Birds of Chignik Lake: Long-tailed Duck – Political Correctness or Respect… when is a Name Change Merited?

No duck dives deeper (up to 200 feet) or more frequently than the Long-tailed. To catch The Chignik’s handsome, Neapolitan-ice-cream-colored drakes at their most colorful, you’ve got to get out on the lagoon in late winter when they are at their most abundant and resplendent. Later in spring and on through summer, they’ll disperse to tundra ponds where they molt into drabber plumage and lose their eponymous tails. (Chignik Lagoon, March 9, 2019)

You can find passages in older texts in which Long-tailed Ducks are identified by their former moniker, Old-squaws, an appellation assigned to these stunningly beautiful creatures for their habit of gathering in large groups where their somewhat gull-like calls and melodies fill the air almost without cessation. The name is a trifecta of insult – besmirching women, elders, and Native Americans in one fell-swoop. Come to think of it, it doesn’t do any honor to the ducks either. Several thoughts tempt my fingers to give them voice on this keyboard, but I refrain.

On patrol for mollusks and whatever else might be presented during a dive, a Long-tailed (left) ambles along with a female scaup on Chignik River. (December 30, 2016)

When, in the year 2000, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Alaska petitioned the American Ornithologists’ Union Committee on Classification and Nomenclature to change C. hyemalis’s common name, the committee balked. Categorizing empathy for those who might be offended by the term Old-squaw as “political correctness,” members of the AOU took the position that such sensibilities alone did not justify new nomenclature.

One might reasonably counter, “For goodness sake, why not?” We’re talking about language here; shouldn’t the way we speak be permitted to evolve alongside insight, understanding, and other manifestations of enlightenment?

The above Long-tailed Ducks were part of a group of 13 we came across on an Arctic tundra pond near Point Hope, Alaska. (August 25, 2013)

The objections of some AOU members notwithstanding, the pressure was on. Refuge was found by couching the long overdue change as a matter of maintaining consistency with the rest of the English-speaking world where “Long-tailed Duck” had already long been designated.

The matter of naming birds (and other beings) is interesting. Wouldn’t we all be better served by appellatives that describe a characteristic of the animal in question rather than some anthropomorphized perception of their behavior, or more arbitrary still, the surname of whomever claims first to have “discovered” it?

In any event, in the matter of C. hyemalis, Long-tailed Duck it is. Though, I’ve got to say, I can’t look at a drake in late-winter plumage and not think of that tri-colored Neapolitan ice cream, the candy-red eye a cherry on the chocolate.

From Flattop Mountain, you can take in a view of the Chignik River flowing into Chignik Lagoon. The entire drainage is rich with aquatic vegetation, mollusks and other invertebrates, and small fish, all of which represent potential meals for the area’s waterfowl. (September 21, 2018)

Long-tailed Duck Range Map: with permission from The Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Birds of the World

Long-tailed Duck: Clangula hyemalis
Order: Anseriformes
Family: Anatidae
Clangula: from the Latin clangare = to resound
hyemalis: Latin, of winter

Status at Chignik Lake, 2016-19: Common. At times abundant on Chignik Lagoon; Occasional on Chignik Lake; Summer ?

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 & Winter; Rare in Summer; Uncommon in Fall

Aniakchak National Monument and Preserve Bird List: Present

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Previous: Canvasback – The Duke of Ducks

Next Article: Steller’s Eider

*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: Harlequin Ducks – Lords and Ladies of the Aquatic Court

A beautifully marked Harlequin Drake explodes from the waters of Chignik Lagoon. (March 8, 2019)

The nickname Rock Duck is apt for this species that favors swift-flowing, rocky rivers and ocean coasts with wave-lashed rocks. In search of insects, mollusks, crustaceans and small fish, Harlequins go where few other species will venture.  In fact, studies have shown that these birds’ roughhousing ways frequently result in broken bones.

Hen and Drake, Chignik River. (May 5, 2019)

At just 14 to 18 inches in length (34 – 46 cm), these daring ducks may be small, but they are eye-catching. And so another sobriquet, Painted Duck, suits well, particularly when considering the male’s impressively complex plumage featuring rusty red, navy blue, deep aqua and brilliant white. The female’s contrasting white face and cheek dot make her a standout even at surprising distances.

