Birds of Chignik Lake: Greater Yellowlegs – the Treetop Shorebird

Fattening up for the fall migration, this Greater Yellowlegs took advantage of high water on the lake to snag a few Nine-spine Sticklebacks tucked up in grass beds. (Chignik Lake, August 20, 2018)

The Greater Yellowleg’s piercing call can sound something like a car alarm going off, plenty loud enough to have stirred us from sleep during their spring and fall migration through The Chigniks. If you happen near their nest, you’ll know it. These are fairly large as shorebirds go, averaging about 14 inches in length, and they fiercely defend their territory with ear-piercingly shrill cries.

A treetop is generally not the place to look for shorebirds, but rules have exceptions and so it is with Greater Yellowlegs. While most of the year marshes, mudflats and other wetlands are a good place to look for this species. when they’re on their breeding grounds, check the trees. Yellowlegs use the vantage to keep watch over nests. (Chignik Lake, June 4, 2019)

Their nests are often located near small trees or other features in boggy terrain, which makes the landscape around Chignik Lake ideal breeding ground. While nesting, their diet consists mainly of insects. But during migration, they typically switch to meatier fare such as small fish. Active hunters, watching one high-step along a shoreline as it deftly uses its bill like chopsticks to capture whatever two-inch species might be available is to study a true master. The ones I’ve seen need work at at it only briefly before getting a full belly and treating themselves to a nap.

Stepping along the shoreline. (Chignik Lake, August 20, 2018)

With a salmon parr (probably Sockeye). (Chignik Lake, August 20, 2018)

Nap time. (Chignik Lake, August 20, 2018)

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

Greater Yellowlegs Tringa melanoleuca
Order: Charadriiformes
Family: Scolopacidae
Tringa: New Latin, from Ancient Greek trungus = white-tailed, bobbing shorebird mentioned by Aristotle.
melanoleuca: from Ancient Greek melas = black + leukos = white

Status at Chignik Lake, 2016-19: Common Spring through early Fall

David Narver, Birds of the Chignik River Drainage, summers 1960-63: Common

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

Aniakchak National Monument and Preserve Bird List: Present

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Previous: Sandhill Crane – Wild, Resounding Tremolo (Check out the video/audio clip!)

Next Article: Wandering Tattler – Sojourner from Far North Mountain Streams to Tropical Pacific Islands

*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: Peregrine Falcon

Falco peregrinus, John Gould, English Ornithologist, (1804-1881). Wikipedia

I was driving across the bridge spanning Young’s Bay near Astoria, Oregon on the lower Columbia River when, seemingly from the sky, a single drop of blood spattered on my windshield. It was, of course, too late to look up and gather a clue; I had already passed beneath the overhead girders where that drop had originated. But I had my suspicions.

As soon as I got to the end of the bridge and could turn around, I headed back along the course I had just traveled. Sure enough, perched on a steel beam, a Peregrine Falcon sat, claws buried in the remains of one of the bridge’s  Rock Doves – the latter known colloquially as common pigeon. In an instant I was transported decades back in time to Jean Craighead George’s magical novel My Side of the Mountain and Sam’s Peregrine Falcon, Frightful – boyhood fantasies of running off into the wilderness and living in a hollowed-out tree with my pet falcon and other woodland friends.

Duck Hawks, Louis Agassiz Fuertes, New York Ornithologist (1874-1927), Wikipedia. The original is housed in the New York State Museum. A print is used in Birds of America, Ed. T. Gilbert Pearson, 2017.

I haven’t gotten many good looks at these remarkable birds. Usually I see them as a blur while out fishing along some rocky coast. A duck or shorebird whizzes by in a panic, I look up, and there’s the falcon angling toward its intended prey, the pair gone in a flash, the outcome yet in question.

