The best jumping off point for exploring the park is Seward, a coastal community of about 2,500 full-time residents, a number that grows considerably during the heart of the tourist season from June through August. If you’ve got the stamina, a hike up the nearby Exit Glacier trail to the Harding Ice Field is worth every step of the journey. Go early, and you’ve got a good chance of spotting Mountain Goats and Black Bears. Wildflowers seem to grow everywhere, and colorful warblers, sparrows and finches are abundant.
Once you’ve checked a trip to Exit Glacier off your list, go down to the Seward Harbor and sign up for a boat excursion out to the fjords. Check around. In many cases, wildlife biologists are hired on these boats to provide insight into what you can see as well as to answer your questions.
A grizzly bear, perhaps timing its journey to intercept a salmon run, ambles across the Harding Ice Field toward Exit Glacier.
As the name Kenai Fjords implies, this is a land sculpted by ice. And while all of the park’s glaciers are receding, the Harding Ice Field alone still covers 300 square miles (777 km2). Many of the glaciers it spawns are tidewater glaciers which produce dramatic calving events.
Tidewater glaciers slough off ice almost continuously, creating coves filled with icebergs of all sizes. The massive cracks and groans emitted by these moving rivers of ice are awe-inspiring. Above, a cormorant flaps past a relatively small shower of ice.
Harbor seals are fairly abundant throughout the park.
Of course, the park’s animals are adapted to the cold. Seals, Sea Otters, Bald Eagles and kittiwakes (a type of gull) utilize the floating ice as resting places. Herring and salmon thrive in the frigid water and in turn a host of predators (including the Orcas in the lead photo) thrive on these fish.
The park is a terrific place to combine wildlife viewing with wildlife catching. Drop a jig and hang on – there are lingcod a lot bigger than this one hugging the rocky undersea pinnacles of the Alaska Gulf. Salmon, halibut and a variety of rockfish are also popular quarry.
Black-legged Kittiwakes nest among hanging gardens.
The entire area is a birding wonderland. Tens of thousands of murres, puffins, auklets, cormorants and other sea birds nest and feed in the nearshore sea.
Horned Puffins (above) as well as Tufted Puffins are abundant.
Of course there are lots and lots of sea otters.
Oil spills, warming seas, a changing climate and overfishing are all potential threats to the park’s wildlife. The effects of the Exxon Valdez oil spill which occurred in 1989 are still being felt – particularly in the long-term suppression of crab populations. Sea bird die-offs are being reported with alarming frequency all along the Northwest Coast and biologists tell us the reason for these die-offs appears to be starvation. Sea Lions, too, have experienced population declines in recent years and again, the problem seems to be rooted in a depletion of the fish they rely upon. Warming seas very likely play a role in this, but it is, in our view, equally likely that overfishing is taking a toll as well. And so, as is the case with so many areas where nature exists in a relatively pristine state, the future is uncertain.
Nonetheless, given half a chance and the benefit of wise stewardship, wildlife can adapt and endure. Kenai Fjords National Park is one of our favorite places. Although it gets fewer than one tenth the visitors Yellowstone, Yosemite or Rocky Mountain National Parks receive individually, it is surely one of North America’s Crown Jewels.
Summer is the perfect time to find Humpback Whales on their Alaskan feeding grounds. What, other than a belly full of herring and a desire to communicate joy, prompts a whale to breach like this and crash back to the sea…