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: Common Goldeneye

Dapper drake and handsome hen, a pair of Common Goldeneyes hang out at The Lake on a calm, midwinter day. (Chignik Lake, January 2, 2017)

From fall through spring, Common Goldeneyes are indeed common throughout the Chignik River system. Although they seem to generally prefer the lake, they readily shift to the river if ice takes that option away. In either location they spend virtually all of their time on the water, loafing, sleeping or diving for small fish such as sticklebacks and sculpin.

The shimmering emerald green on the drake’s head doesn’t always show; it frequently appears black and in the right light can even look purple. But they’re called “goldeneye” for good reason. (Chignik Lake, January 2, 2017)

Hunted and cautious, these ducks cast a wary golden eye on any indication of human presence. Getting the right combination of somewhat approachable birds on a day calm enough and with enough light to photograph well at a distance is rare in the windblown Chignik drainage. Picking up the binoculars, glassing out the living room window and seeing these white-bodied ducks was a common occurrence. Being granted favorable shooting conditions was far less so.

Seen from straight on, the head shape of many diving ducks is reminiscent of an old-fashioned lightbulb held upside down. I suspect the pronounced jowls have something to do with the prodigious  jaw muscles required for pulling clams out of muck, clamping down on fish and crustaceans, and yanking up weeds. (Chignik Lake, January 2, 2017)

Those bright amber-yellow eyes aren’t the only unmistakable goldeneye characteristic. Many times, Barbra and I have been standing waist-deep in the river casting flies for salmon when our thoughts were interrupted by an approaching high-pitched whistling sound.

“Goldeneyes!”

We didn’t even have to look up, although of course we always did.

There are times when their numbers on the lake are in the dozens. Here four handsomely-marked drakes are followed by a more demurely-marked hen. Note the yellow at the tip of the hen’s bill. (December 31, 2016) 

The distinctive whistling sound goldeneyes in flight make has led to their nickname: Whistler. Clangula, their scientific specific name is misleading; they don’t seem to be nearly as vocal as other ducks. When feeding, they are quite active, paddling with purpose and diving in a sudden arch. They often join in with mergansers to cooperatively feed along a shoreline or underwater edge – birds of both species surfacing with wriggling fish.

Led by a mature female, this is very likely her brood winging and whistling down the Chignik River. (November 27, 2017)

Although goldeneyes visit The Chigniks, it is unlikely that they breed there. The reason: there aren’t any trees to speak of. Goldeneyes are among the several species of ducks that are cavity nesters, preferring holes in trees that have been hammered out by woodpeckers or that have occurred due to broken off limbs and so forth. The female chooses cavities only a few feet above the forest floor to several tens of feet high, leading to the drama of her brood being forced to literally leap into the world.

Except for a the few White Spruce trees people have planted in the Chignik villages, the area is devoid of large trees. No trees. No tree cavities. No cavity-nesting goldeneyes. With old-growth forests being relentlessly reduced to lumber throughout the boreal regions where goldeneyes breed, installing a nesting box or three (or more) would make an excellent citizen scientist project.

As is the case with other “green-head” drakes, Greater Scaup and Mallards, in certain light the head feathers of Common Goldeneyes can appear purple, as is the case with all seven birds in this photo. (Chignik River, March 12, 2017)

Drakes in Springtime. (Chignik River, May 14, 2017)

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

Common Goldeneye Bucephala clangula
Order: Anseriformes
Family: Anatidae
Bucephala:  Ancient Greek, boukephalos = bullheaded
clangula: Latin, to resound

Status at Chignik Lake, 2016-19: Common on Chignik Lake and Chignik River from late fall through Spring

David Narver, Birds of the Chignik River Drainage, summers 1960-63: Common on both lakes in Spring and Fall; rare in midsummer

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

Next Article: Barrow’s Goldeneye – a Duck that will Nest in a Box

*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

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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.

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

loon silhouette

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

loon silhouette

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: Northern Pintail – the Dapper Dabbler

With glossy hints of purple and green highlighting a chocolate-brown neck and head, male pintails are downright regal. (Chignik River, May 2, 2019)

From the first time I encountered Northern Pintails, they became my favorite among the duck tribe. Perhaps it is that their slender, elongated features somewhat resemble my own. Or maybe I’m just plain envious of the drake’s handsome jacket and eye-catching head plumage. In any regard, while there certainly are more brightly-colored birds, it is hard to argue that any are more handsome.