Formerly known as Duck Hawks, Peregrines are never abundant, but you might catch a glimpse of one or two along just about any rocky coastline in the world. Mudflats where shorebirds gather, too, are a good place to keep a sharp eye out. And don’t be surprised if you see a pair soaring among city skyscrapers. Building ledges make ideal nesting sites, and an abundance of the aforementioned pigeons ensure for a steady supply of food for adults and chicks.

We encountered a couple of them on a recent bicycle tour circumnavigating coastal Hokkaido, Japan’s northernmost island. Very occasionally, in fact rarely, we’ve looked up or down the Chignik Lake or River and caught sight of a specimen speeding one way or the other – southeast toward the Alaska Gulf; north toward the Bering Sea. At about 16 inches long and with a wingspan of 41 inches, Peregrines in flight appear nearly twice as large as the only falcon regularly seen along The Chignik, Merlins.

I’ve never seen a Peregrine perched along the drainage. The habitat isn’t quite right for them. These are birds of rocky cliffs. No doubt a better place to look for them would be on the Gulf side around Chignik Bay or Castle Cape.

Duck Hawks, John J. Audubon, American Ornithologist, 1785-1851. Wikipedia

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

Peregrine Falcon Falco peregrinus
Order: Falconiformes
Family: Falconidae
Falco: from Latin falcis = sickle
peregrinus: from Latin for traveller. The medieval Latin phrase Falco peregrinus originated with German theologian and scholar Albertus Magnus (before 1200 to 1280) who was referring to the manner in which young Peregrines were obtained for falconry. Because the nests were generally inaccessible, young falcons were taken while journeying to their breeding grounds.

Status at Chignik Lake, 2016-19: Rare

David Narver, Birds of the Chignik River Drainage, summers 1960-63: Occasional near Chignik Lake

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

Aniakchak National Monument and Preserve Bird List: Present

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Previous: Merlin – Lady of the Lake

Next Article: Sandhill Crane – Wild, Resounding Tremolo

*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.

Birds of Chignik Lake: Rough-legged Hawk – Buteo of the Far North

To the extent possible in this project, I’m using images captured in the study area around Chignik Lake. However, since luck conspired against me getting a usable photo of a Rough-legged Hawk in The Chigniks, I’m using photographs of Rough-leggeds I took in Mongolia. There is essentially no difference from continent to continent in the overall appearance of this circumpolar species. (Gobi Desert, Mongolia, October 2014)

This is the hawk of the north, the only species of Buteo to breed in Arctic regions. Around the village of Chignik Lake, we’ve seen both the typical light-colored form as well as an example of the dark morph – an almost uniformly chocolate brown bird when observed roosting, and in flight showing a much darker overall wing, belly and tail band. On lighter birds, when in flight look for almost light-colored wings accented with a dark fringe, dark wingtips and a distinctively dark patch at the carpal joint (wing wrist).

Although this cruising Rough-legged has a flock of Wheatears in a panic, this species has a decided preference for mice, voles and other small rodents. (Gobi Desert, Mongolia, October 2014)

A bulky shape, light, round head, heavily feathered legs and small talons are good field markers when identifying perched Rough-leggeds. In flight, look for a dark wrist patch on the underwing, dark flanks and belly, dark wingtips, and a dark tail band. These are reported to be the most nocturnal of hawk species, thus the crepuscular hours of morning and evening are a good time to watch for them. In flight, soft wing feathers make them nearly as silent as owls.

Stocky, broad wings, small talons, heavily feathered legs, dark patches at the wrist (wing bend)… Rough-legged! (Gobi Desert, Mongolia, October 2014)

It may not look like much more than a jumble of sticks, but for a number of years this nest on a bluff overlooking Chignik River was home to a pair of Rough-legged Hawks. Unfortunately, winter winds in the valley whose very name means “Big Winds” took the nest down. But in the spring of 2019 – our final spring in The Chigniks -, we saw a pair of Rough-leggeds near their old nesting site. Hopefully they’ll return. (Chignik River, August 29, 2016)

Ermine, lynx, foxes, owls, shrikes and hawks – predators move into an area for a time, do a number on whatever prey species brought them there in the first place, and then they move on. David Narver’s report of Rough-legged Hawks being “common” in the Chignik Valley likely coincided with an abundance of lemmings, voles or possibly ground squirrels and successive successful nesting seasons. We noted these prey species as relatively uncommon to rare during our three years at The Lake, as was the case with Rough-legged Hawks.

