Birds of Chignik Lake: Common Merganser – She Wears the Crown

Another stickleback bites the dust. Along with sculpins, the Chignik’s Three-spine and Nine-spine Sticklebacks frequently feature in the Common Merganser’s diet. (Female Common Merganser, Chignik Lake, March 14, 2017)

Often called Saw-bills for their serrated, fish-grabbing bills, Common Mergansers are one of the Chignik’s more common wintertime ducks. And happily for naturalists photographers, they’re one of the more approachable species. This is probably due to the fact that they aren’t much sought by gunners.

In typical duck fashion, the drakes are indeed strikingly handsome. Here a breeze out of the north is pushing the feathers on his crown up a bit, but they’re considerably shorter and never so dramatically displayed as the hen’s, making Common Mergansers the only species of duck in which the hen shows more of a crown than does the drake. (Chignik Lake, March 14, 2017)

The reason mergansers aren’t much hunted was nicely summed up by Edward Howe Forbush in Birds of America when he wrote: Its flesh as ordinarily cooked is so rank and strong that its flavor is not much superior to that of an old kerosene lamp-wick… As a result, their numbers are stable in North America and appear to be expanding in Europe, where they are known as the Goosander.

Dawn hadn’t yet broken over the lake’s southern mountains when I looked out my window to see a group of a dozen or so mergansers working together to herd Dolly Varden Char against the shoreline. I snuck down to the lake, positioned myself behind a spruce tree and made a few photographs. During my youth back in Pennsylvania, we’d have called a char of that size a “nice keeper.” This merganser is probably a first-year bird and could be either a male or a female. The ducks in the background are Greater Scaup with a drake Common Goldeneye (second from left) mixed in. (December 12, 2016)

Common Mergansers primarily nest in tree cavities, and as they are large ducks (a little over two feet long on average), they require large trees. This would appear to be a key limiting factor in their range and distribution, and the main reason they are not commonly found in The Chigniks during the mid-spring through summer breeding season. As such, this is a species that would benefit from the installation of nesting boxes.

Deadly efficient piscivores, mergansers disappear in an arcing dive in a flash. Once they locate a school of fish, virtually every dive is successful, leaving them plenty of time to sleep or loaf on the water surface, shoreline, rocks or ice. (Chignik Lake, January 31, 2017)

Bellies filled with fresh fish, it’s time to loaf and catch some rays. The longer the ice remains, the longer the mergansers hang around in spring. As soon as forested ponds and lakes in the interior become ice free, these mergansers will be gone. But I have to wonder if nesting boxes of the right size might induce a pair to stay at the lake. (Chignik Lake, March 23, 2017)

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

Common Merganser Mergus merganser
Order: Anseriformes
Family: Anatidae
Mergus: from Latin for an unspecified waterbird
mergansercompound word from the Latin “mergus” as per genus name + “anser” = goose

Status at Chignik Lake, 2016-19: Common from late summer through early Spring

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

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

Aniakchak National Monument and Preserve Bird List: Present

loon silhouette

Previous: Bufflehead – Our Smallest Diving Duck

Next Article: Red-breasted Merganser – Not just Flashy. Fast!

*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: White-winged Scoter – A Lone, Rainy Day Visitor

In winter rain… White-winged Scoter. (Chignik Lake, January 6, 2017)

A species that only shows up once in three years at a given location would best be described as “accidental,” and so it is with the White-winged Scoter, a bird much more likely to be found in the salt chuck most of the year. There they take in the usual diving duck diet of mollusks, crustaceans and small fish. Formerly classified as conspecific with Europe’s Velvet Scoter (cool name), White-wingeds nest in boreal forests – and less frequently on tundra – from interior Alaska through western Canada.

With almost silky-black plumage, it’s easy to see why the European version (Melanitta fusca) is called Velvet Scoter. The colorful bill and Nike eye-swoosh add to the White-winged’s striking look. (Wikipedia: Len Blumin)

I’ve read elsewhere that White-wingeds can be quite difficult to get close enough to for a photograph, so I felt lucky to make good my one opportunity with a bird in flight showing his diagnostic white markings. He was probably passing from one side of the peninsula to the other on that windy, rain-soaked January day when he decided to give the lake a look.

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

White-winged Scoter Melanitta deglandi
Order: Anseriformes
Family: Anatidae
Melanitta: from Ancient Greek: melas = black; netta = duck
deglandi: Latinization of Degland, for French ornithologist Côme Damien Degland

Status at Chignik Lake, 2016-19: Rare to Accidental on Chignik Lake

David Narver, Birds of the Chignik River Drainage, summers 1960-63: Rare on Chignik Lagoon

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

Aniakchak National Monument and Preserve Bird List: Present

loon silhouette

Previous: Black Scoter – Springtime Courtship on a Wilderness Lake

Next Article: Common Goldeneye

*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: Black Scoter – Springtime Courtship on a Wilderness Lake

Female (left) and male Black Scoters frequently visit Chignik Lake in springtime, usually in what appear to be mated pairs or small groups of hens and drakes. (Chignik Lake, May 3, 2018)

Formerly lumped together with coots and until fairly recently considered conspecific with European Common Scoters, not as much is known about Black Scoters as is known about most other North American Ducks. A few nests have been found – depressions the female lines with grass in treeless environments. I witnessed a pair mating on the lake, so it might be presumed that they intended to nest someplace not too distant.

