Birds of Chignik Lake: The Long Bill of the Short-billed Dowitcher (and a thought from Ernest Hemingway regarding shore-bird conservation)

Having encountered them only once on the Chignik River in the past five years, Short-billed Dowitchers would have to be considered a rare species here. I was happy to be surprised by a small flock of them one late-summer day while looking for teal.

It’s a bit difficult and somewhat sad to think that not so long ago, shorebirds such as dowitchers were considered fair game by many shotgun-toting sportsmen. Ernest Hemingway mentions this in a couple of his books, noting (happily, I think) in his posthumously published Islands in The Stream that he loved watching the little plovers and other peeps and could no longer think about shooting them. Perhaps the early American ornithologist Elliot Coues said it best in a passage he wrote in the 1917 edition of Birds of America:

“(The dowitcher’s) gregarious instinct, combined with its gentleness, is a fatal trait, and enables gunners to slaughter them unmercifully and sometimes to exterminate every individual in a ‘bunch.’ To turn a 12-gauge ‘cannon’ loose among these unsuspicious birds, winnowing in over decoys with friendly greeting, is about as sportsmanlike as shooting into a bunch of chickens. To capture them with a camera requires skill and patience, and herein lies the hope for future existence of our disappearing wild life – substitution of the lens for the gun!”

Note the bill serrations on this dowitcher which has just come up with a tidbit of some sort – perhaps the larval stage of an insect or a mass of invertebrate eggs. The tip of the bill contains sensitive receptors called Herbst corpuscles which aid it in searching for food. Short-billed and Long-billed Dowitchers both have exceptionally long bills, and as the bill lengths fo the two species vary and overlap, it is not a reliable diagnostic. In fact, unless the birds are vocalizing, distinguishing Long-billeds from Short-billeds in the field is quite difficult. The flock of over a dozen dowitchers I encountered were in freshwater on the Chignik, several miles above the estuary – habitat where one might more likely encounter Long-billed Dowitchers. They were not vocalizing, but I believe these are Short-billeds based on more overall spotting than barring, a more sloped forehead, and the fact that Short-billeds are more common than Long-billeds on the Alaska Peninsula. But I am happy to have someone with more experience with these peeps offer a correction. It is also entirely possible that both dowitcher species were represented in this flock.

In recent years, dowitchers have experienced rather steep population declines. According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology All About Birds website, reasons include sea level rise, loss of habitat due to development and other factors, and hunting. Regarding the latter reason, I have to agree with Messrs. Coues and Hemingway. With the species in decline, it would seem the better part of discretion to stow the shotgun and opt for chicken breasts.

It’s common for shorebirds to travel in mixed flocks with each species taking advantage of slightly different feeding strategies. Here a pair of Least Sandpipers get in on the action.

The dowitcher’s needlelike bill probes silt, mud and sand with an astonishing speed that has been compared to that of a sewing machine. I’ve recently begun broadening my documentation to include video and was happy to have had the presence of mind to do so with these birds. The “sewing machine” feeding style is well demonstrated – as is the challenge of getting a good, clear still capture of these frenetic birds in typical Chignik low-light conditions.

Dowitchers feeding at Devil’s Flats on the Chignik River, Alaska

Partially concealed behind tall grasses, sedges and Arctic Dock, camera at the ready, its long lens wrapped in a camouflage sleeve, Barbra and I watch as a group of shorebirds bank in unison, the white of their underwings flashing. A short way upriver, they wheel and come back, pass overhead, bank and wheel again a little ways down river, and then return to settle in over the shallows we’ve been watching. I look at Barbra and she smiles. New birds. Our 99th species in the freshwater portion of the Chignik Drainage between Chignik Lake and the estuary. Hemingway was right. They are wonderful to watch.

Although the range map below does not indicate the presence of Short-billed Dowitchers on the Alaska Peninsula, David Sibley includes the peninsula on the range map in his field guide as does the Audubon website.

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

Short-billed Dowitcher, Limnodromus griseus
Order: Charadriiformes
Limnodromus
: Ancient Greek limne = marsh, and dromos – racer. marsh racer
griseus: Medieval Latin for gray

Status at Chignik Lake: Only one sighting in five years, however it is likely that this species is a regular if brief late summer migrant in the drainage and may even nest in nearby areas of tundra or marsh.

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

Alaska Peninsula and Becharof National Wildlife Refuge Bird List, 2010:
Common in Spring, Summer & Fall; Not reported in Winter

Aniakchak National Monument and Preserve Bird List: Present

Click here for the: Table of Contents and Complete List of Birds of Chignik Lake

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

For a list of reference materials used in this project, see: Birds of Chignik Lake

Birds of Chignik Lake: Redhead… “Are You My Mommy?”