Rough-legged Hawk Range Map: with permission from The Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Birds of the World

Rough-legged Hawk Buteo lagopus
Order: Accipitriformes
Family: Accipitridae
Buteo: from Latin for hawk (or in Europe, buzzard)
lagopus: from Ancient Greek lago = hare; and pous = foot, referent to the heavily feathered legs of this species. Note that Lagopus is the genus name for ptarmigan, which also have heavily feathered legs and feet.  

Status at Chignik Lake, 2016-19: Uncommon

David Narver, Birds of the Chignik River Drainage, summers 1960-63: Common

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

Aniakchak National Monument and Preserve Bird List: Present

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Previous: Sharp-shinned Hawk – Sharp Claws and a Tomial Tooth

Next Article: Bald Eagle

*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: Sharp-shinned Hawk – Sharp Claws and a Tomial Tooth

This handsome specimen occasionally hunted the grove of White Spruce trees where a variety of feeders attracted Pine Siskins, redpolls, crossbills and other passerines. That’s snow just behind his talons. (Chignik Lake, October 23, 2017)

“Tsst! Tsst!” I slowly turned to where Barbra was positioned 40 feet from where I’d set up. A subtle motion of her head directed me up into the spruce bows were a small, beautifully marked hawk was perched. I couldn’t believe how close he was. I knew I wouldn’t have more than moments in which to make a photo before I was noticed. Luckily, Barbra’s cue had drawn the bird’s attention to her, and since she was a relatively safe distance, the hawk didn’t seem to feel overly encroached upon. I swiveled the Wimberley-mounted lens toward where Barbra’s eyes were motioning, carefully tilting it up toward the bird’s perch. For almost two minutes the hawk cooperated and I was able to make some photographs. And then it was gone. The last frame I took shows only a blur of barred tail feathers.

I’d seen it before and I saw it again, but I never had another photo op like that. Focused on a newly arrived flock of Red Crossbills, I’d have missed my chance altogether had it not been for Barbra’s keen eyes. Come to think of it, it’s likely that those very same crossbills had the Sharp-shinned’s attention, tempting it to linger longer around a couple of humans than it otherwise might have.

Hawk’s gold – part of a flock of two dozen Red Crossbills. The crossbills were there for the spruce cone seeds; the hawk was there for the crossbills. (Chignik Lake, October 23, 2017)

Sharp-shinned Hawks are rare enough on the Alaska Peninsula that it isn’t included as part of their territory on most range maps. If you encounter one out here, you’re fortunate. Seldom found far from forests, Sharp-shinneds on the largely treeless peninsula are most likely migrants, merely passing through. The two copses of White Spruce trees and the feeders, which attracted the song birds that are this species’ favorite prey, no doubt induced it to hang around.

The protrusion on the upper bill of this Sharp-shinned Hawk is called a tomial tooth. It’s a trait shared by falcons, kites, and one group of songbirds, shrikes. Not actually a tooth, of course, the protrusion and the corresponding recess in the lower beak aid these predators in breaking the spines of small birds and other prey. (Chignik Lake, October 23, 2017)

Sharp-shinned Hawk Range Map: with permission from The Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Birds of the World

Sharp-shinned Hawk Accipiter striatus
Order: Accipitriformes
Family: Accipitridae
Accipiter: from Latin accipere = to grasp
striatus: from Latin strio = engraved with lines or stripes