Hens are mousy gray-brown, but that dot near the back of her cheek stands out. Her white face readily distinguishes her from female Buffleheads, which also have the white cheek marking but lack the Harlequin’s white face. (Chignik Lagoon, May 5, 2019)

They’re even sometimes called the Sea Mouse for their rather unducklike high-pitched squeak – and perhaps as a nod to the hen’s mouse-brown plumage as well.

Springtime love – a pair of Harlequins cruises a secluded location on a far bank of the Chignik River. (May 5, 2019)

But it’s hard to imagine a more appropriate appellation for this colorful navigator of mad currents than Harlequin. The name comes from Arlecchino, a character introduced to a form of Italian theater, Commedia dell’arte, in the 16th century. Arlecchino became Harlequin when this type of theater appeared in England. Watching these elaborately-plumed ducks effortlessly bounce down the rock-strewn rapids of a mountain stream, no descriptor could be better than one evoking an actor clad in bright costume and described as “light-hearted, nimble and astute.”1

One Mr. Ellar in the role of Harlequin, 19th century:  Marks, J.L. Details of artist on Google Art Project 

1wikipedia.org/wiki/Harlequin

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

Harlequin Duck Histrionicus histrionicus
Order: Anseriformes
Family: Anatidae
Histrionicus: from the Latin histrio = actor
histrionicushistrio = actor

Status at Chignik Lake, 2016-19: Common. Look for Harlequin in freshwater from spring through early fall; in the lagoon and nearby ocean throughout the year

David Narver, Birds of the Chignik River Drainage, summers 1960-63: Common on all rivers & streams

Alaska Peninsula and Becharof National Wildlife Refuge Bird List, 2010: Uncommon in all seasons

Aniakchak National Monument and Preserve Bird List: Present

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Previous: Canvasback – The Duke of Ducks

Next Article: Long-tailed Duck

*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: Canvasback – the Duke of Ducks

Canvasbacks and a female Common Goldeneye shyly paddle across Chignik Lake. The first, second and fourth birds from the left are female. The third bird, with its dark head and black bill, is a male. (November 27, 2017)

Hunted ducks are wary ducks, and so it is with the few Canvasbacks that visited Chignik Lake. Generally mixed in with other species, their propensity to turn and paddle out of camera range made scaup and even goldeneyes seem tame by comparison.

That big, dark bill – adapted to pull up aquatic vegetation – helps ID Canvasbacks among other ducks. A light reddish brown head with a pale eye-stripe ID’s this particular pair as females. (Chignik Lake, January 25, 2017)

This is another species not indicated for the Alaska Peninsula on most range maps. As they appear to be pushing further north, in future years they may become more common on the Peninsula. With beds of aquatic vegetation expanding in Chignik Lagoon and throughout the drainage, habitat for Canvasbacks looks promising.

As with other genus Aythya ducks, Canvasbacks are divers. Eclectic in their diets, while they show a preference for Wild Celery (which doesn’t look at all like celery) at certain times of year, they also eat mollusks and aquatic insects. Seldom going ashore, they even sleep on the water, as the drake (the duck on the right) in this photo is getting ready to do. (Chignik Lake, November 27, 2017)

A member of the tape-grass family, Wild Celery, (Vallisneria americana) is a freshwater plant that tolerates salt well enough to thrive in estuarine environments as well. Photo by Fredlyfish4, Wikipedia.

Female Canvasback with female Greater Scaup. At an average length of 24 inches, Canvasbacks are large. The manner in which the head slopes into the bill, creating one straight line, is a reliable field marker. (Chignik Lake, January 25, 2017)

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

Canvasback Aythya valisineria
Order: Anseriformes
Family: Anatidae
Aythya: from Ancient Greek, a term used by Aristotle believed to describe a duck or seabird
valisineria:   Vallisneria americana, the wild celery which is a favorite food. Antonio Vallisneri was the seventeenth century Italian botanist who named the plant.

