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

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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

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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: Merlin – Lady of the Lake

Male Merlin, Chignik Lake. In medieval times in Europe, Merlins were knows as “Lady Hawks” as it was noble women who most often used them in falconry. They are powerful fliers and deft hunters, adapted to chase down passerines, small shorebirds and occasional quail. (August 22, 2018)

Although I’m not certain as to the precise whereabouts, somewhere along the Chignik River there is a magpie nest or similar assemblage of sticks no longer used by its original inhabitants that a pair of Merlins move into each year and make their own. Merlins like nests; they just don’t like building them.

Hunting at White Spruce Grove. (Chignik Lake, August 19, 2016)

It takes a sharp eye to spot these little falcons – they zip by in a blur. My first encounter with Chignik Lake’s Merlins came shortly after I arrived that first year and decided to take on this project. On a dewy morning in mid-August, I hiked the half-mile to the grove of White Spruce where I planned to look for birds. Along the way, I noticed a phenomenon I’d never before seen: a slug was descending from a spruce bough by means of a very fine strand of… mucous? That’s what the filament appeared to be. Our slugs are tiny (and our snails are even tinier – I’ll show you when I write up the article on Pacific Wrens), but even so, I found it surprising that whatever this slug was discharging would be strong enough to support its weight. Perhaps this behavior is old hat to macalogists, but I couldn’t find much information about it.

A new one for me – slug thread. (Chignik Lake, August 19, 2016)

I’d set up my camera tripod on the falling-in porch of a tumbling down house atop a bluff that gave me a view overlooking a patch of red-ripe currants and the river in one direction, a hillside salmonberry brake in another, and a vantage right into the tops of the trees at White Spruce Grove in another. At the time, I was shooting with a Nikon D4 and a Nikkor 200-400 lens with a 1.4 teleconverter, giving me an effective range of 550 mm – albeit with a bit of a focusing challenge.

Birds, berries, and salmon, the bluff overlooking The Bend on the Chignik River is one of my favorite places to shoot. (Chignik Lake, August 16, 2016)

That morning, I’d already documented Sandhill Cranes, Wilson’s, Yellow and Orange-crowned Warblers, Fox Sparrows, Hermit Thrushes, a Pacific Wren, Black-capped Chickadees, Glaucous-winged Gulls, Mew Gulls, Bald Eagles, magpies, Common Ravens and a Wilson’s Snipe that exploded from a tangle of Alders right in front of me and practically flew into my head. The Lake’s swallows – Violet-greens, Tree and Bank – had departed by the beginning of August. Most of the Fireweed had gone to seed, but Yarrow and Wild Geranium were still in bloom.  Out on the river, early Silvers – Coho Salmon – were announcing their arrival with leaps and resounding splashes. Further down, I could hear a kingfisher’s rattle.

At about 10 inches in length and weighing less than half a pound, these falcons are tiny dynamos. Unlike Peregrine Falcons, they don’t dive from above at their prey, but instead either chase down the passerines they feed on or attack them from below. (Chignik Lake, August 17, 2018)

Feral Currants (Chignik Lake, August 17, 2016)

By the first week in August, the salmonberry season is over and the swallows are gone. Down at The Bend, raspberries begin to ripen. Fireweed starts to go to seed as the raspberries pass their peak. Then the currants ripen – cascades of red jewels. Up at the berry bog, the blueberries are ready. The Silvers are in, but the warblers will soon be leaving and when they’re gone, so to will be the Merlins. With so many choices tugging in different directions, life at The Lake can be rather hectic.

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

Merlin Falco columbarius
Order: Falconiformes
Family: Falconidae
Falco: from Latin falcis = sickle
columbarius: from Latin columba = dove

Status at Chignik Lake, 2016-19: Regular inhabitants during summer. Absent in other Seasons

David Narver, Birds of the Chignik River Drainage, summers 1960-63: Rare on Chignik River (Listed as Pigeon Hawk)

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

Aniakchak National Monument and Preserve Bird List: Not Reported

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Previous: Bald Eagle – the Song of Summer

Next Article: Peregrine Falcon

*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: Bald Eagle – the Song of Summer

I’ve heard it said that Bald Eagles are so common in Alaska that after awhile people stop noticing them. I am happy to report that I’ve never met a soul so calloused as to be oblivious to these regal creatures. (Chignik Lake, May 20, 2019)

Late May, sometime around six AM, sun barely peeking above the mountains rimming the lake, and I’m wide awake. With a month remaining till the summer solstice, already we’ll have 17 hours of daylight – three more hours than on this same day back in my native Pennsylvania. The calendar says it’s still spring. But up here in The Chigniks, summer has begun.

Fish Hooks

It’s not the first hints of golden-rose sunshine filtering through the blinds on our bedroom windows pulling my eyelids open, and I don’t own an alarm clock and even if I knew how to use the cell phone Barbra and I share as an alarm, I wouldn’t. There’s better music than that to wake to.

Eagle Song

Not 30 yards outside my window a mated pair of Bald Eagles have taken up a familiar perch atop a utility pole offering a sweeping view of the lake. Their piping – sonorous, joyous -, sends an electrifying rush through my entire being. I know what their song is about.

Juvenile

The salmon have returned.

Perhaps just a few this morning, the first trickle, silvery-blue backs glistening in the early light as they push along the shoreline heading up the lake to Clarks River, or further up to the Alec, or to Hatchery Beach, which is not a hatchery at all but a stretch of lake shoreline where underwater, mountain-fed springs push up through clean gravel to create perfect spawning habitat for Sockeye Salmon.

These first few fish are but the vanguard of runs that will continue into fall and that will be counted in the hundreds of thousands.

Out in the kitchen, fixing breakfast for Barbra and myself, I find that I, too, am singing. It’s been a long, wet winter. Summer is finally here. How could I not?

Fall salmon

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

Bald Eagle Haliaeetus leucocephalus
Order: Accipitriformes
Family: Accipitridae
Haliaeetus: Latin derived from Ancient Greek haliaetos = Sea Eagle
leucocephalus: Latinized from Ancient Greek leukos = white + kephalḗ = head. The “bald” in Bald Eagle stems from older English in which bald could be a referent to white. A related term, piebald, refers to a contrasting pattern of colors, often of white and black, which is also evident on the Bald Eagle.

Status at Chignik Lake, 2016-19: Common Spring, Summer and Fall; Less Common in Winter and may be Absent on drainage in coldest months, especially if water is iced over

David Narver, Birds of the Chignik River Drainage, summers 1960-63: Common along Chignik and Black Rivers; Occasional on both lakes

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

Aniakchak National Monument and Preserve Bird List: Present

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Previous: Rough-legged Hawk – Buteo of the Far North

Next Article: Merlin – Lady 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.