Status at Chignik Lake, 2016-19: Rare

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

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

Aniakchak National Monument and Preserve Bird List: Not Reported

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Previous: Northern Harrier – Rare but There

Next Article: Rough-legged Hawk – Buteo of the Far North

*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: Norther Harrier – Rare but There

Len Blumin’s beautiful capture of a beautiful bird. Northern Harrier female, Las Gallinas Ponds, California. (Photo Credit: Len Blumin , Wikipedia)

Anytime a slim, long-tailed hawk is observed hugging the terrain as it glides over grasslands, marsh and field, I instinctively think “Marsh Hawk” and go from there. This is a slender, graceful predator with a very long tail, unique even in silhouette. But it is the Harrier’s distinctive white rump that often confirms its identity.

Not much of a photo, I’ll grant that. And yet with that very long tail and white rump patch, there is no doubt that this is a Northern Harrier gliding through the Chignik River valley. (August 29, 2016)

I’ve encountered Northern Harriers (formerly Marsh Hawk) in a number of states, from Florida to Oregon and north to Arctic Alaska. Although they are widespread and might be found anywhere their preferred habitat exists, they generally aren’t abundant anywhere. On the Alaska Peninsula, they’re rare, although they are known to breed out here.

That white rump is diagnostic. Note also the almost owl-like facial disk. Like owls, Harriers rely on a keen sense off hearing to detect the small mammals, occasional birds and other animals they prey upon. (Photo Credit, Dan Pancamo, Wikipedia)

This is exactly the kind of habitat Northern Harriers prefer. I encountered this specimen near Point Hope, Alaska, an Inupiat village located 200 miles north of the Arctic Circle. This kind of terrain is a good place to make a living on voles and lemmings. (September 3, 2011)

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

Northern Harrier Circus hudsonius
Order: Accipitriformes
Family: Accipitridae
Circus: from Ancient Greek kirkos = circle (as soaring in circular patterns)
hudsonius: Latin for of the Hudson Bay

Status at Chignik Lake, 2016-19: Uncommon to rare

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

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

Aniakchak National Monument and Preserve Bird List: Present

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Previous: Nature Walk & Nest Finding – an Exercise in Mindfulness

Next Article: Sharp-shinned Hawk – Sharp Talons and a Tomial Tooth

*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.

Nature Watching & Nest Finding: An Exercise in Mindfulness

Male Common Merganser, Chignik Lake, March 23, 2017

I have a particular photograph that, when I got it, I was quite stoked. It’s beautiful. Everyone who has seen it says it’s a great picture. But I look at it now…

It’s a shot of a Common Merganser taking wing. Click. Capture. The camera settings were correct. The light was wonderful. The moment is frozen in time.

He was feeding. Diving. Occasionally coming up with a small fish of some kind. Stocking  calories on a cold winter day.

I moved closer. And closer. And I flushed him.

See the nest? Spring through summer, anytime you flush a bird – and especially if a bird is behaving as though it is injured, tread carefully; there’s probably a nest nearby.

The speckling, which breaks up their silhouette, makes these Semipalmated Plover eggs especially difficult to see from a distance – unless you’re looking for them. (Interior Alaska, June 2017)

It’s a dilemma. Ongoing. As a naturalist, a photographer, a student of wildlife, I want to get close. I am drawn toward invading a being’s space. I want to see them in detail. I want to find their nest or den. I want to see what they are eating. I want to learn where they roost or rest.

But I really don’t want to disturb them. Most of my favorite photographs of animals are those in which they aren’t looking at me – photos in which they are going about their business hunting, eating, digesting, loafing, soaking up sunshine or huddling against a storm.

This is how I hope to capture birds – going about their business, oblivious to me. (Pileated Woodpecker, Oregon, June 2012)

As sportsmen and naturalists, we disturb animals all the time. We flush birds. We invade habitat. If my fishing season was limited to catching only what I need to stock my freezer, it would be a mighty short season. But I love to fish. So I fish for charr and trout that I have no intention of keeping, and I cast flies for salmon long after I’ve got plenty of fillets to get me through another year, letting go the additional Silvers that come to hand after I’ve got my quota.