Status at Chignik Lake, 2016-19: Uncommon to Rare late Fall and Wintertime

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

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

Aniakchak National Monument and Preserve Bird List: Not Reported

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Previous Article: Tufted Duck – Rare Eurasian Visitor

Next Article: Harlequin Duck – Lords and Ladies of the Aquatic Court

*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: Tufted Duck – Rare Eurasian Visitor

Check out those scaup and Ring-billeds carefully. Who knows? You might get lucky. Here a female Tufted Duck visiting from perhaps Japan or Russia scooped up one of Chignik River’s clams. They also eat aquatic vegetation. (January 26, 2017)

It’s always a thrill to add a new bird to a personal list – all the more so when the species is one that’s fairly rare. While it’s certainly not unheard of for a Tufted Duck or two to be mixed in with other ducks in Southwestern Alaska, they are still unusual enough that they aren’t included on North American range maps.

I found this Tufted Duck (foremost) feeding along Chignik River shore ice along with a Ring-necked drake and three female scaup (probably Greater Scaup). (January 21, 2017)

Even in silhouette the sleeping Tufted is easy to pick out from other ducks. From left to right: Male Greater Scaup, Tufted, female Greater Scaup, male Ring-necked, Canvasback, female Greater Scaup. (Chignik Lake, January 25, 2017)

Tufted Duck Aythya fuligula
Order: Anseriformes
Family: Anatidae
Aythya: from Ancient Greek, a term used by Aristotle believed to describe a duck or seabird
fuligula: from Latin fuligo = soot and gula = throat

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

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

Alaska Peninsula and Becharof National Wildlife Refuge Bird List, 2010Accidental in Spring

Aniakchak National Monument and Preserve Bird List: Not Reported

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Previous Article: Ring-necked Duck – a Species Moving Northward

Next Article: Canvasback – the Duke of Ducks

*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: Ring-necked Duck – a Species Moving Northward?

A female Ring-necked Duck stretches her wings on Chignik Lake. (January 8, 2016)

This is a species that may well be expanding its range north. According the several range maps I consulted, including the Birds of the World map below, Ring-neckeds shouldn’t be here with any regularity. It is true that they’re fairly rare on the Alaska Peninsula, but they’re definitely here, and the appearance of pairs in resplendent plumage in late winter and early spring suggests that they’re breeding on the peninsula – or perhaps at points even further north.

The “ringed neck” of the Ring-necked is generally not visible in the field. Apparently it shows better on dead specimens, which were the referents early scientists used when naming this species. Look instead for a distinctively black-tipped bill, a tall head (often showing purple) and a neck that appears rather long compared with most other ducks. In a bit different light, the white ring at the base of this drake’s bill would show plainly, hence one of the alternate local names for this duck, “Ring-billed.” (Chignik Lake, January 7, 2016)

The overall appearance of both male and female Ring-neckeds is similar to male and female scaup. We found that it often paid to carefully glass flocks of scaup when looking for this species. Their bills give them away.

Mousy-gray winter light generally isn’t what I’m hoping for, but here it helps show the distinctive ring at the base of this drake’s bill. Note the peaked head and the scaup-like side.

Although we sometimes saw Ring-neckeds come up from a dive with a billful of aquatic vegetation, it was difficult to determine what they were eating. The weeds, certainly, but very likely whatever invertebrates and small fish that might be mixed in with those weeds as well. Opportunistic feeders, it is reported that Ring-billeds gather in the hundreds of thousands to feed on wild rice in certain Minnesota lakes.

You’ve got to tip your hat to ducks for their hardiness. From front to back: A female Ring-billed, male Ring-billed, and a male Greater Scaup dive for aquatic weeds while ice accumulates on their feathers. (Chignik Lake, January 8, 2016)

This photo offers size comparisons among various ducks: male and female Mallards, male and female Buffleheads, male and female Ring-billeds and a female scaup. (Chignik River, March 14, 2017)

This is a species to watch in terms of range. Maps may look different in the not-too-distant future as conditions on our planet continue to change.

Ring-billed Duck Range Map: with permission from The Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Birds of the World

Ring-necked Duck Aythya collaris
Order: Anseriformes
Family: Anatidae
Aythya: from Ancient Greek, a term used by Aristotle believed to describe a duck or seabird
collaris: from Latin for neck or collar

Status at Chignik Lake, 2016-19: Occasional to Regular late Fall, Wintertime and Spring Visitor, but rarely more than two at any one time. Often in flocks of Scaup.