This female and male arrived on The Chignik in late April and hung around for a few days. They appeared intent on nesting. Alas, it seemed that daily boat traffic eventually prompted them to look elsewhere. (May 2, 2019)

The case of the mated pair of pintails in the above photo gives one pause to wonder: In addition to deforestation, draining wetlands, depleting food sources, hunting, poaching, light pollution, pollution in general, and the various hazards presented by windowed buildings,  windmills and other structures, how much negative impact does human traffic in all its forms have on bird populations? The Chignik is relatively lightly traveled, and yet the impact motorized boats have on bird populations (and most likely, on Chinook Salmon populations as well) is readily apparent. The noise and commotion interrupts feeding, mating, nesting, and brood rearing as cruising boats set nervous birds to wing. Every burst into flight constitutes wasted calories. A nest left unguarded for even moments leaves eggs and chicks vulnerable to predation. Waves created by boats contribute to the siltation of weed beds and salmon redds and might even inundate nests along shorelines or situated on small islands. It has long puzzled me that in many locales, wildlife managers seem to take little to no account of this type of traffic.

Portrait of a Lady: With scalloped patterns in shades of gray and brown, female pintails are a beautiful bird in their own right. (May 2, 2019.)

The Chignik’s pintails can be observed in more or less the same seasons as other migrant dabbling ducks – from late spring through early fall. Anytime you see ducks standing or walking along the shore in these seasons it’s worth glassing for pintails as they often come off the water to rest or to look for insects, seeds and land plants.

In profile, the drake pintail’s long, almost gun-metal blue bill only further accentuates his sharp plumage. (May 2, 2019)

Although the upper river and Black Lake are beyond the scope of this study, we’ve seen pintails at those locations. It is almost certain that they nest along the shores of those quieter waters.

The long bill and eponymous tail make pintails one of the easiest birds to identify in flight – even in silhouette at considerable distance. (Shishmaref, Alaska, May 15, 2011)

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

Northern Pintail Anas acuta
Order: Anseriformes
Family: Anatidae
Anas: Latin for duck
acuta: from Latin for “to sharpen” – a reference to the Pintail’s tail

Status at Chignik Lake, 2016-19: Common Spring and Fall migrant; Occasional on Chignik Lake. Occasional throughout the system in Summer.

David Narver, Birds of the Chignik River Drainage, summers 1960-63: Common in early and late Summer throughout the watershed; occasional in midsummer

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

Aniakchak National Monument and Preserve Bird List: Presence Documented

Previous Article: Mallard – “Wary, Wise, Handsome”

Next Article: American Wigeon – America’s Most Vegetarian Duck

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

Birds of Chignik Lake: Mallard – “Wary, Wise, Handsome”**

Newly-arrived migrant ducks gather at preferred locations on the Chignik River before dispersing to breeding grounds. These locations vary according to ice patterns. This pair of Mallards was heading for a shallow riffle where fellow Mallards, several other species of ducks, and Tundra Swans were feeding. (March 14, 2017)

The first word that comes to mind when I think of The Chignik’s Mallards is wary. Well beyond shotgun range, at the first hint of an approaching human they take off in a cacophony of alarmed quacks (females) and rasping calls (males). The second term I think of is strikingly handsome. Mallard drakes are among those birds that, if they were not so common, our jaws would drop upon encountering them.

A few over-wintering and early-arriving migrate ducks gather in an icy riffle on The Chignik. Included in this photo are Mallards, mergansers, Buffleheads, Common Goldeneyes, a pair of Ring-neckeds, a Greater Scaup Drake and a Tufted Duck. Just upriver was a group of Tundra Swans. Pintails and Green-winged Teal will soon join the party. (March 14, 2017)

“Green-heads,” they’re often called. But, as angler-biologist A.J. McClane observed, color is often an unreliable characteristic, and yet it is generally the first thing we look for. He may have been referring to attempts to differentiate among species of salmonids, but he could as easily have been referring to birds. In every on-line and in-hand field guide I have at my disposal, the descriptor for drake Mallards in breeding plumage is universally “green head.” So what are we to make of those males sporting what appear to be purple or even blue heads? Neither the Internet nor the books I have on hand offer much guidance.