This is not a dilemma to be solved, I think. Rather it is one to keep in mind.

As soon as we step foot in nature, we’re going to have an impact. Plants and invertebrates will be crushed underfoot. Birds will be flushed. A friend of mine walking on a river island once heard a crunch underfoot. He lifted his shoe to find a dripping smear of yolk and albumen from the crushed remains of a Killdeer’s nest. He felt really bad about that. If the world was populated only by bird-loving naturalists, I suppose evolution would have arranged for eggs in shades of neon and florescence.

Let’s hope all four of these greenish, brown-speckled eggs made it into fully fledged Siberian Rubythroats. (Hokkaido, Japan, June 2017)

In recent years, I’ve become pretty good at finding birds’ nests – a skill I’m reluctant to put into practice unless circumstances make it necessary. Hiking through an overgrown field in Hokkaido, Japan, a Siberian Rubythroat burst into flight practically beneath my feet. I knew from experience that there was undoubtedly a nest nearby, and that I’d better take great care with each footstep until I either located the nest and avoided trampling it or had gingerly stepped altogether clear of the area.  

Singing his heart out not far from the above nest, this male Siberian Rubythroat has staked out his small piece of Hokkaido. (June 2017)

I once flushed a mallard off her nest. Didn’t know she had a nest until I walked closer to where she had been. I quickly backed away, but it was too late. Before I could get completely out of the area, a pair of crows were happily going to town on eggs that would not become ducklings. Initially, I was mad at the duck for choosing such an open place to build a nest. But the fault was mine; I didn’t know enough about duck behavior to understand that she was brooding.

Those crows knew, though. Smart birds.

Birds are amazingly aware of their surroundings, and so I have little doubt that this merganser and her brood were aware of my presence. But I was tucked away behind vegetation photographing terns. She passed by with a circumspect eye directed my way, but not in panic. Good. A short distance upriver, they resumed feeding. (Tuul River, Mongolia, July 2015)

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

Next Article: Northern Harrier – Rare but There

Birds of Chignik Lake: Red-breasted Merganser – Not Just Flashy. Fast!

With a crest reminiscent of peacock herl and a bright red orange bill meant for the business of catching fish, Red-breasted Mergansers are both stunningly handsome and adapted for success in the Chignik Drainage. (Chignik Lake, December 31, 2016)

While there is some dispute as to the actual speed it can attain, it is said that the Red-breasted Merganser is the world’s fastest bird in level flight. That means that at speeds of somewhere in the vicinity of 80 miles per hour, while it can’t match a diving Peregrine Falcon’s break-neck 240 mph, it could outrun the predator in a flight parallel to land or water.

In winter and spring, it’s not unusual to see Red-breasted drakes associating with Common Mergansers. Note the Common’s slightly more stout bill, her light colored chest and distinctive white chin. Commons are also somewhat larger and bulkier looking than Red-breasteds. (Chignik Lake, December 2016)

As is the case with their Common cousins, Red-breasteds generally aren’t high on hunters’ lists. Mergansers are sea ducks, most of which are not esteemed as table fare. Though I must say as a fly-tier, the drake’s plumage is tempting. Fortunately there are synthetic materials that obviate the need to take one of these beautiful ducks merely for its feathers.

Mergansers are well-known for cooperative feeding strategies – behavior they learn as chicks while hunting with their mother. Although immature birds and females look a lot like immature and female Commons, note A) the very thin bill which can appear to be upturned, B) dark chest and C) absence or near absence of white on the chin. (Chignik Lake, January 14, 2018)

Unlike Common Mergansers, Red-breasteds don’t nest in cavities. They nest on the ground near water. Thus, they are known to breed on the largely treeless Alaska Peninsula.