After making his intentions known with displays featuring wing-flapping and rearing up with his bill pointed to the sky, Sir mounted his Good Lady. With Narver reporting the species as common on both lakes during summers, Black Scoters must surely nest in the Chignik Drainage. (May 3, 2018)

Considered “sea ducks,” nearby ocean bays are likely where Black Scoters winter. I never saw them on the lake earlier than spring. With the male’s black plumage and bright orange bill, these ducks are unlikely to be overlooked. For that matter, the female too is fairly easily distinguished by her contrasting dark brown cap and pale, almost white, face. If you can get a look at the bill, check for a distinctive hook at the tip. This may be an adaptation for digging up shellfish, the Black Scoter’s favorite food.

Female Black Scoter in flight over Chignik Lake. Note the hook at the tip of her bill. (August 16, 2018)

Another nearly diagnostic characteristic is the call the drakes produce. Gentle, high-pitched tones sung in a minor key are the norm. At other times the whistling sounds slightly reedy, though still quite pleasant. It’s a music I’ve come to associate with springtime at The Lake.

A peaceful morning on Chignik Lake (May 3, 2018)

Perhaps Chignik Lake is only a stopover for this pair as they travel up the drainage to the marshy tundra around Black Lake where the female will make her nest. Or maybe they’ve already got a nest, above the tree-line on one of the mountains overlooking the lake. The Chigniks remain a wonderfully under-explored and seldom studied corner of the world. (May 3, 2018) 

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

Black Scoter Melanitta americana
Order: Anseriformes
Family: Anatidae
Melanitta: from Ancient Greek: melas = black; netta = duck
americana: Latin, of America

Status at Chignik Lake, 2016-19: Occasional on Chignik Lake

David Narver, Birds of the Chignik River Drainage, summers 1960-63: Common on both lakes (Reported by former name, Common Scoter Oidemia nigra

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

Aniakchak National Monument and Preserve Bird List: Present

loon silhouette

Previous: Steller’s Eider

Next Article: White-winged Scoter – A Lone, Rainy Day Visitor

*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: Steller’s Eider

Female Steller’s Eider, Chignik River. Rarely seen on the river, Steller’s Eiders inhabit The Chignik’s nearby ocean bays and estuaries. (November 16, 2016)

Straight away I could see that the small, dark duck bobbing on the Chignik on a cold, windy, misty November day was something “different.” As it was milling around at a downriver location I couldn’t get to, I snapped a couple of photographs from a distance and hoped I’d be able to figure it out when I got home and could look at my Sibley’s Field Guide and the various bird websites bookmarked on my computer.

I was not guessing eider. New to birding, the only eiders I’d ever seen were further north – rocketing splashes of color pointed out to me by local Natives as they winged by. Brilliantly marked drakes. A friend at The Lake tells me he sees King Eiders down at The Bay. If I can get my boat out to The Lake…

Steller’s Eider drakes are, to say the least, eye-catching when they’re in breeding plumage. (Wikipedia: Ron Knight from Seaford, East Sussex, United Kingdom – Steller’s Eider Polysticta stelleri)

During the breeding season, Steller’s Eiders head to Siberia and the Alaskan Arctic. The rest of the year, the Aleutians and the Alaska Peninsula are good places to find them. As is the case with Brant, Cackling Geese and Emperor Geese, Izembek National Wildlife Refuge, located at the end of the Alaska Peninsula, is a good place to find them.

Like many other diving ducks, eiders are catholic in their diets. At sea they primarily go for mollusks, worms, small fish and crustaceans. While on their tundra breeding grounds, they consume fairy shrimp, insects, grasses, sedges, and berries.

Eiders, Point Hope, Alaska. (August 30, 2012)

These Arctic ducks are especially sensitive to a changing climate. Their numbers are in decline. Probably one reason for this is that as temperatures warm, various predators – particularly those of eggs and nestlings – are able to move northward.

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

Steller’s Eider Polysticta stelleri
Order: Anseriformes
Family: Anatidae
Polysticta: from Greek: poly = many; sticte = varied or spotted
stelleri: Latinization of Steller – German zoologist/naturalist George Wilhelm Steller

Status at Chignik Lake, 2016-19: Rare Wintertime Visitor on Chignik River

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

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

Aniakchak National Monument and Preserve Bird List: Present

loon silhouette

Previous: Long-tailed Duck – Political Correctness or Respect… When is a Name Change Merited? 

Next Article: Black Scoter – Springtime Courtship on a Wilderness 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.