While early spring is a good time to see Mallards along with Tundra Swans on The Chignik, fall presents memorable opportunities to catch them with Brown Bears. (September 8, 2018)

However, in Birds of America1 it is noted, “Head and upper neck, glossy green with shadings of purple and deep Prussian blue.” Prussian blue is as deep and iridescent a blue as one might imagine. So, according to this text, the purples and blues we see when we look at the heads of certain drakes is part of the plumage.

The speed with which a concerned hen can usher her young ducklings across a stretch of open water never ceases to astonish me. The Mallard hen and her brood in this photo were especially vulnerable – and they caught me quite off guard as they scooted across a patch of water in front of our home. Not wishing to add to the anxiety she was surely feeling, I snapped a quick documentation photo and let them pass. (May 15, 2019)

The apparent dominance of purple and blue in certain drakes probably has to do with some combination of natural variation among individual birds and the complicated manner in which light can play on bird plumage. Anyone who has closely watched hummingbirds has witnessed the latter as a gorget can appear to change color in a fraction of a second and may take on a range of hues. Birds themselves, it should be kept in mind, don’t see these colors quite the way we do as their eyes can pick up near ultra-violet wavelengths that humans cannot detect.

When is a Green-head not a green-head? Several of the drakes in this photo appear to have purple heads. (March 16, 2017)

1(Birds of North America, T. Gilbert Pearson, ed, New York, 1917)
**A History of Game Birds, Wildfowl and Shore Birds, Edward Howe Forbush, Massachusetts State Board of Agriculture, 1912

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

Mallard Anas platyrhynchos
Order: Anseriformes
Family: Anatidae
Anas: Latin for duck
platyrhynchos: from Ancient Greek for broad bill

Status at Chignik Lake, 2016-19: Common Spring and Fall migrant & Occasional Breeder on Chignik River; Occasional on Chignik Lake. Occasional throughout the system in Winter.

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

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

Aniakchak National Monument and Preserve Bird List: Presence Documented

loon silhouette

Previous Article: Brant – the Goose that Was Once a Fish (sort of)

Next Article: Northern Pintail

*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: Brant – the Goose that Was Once a Fish (sort of)

No white patch on cheek, white necklace, short bill, a constant, chatty murmur as opposed to the more distinctive honking associated with Canada and Cackling Geese… Brant!. For awhile during spring, wave upon wave of these migrants can be heard passing over The Lake. (May 5, 2018)

At The Lake, we slept with our bedroom window cracked open in all but most inclement weather. Nighttime sounds included Harbor Seals chasing down Silver Salmon, Brown Bears scavenging the beach, waves lapping the shore, hooting owls and – for a few nights in spring and fall – flocks of migrating geese.

To get a look at Chignik Lake’s migrating Brant, you need a bit of luck with timing (late April through mid May are best), clear skies or high cloud cover, and a good pair of binoculars or a long camera lens. With few exceptions, they’re up there, though David Narver reported them as “occasional” on the river. Birders seriously intent on getting a good look at this species would do well to check out Izembek National Wildlife Reserve way down at the big toe of the Alaska Peninsula. More than 90 percent of the Brant population that utilizes the Pacific flyway – along with half the world’s Emperor Geese – stop here each fall. That’s about 150,000 Brant and tens of thousands of Emperor Geese. (Note to self: go to Izembek!)

Here’s a little better look at Brant in flight. They’re fairly abundant near Point Hope, Alaska, which is situated within their breeding range. (Point Hope, Alaska, September 1, 2013)

Among Brants’ favorite forage is Eel Grass. As Chignik Lagoon continues to grow more silted-in and Eel Grass beds there expand, it will be interesting to see if in the future Brant begin to utilize this area. So why, as Brant feed extensively on Eel Grass, is their specific name “bernicla” (barnacle)? It was formerly believed that certain geese were spontaneously generated from barnacles. In fact, until fairly recently the Catholic Church permitted Catholics to eat these geese on Fridays as they counted as fish. See: Wikipedia.