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

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

Aniakchak National Monument and Preserve Bird List: Not Reported

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Previous Article: Greater Scaup

Next Article: Tufted Duck – Rare Eurasian 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: Greater Scaup

There seem to always be scaup somewhere in the Chignik System. Flocks regularly show up on the lake from fall through spring, particularly during colder winters. (Chignik Lake, January 3, 2017)

Many a winter’s day at The Lake was made more cheerful by an arriving flock of scaup. Although as few as one or two might show up, the more usual case from late fall through spring was that if there was one on the lake, there were at least a dozen or more, sometimes quite a few more. Early in the day they could sometimes be found cruising the shoreline near our home in the village. But as boats were launched and returned, they moved to the other side of the lake, a distance of approximately half-a-mile and well out of photography range. There they’d remain, day in and day out, their numbers growing as weather became increasingly inclement, usually joined by Common Goldeneyes and other ducks.

Although the male’s head often appears black, in the right light it has a distinctive green sheen which takes on a purple hue during breeding. Females sport a white mask at the base of the bill. Note the blue bill with its splotch of black lipstick and the yellow eyes. ( Chignik Lake, January 18, 2017)

I have carefully glassed individual scaup on the lake, pored over my photographs to compare images with those in field guides and can say with some confidence that there were no Lesser Scaup among the birds that visited our river and lake. I don’t know why this should be so, as both species are common in Alaska. Nonetheless, a variety of range maps are consistent in agreement that only the Greater Scaup is to be found on the peninsula. Let’s see… head a little larger, more round – but also more sloped…, slightly whiter body, a little more white in the wing stripe in flight, somewhat larger dark splotch on bill, a bit larger overall… One vexingly relative comparison after another… I give up. What does the range map indicate again?

The scaup we observed appeared to feed mainly on aquatic vegetation with an occasional freshwater clam mixed in. This female has found a mollusk of some kind. It is believed that the word scaup is a Scottish variant of the northern English term “scalp,” which means “mussel bed.” (Chignik River, January 27, 2017)

Greaters? Lessers? (Denali Highway, Interior Alaska, June 2, 2017)

The text Birds of North America1, which despite having been written over 100 years ago continues to gain my appreciation, states that the two species vary “principally…in size.” Which seems to be as useful and honest a thing as one might say about making a field identification of scaup. That’s not to say the difference isn’t important. The extent to which any two species – or even strains of species – differ in habitat requirements and preferences makes each a bell-weather for the ecosystem it depends on. But as field observers, whether the being we are considering is a redpoll, a scaup, a steelhead or a char, it may not always be possible to know, in the field, precisely what variety of redpoll, scaup, steelhead or char we have before us.

As to the mated pair in the preceding photograph… my guess is Lesser Scaup. The female’s head appears to have a peak or corner at the rear, the male is showing a fair amount of purple in its head and only a small splotch of black on the end of its bill. The barring on his back is fairly coarse… but in the end, I can identify nothing definitive to say with certainty one way or the other. Perhaps some kind reader with greater experience than mine will come to the rescue.

Two hens, two drakes skim above Chignik Lake in silvery early morning light. (January 26, 2017)

1Birds of North America, T. Gilbert Pearson, ed., Garden City Books, Garden City, New York, 1917

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

Greater Scaup Aythya marila
Order: Anseriformes
Family: Anatidae
Aythya: from Ancient Greek, a term used by Aristotle believed to describe a duck or seabird
marila: from Greek for coal dust

Status at Chignik Lake, 2016-19: Common and generally Abundant

David Narver, Birds of the Chignik River Drainage, summers 1960-63: Abundant on Black Lake; Common on Chignik Lake

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

Aniakchak National Monument and Preserve Bird List:

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Previous Article: Life on the Frozen Chignik

Next Article: Ring-necked Duck

*For a clickable list of bird species and additional information about this project, click here: Birds of Chignik Lake

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

Ice Changes Everything – Wintertime Life on the Frozen Chignik

While River Otters are generally gregarious, playful sorts that get along beautifully, it’s hard not to project a twinge of envy on the otter to the left. Starry Flounder travel from the saltwater lagoon miles up The Chignik. Winter ice provides a lucky fisherman with a dining table. (Chignik Lake, February 2, 2017)