A Red-breasted drake (forward most) mixes in with a group of Common Mergansers on a fishing expedition. Common Goldeneyes often join these groups. (Chignik Lake, March 23, 2017)

This drake, just coming up with a stickleback, was working an ice edge along with a female Common Merganser and a Common Goldeneye as another day on Chignik Lake came to a close. (December 2016)

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

Red-breasted Merganser Mergus serrator
Order: Anseriformes
Family: Anatidae
Mergus: from Latin for an unspecified waterbird
serrator: Latin serra = saw

Status at Chignik Lake, 2016-19: Common

David Narver, Birds of the Chignik River Drainage, summers 1960-63: Common

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

Aniakchak National Monument and Preserve Bird List: Present

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Previous: Common Merganser- She Wears the Crown

Next Article: Nature Watching & Nest Finding: an Exercise in Mindfulness

*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: 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

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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: Bufflehead – Our Smallest Diving Duck

Seen from a distance, Buffleheads often appear black and white – like plump, buoyant miniature Panda Bears bobbing on a lake surface, Viewed more closely and in the right light, the purples and greens on heads of this species’ males are brilliant and stunning. (Chignik Lake, December 31, 2016)

Averaging only 13 to 16 inches from bill to tail, Bufflehead are small but striking. Their diminutive stature plays to their advantage when it comes to nesting. Like their cousins, the goldeneyes, Bufflehead are cavity nesters. But thanks to their small size, they can make use of the not particularly large holes made my Northern Flickers, a medium-sized member of the woodpecker family.

The Chignik River in late winter is often a good place to see various species of ducks biding their time till waters further north become ice free. Beginning at nine o’clock and proceeding clockwise: female Bufflehead; 3 Mallard drakes; Mallard hen; Ring-necked drake; Bufflehead drake; Mallard drake; Greater Scaup hen; and at seven o’clock, that’s a Ring-necked hen on the outside and a Bufflehead drake on the inside. (Chignik River, March 14, 2017)

Buffleheads’ diets shift with seasons and habitats. I’ve seen them eat sculpins in the Chignik system, but they take in all manner of aquatic invertebrates as well as some plant material. Quick and wary, they’re agile divers – a headlong leap and disappear below the surface. Relatively easily fooled by decoys and relentlessly hunted and shot in the early part of the 20th century, their numbers have never fully recovered, though they remain fairly common.

The white sides and black back are consistent, but in the right light the drake’s head lights up with various shades of purple, blue and green. (Chignik Lake, January 27, 2017)

As with most other cavity nesting birds, this species is a good candidate for the benefits of strategically placed nesting boxes. Because their breeding range is generally limited to areas where Northern Flickers live, boxes could help Buffleheads expand their range and shore up their numbers elsewhere. Boxes suitable for Buffleheads might also attract small owls, which would also be interesting.

Even at a distance, it’s easy to identify the ducks this Bald Eagle is strafing as male Buffleheads. There’s no need to worry about anyone’s safety here; unless one of the ducks is injured or sick, they’ll all easily disappear beneath the water before the eagle closes in further. (Chignik Lake, December 31, 2015.)

Bufflehead drakes in flight, Chignik River. (December 3, 2016)

This is about as close as I’ve been able to get to one of these shy little ducks. Clearly if I’m to improve my photographs of this species, I’ll need to set up a blind and put patience to practice. (Chignik River, January 17, 2017)

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

Bufflehead Bucephala albeola
Order: Anseriformes
Family: Anatidae
Bucephala:  Ancient Greek, boukephalos = bullheaded
albeola: from Latin albus = white

Status at Chignik Lake, 2016-19: Common in late Fall, Winter and early Spring

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, Fall and Winter; Absent in Summer

Aniakchak National Monument and Preserve Bird List: Present

loon silhouette

Previous: Barrow’s Goldeneye

Next Article: Common Merganser – She Wears the Crown

*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.