The shifting forms flocks of geese glide in and out of invite a wandering imagination. With Sockeye Salmon soon to ascent the river, these Brant seem to be pointing the way. (May 3, 2018)

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

Brant Branta bernicla
Order: Anseriformes
Family: Anatidae
Branta: Latinized Old Norse Brandgás = burnt-black goose
bernicla: from the Latin for barnacle

Status at Chignik Lake, 2016-19: Spring & Fall migrant seen and heard flying in flocks

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

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

Aniakchak National Monument and Preserve Bird List: Presence Documented

Previous Article: Cackling Goose (Aleutian Form) – Picture a Canada Goose with a White Necklace

Next Article: Mallard

*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: Cackling Goose (Aleutian Form) – Picture a Canada Goose with a White Necklace

 

Early morning high flyers: The white cheeks are typical of Canada Geese. The white necklace is not. Long considered a smaller, more northerly form of Canada Goose, the descriptor “Aleutian form” was often tacked on. But in 2004, the American Ornithological Union assigned these necklaced birds species status and named them for their higher-pitched honking in flight: Cackling Goose, Branta hutchinsii. (Chignik Lake, April 18, 2018)

As a given species disperses from its core range, the tendency for it is to become smaller, perhaps a response to less favorable feeding conditions or other environmental factors. Over time, a given population’s size difference along with other newly formed adaptations may result in a new species.

As geese go, Aleutian Cacklings are small – a little larger than Brant, but a lot smaller than an average Canada Goose. As far as I can determine, Cacklings seldom hang around in the Chignik System. Your best shot at seeing them there is to hope for a reasonably clear spring day and find a comfortable place to watch from. And then listen. During migration, separate flocks of Cacklings and Brandt noisily pass through at virtually any hour day or night on their way to nesting grounds further north. The Cacklings are distinguished by their more goose-like, high-pitched honking.

Cackling Goose: Photo credit – Roy Lowe/U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service – U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Wikipedia

For comparison, here’s a Canada Goose. One of these typically weighs from as little as six-and-a-half to nearly 20 pounds. This is considerably larger than its Cackling cousin which weighs roughly three to five pounds. Wild Mallards weight about two to three pounds. (Potter’s Marsh near Anchorage, Alaska, June 25, 2012.)

At times wave after wave of geese cruise north above Chignik Lake. This is yet another flock of Aleutian form Cackling Geese. Their high-pitched honking is part of a springtime symphony which includes winnowing snipe, bugling cranes, rattling kingfishers, piping eagles, mewing gulls and fluting thrushes. (April 18, 2018)

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

Cackling Goose Branta hutchinsii
Order: Anseriformes
Family: Anatidae
Branta:  Latinized Old Norse Brandgás = burnt-black goose
hutchinsii: after English surgeon and naturalist Thomas Hutchins

Status at Chignik Lake, 2016-19: Spring & Fall migrant seen flying high in flocks

David Narver, Birds of the Chignik River Drainage, summers 1960-63: (Species not yet separated from Canada Goose.) Reported Canada Goose rare on Black River

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

Aniakchak National Monument and Preserve Bird List: Presence Probable but not Documented

Previous Article: Emperor Goose – Alaska’s Painted Beauty

Next Article: Brant

*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 – Emperor Goose: Alaska’s Painted Beauty

Emporer Gesse in Flight

Part of a flock of over 200 Emperor Geese overwintering at Chignik Lagoon. An almost strictly Alaskan and Siberian species, Emperors winter along the Alaska Peninsula and Aleutians and breed still further north. (March 9, 2019)

Although not strictly a species associated with the Chignik Lake study area, I include Emperor Geese in this report as they are a spectacular, unique bird that is special to The Chigniks. They are not likely to be encountered outside of Alaska and far eastern Siberia. In recent years their numbers in Alaska have been rebounding following a precipitous decline which saw their population plummet from 139,000 birds in 1964 to just 42,000 in 1986.

Formerly referred to as Beach Geese and still sometimes called Painted Geese, these surely are, as Edward W. Nelson who made a special study of them declared, the “least known and the most beautiful” of North America’s Geese. (March 9, 2019)

As our planet continues to change, it will be interesting to note what effects this has on Emperors. Hopefully they will part of the Chignik wintertime seascape for a very long time to come.

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

Emperor Goose Anser canagicus
Order: Anseriformes
Anser: Latinized Greek for swan
canagicus: for Kanaga Island in the Aleutian Island chain.

Status at Chignik Lake, 2016-19: Possibly Occasional on Chignik River; Common on Chignik Lagoon in late Winter

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

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

Aniakchak National Monument and Preserve Bird List: Presence Documented

Previous Article: Tundra Swan – Harbinger of Spring at The Lake

Next Article: Cackling Goose

*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.