Clad in a 600-fill down parka, camouflage snow pants, insulated Muck Boots, a warm hat and heavy-duty mittens stuffed with hand warmers, I continue bellying forward on slick, solid ice toward a patch of open water near the lake’s outflow. With nearly effortless nudges from me, the tripod where my camera with its great, big wildlife lens is mounted slides before me. I’ve been at this since first light, moving slow and low. As careful as I’ve been, the otters have already taken notice. An assemblage of Greater Scaup, Common Goldeneyes, two species of mergansers, Canvasbacks and other waterfowl are either hauled out and resting on the edge of the ice or diving the frigid water for fish, clams and aquatic weeds. A pair of Bald Eagles perched on utility poles are taking in the scene, and I’m sure there are foxes – and maybe even a wolf or two – on patrol somewhere in the vicinity. Now I’m close enough to hear the otters snorting, breathing and crunching the bones of the fish they’ve caught. A pair of harbor seals pop their heads above water, survey the goings on, and quietly resubmerge.

Ice creates both new opportunities and new perils for the various species of the Chignik System. Here Skit, one of several Red Foxes we saw frequently enough to name, barely misses out on a sumptuous repast of Common Goldeneye. (Chignik Lake, February 3, 2017)

In early January of 2017, something happened to Chignik Lake that by local accounts used to happen nearly every winter but hadn’t happened in the past five years: save for a a couple of surface acres near the outflow, it froze solid. Over the ensuing days and weeks, while upwelling subsurface springs continued to keep the water near the outflow open, the lake ice grew thicker and the river itself froze in most places. For humans, foxes and wolves, the effect was to create an ice highway. The impact on waterfowl was to concentrate whatever birds remained in the system into the few patches of open water.

The more or less official book on the Chignik System is that Red-breasted Mergansers are common, and that Common Mergansers are uncommon or rare. While that tends to be true during summertime, we found that during wintertime, particularly during icy winters, Commons (above photo) greatly outnumber Red-breasteds and were in fact, common. Aside from research pertaining to salmon (and to a certain extent, Dolly Varden Char), the Chignik Drainage has been only lightly studied. Each new puzzle piece adds to a fuller picture of this complex ecosystem. (Chignik Lake, March 14, 2017)

As wintery conditions set in, scaup begin to show up on the lake, at times in flocks counted in the dozens. In the 2016-2017 winter, when the lake froze, scaup were fairly abundant. During the relatively mild 2018-2019 winter, scaup occurred less frequently and in smaller numbers. (Chignik Lake, January 3, 2017)

Icy conditions tend to concentrate any remaining waterfowl, making it a good time to look for less common or even rare birds. In a pocket of open water on the Chignik River, three female scaup (facing away from the camera), mill about with a fairly uncommon drake Ring-necked Duck (right) and, in the lower left, a somewhat rare visitor from Asia, a female Tufted Duck. 

Ice changes relationships among animals and creates new theater. I watched for several minutes as this River Otter used his catch (a flounder) to taunt a pair of eagles. The drama ended when one of the eagles took wing and made a half-hearted attempt to catch the otter, a maneuver the sleek fellow easily avoided by slipping back into the water. Resigned, the eagles flew off and the otter gnawed away at his catch. (Chignik Lake, January 25, 2017)

There always seem to be at least a few Harbor Seals somewhere in the freshwater lakes and river of the Chignik System. Here, a group haul out on ice to catch some rays. Events such as this are no doubt of great interest to the area’s wolves, as occasionally the pinnipeds get trapped on solid ice with no escape route. The foreground birds are male Common Goldeneyes – menaces in their own right to local sculpin and stickleback populations. (February 3, 2017)

Some of the preceding photos might give one a less than accurate picture of wintertime at The Lake. Chignik is an Alutiiq word meaning “Big Winds,” a suiting epithet. Weather bullying its way from one side of the Alaska Peninsula to the other can be formidable. Here a group of female Common Mergansers hunker down on an ice point to wait out fierce winds and snow. (January 6, 2016)

A Pacific Loon shakes of snow out on The Lake. (January 13, 2018)

As wintertime conditions change in coming years, those of us interested in wildlife of all kinds will want to keep our eyes sharp for commensurate changes in flora and fauna. In this global study, the role of citizen scientist has never been more important. Every well-documented backyard feeder, walk along local trails, and note of what is – and isn’t – nesting in hedgerows and elsewhere is a unique, vital data point.

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Previous Article: Birds of Chignik: Green-winged Teal – Bantam-weight Duck

Next Article: Greater Scaup

*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.