In breeding plumage, a male Redhead. The question is, how did one of these get mixed in with a flock of Greater Scaup out on the Alaska Peninsula? (Photo courtesy of Kevin Bercaw, Wikipedia)

One of the most fascinating aspects of birding in the Chignik River drainage is that at any given moment, you might encounter something rare or unexpected. Under the “rare” category are species such as Northern Shrikes, Gyrfalcons, Yellow-billed Loons and xanthochromic Common Redpolls – birds that are seldom seen outside the far north, and even in Alaska are generally not frequently encountered. But, in part because of the unique geography of the Chigniks, there are also fairly common birds that unexpectedly end up here, many miles beyond what is generally considered to be their range. Our river cuts a path between rugged mountains on the Alaska Peninsula creating an obvious migration route for passerines, raptors and waterfowl. And then there are the fierce winds that funnel through this valley, so that Pied-billed Grebes, Red-breasted Nuthatches, White-throated Sparrows, Great Blue Herons and other birds that “aren’t supposed to be here” occasionally find their way to The Lake. 

Some of these birds may represent the vanguard of a species expanding its range. I’ve  documented Oregon-race Dark-eyed Juncos as wintertime residents from fall through early spring every year at the lake since we first arrived here in 2016. In fact, there are a dozen in the village right now, hundreds of miles from what is considered their range. And a pair of male and female Red-breasted Nuthatches that stayed in the village for awhile this year may portend things to come for that species as the climate continues to warm and more trees populate the peninsula.

And the Redhead? I suspect that something else entirely was going on with the lone male I photographed in a group of Greater Scaup last spring. Brood parasitism. Among all ducks, female Redheads are best known for their habit of laying their eggs in the nests of other birds. According to Audubon, Redheads have been documented leaving their eggs to the care of at least 10 other species of ducks, American Bitterns and even a raptor, the Northern Harrier. Scaup are a frequent target of their brood parasitism. Knowing how ducks imprint on whatever or whomever they take to be their parent, it is quite possible that this Redhead thinks of himself as a Greater Scaup. 

This is part of a flock of perhaps three dozen Greater Scaup and a few Red-breasted Mergansers. Just left of center, the bird flying highest is the Redhead. We do occasionally see Canvasbacks out here, a close relative of the Redhead. By comparison, the red of the Redhead is brighter, the head is much more rounded, and the wings in flight are darker. I searched the flock for a female counterpart, but found none. (Photo March 11, 2021, Chignik Lake)

Whether he is traveling with brood-mates or he simply fell in with a flock of fellow diving birds, it’s likely that eventually this Redhead will eventually get things sorted out. On the other hand, with breeding season fast approaching when the above photo was made, hybrid crosses between scaup and Redheads have been recorded. You never know what will turn up next at The Lake.

Redhead range map: with permission from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, All About Birds. The Alaska Peninsula lies to the west of this map.

Redhead, Aythya americana
Order: Anseriformes
Family: Anatidae
Aythya: from the Latin aithuia for an unidentified seabird referenced by Hesychius, Aristotle and others
americana: Latinized version of America

Status at Chignik Lake, 2016 to present: Rare or accidental.

David Narver, Birds of the Chignik River Drainage, Spring & Summers 1960-63: Not reported.

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

Aniakchak National Monument and Preserve Bird List: Not reported.

loon silhouette

Previous Article: Canvasback – the Duke of Ducks

Next Article: Harlequin Ducks – 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: Northern Shoveler – a Bill like Baleen

Strikingly marked with blues, iridescent greens, russet flanks and contrasting white, Northern Shovelers are a beautiful bird. And that bill… (Photo taken April 28, 2021, Chignik Lake)

Two decades have passed since the days when I used to ride my bicycle in wintertime and spring to the Hanamizu River in Hiratsuka, Japan to look for birds there. I did not consider myself a birder then, but I liked to look at the water and I carried binoculars and sometimes a bird field guide with me. There were herons and egrets, and it was a good place to see turquoise-colored kingfishers, a favorite, and to find shrikes which left worms and other small creatures impaled on barbed wire fences around gardens along the river. There were startling, parrot-like green woodpeckers, redstarts and other birds in the forested hills nearby, and sometimes I’d go there to look for those as well as owls, which I never did find. My favorite place was the river, though, and I’d often pack a lunch and find a place to sit and watch the ducks. There isn’t much hunting done in Japan, and so the birds were neither tame nor particularly wary. I was often closer to species such as teal, wigeons, mallards and pintails than I’m ever able to get here on the Chignik.

Drake (left) and hen Northern Shovelers, Chignik Lake, April 28, 2021.

Perhaps the most approachable of the Hanamizu’s waterfowl were the Northern Shovelers. Quiet as ducks go, they’d busily and rapidly swish their bills back and forth through stiller portions of the river, managing by means of their unique bills and a feeding strategy unlike the other ducks to avoid competition. As it turns out, their spatula-like bills are equipped with over 100 very fine, comb-like structures shovelers use to sift out small organisms. In both appearance and effect, these lamellae are similar to the baleen of certain species of whales. So, while shovelers are dabblers (non-diving ducks), they do more swishing and churning with their bills than tipping butt up as do teal and mallards.

Typical shoveler feeding behavior: stir up the water or silty bottom, sift the mix through fine, comb-like lamellae lining the inside edges of the bill, and swallow whatever is edible. Midge larvae are abundant in Chignik Lake, making them a likely repast. John J. Audubon reported finding leeches, snails and small fishes among stomach contents.

In four years of living at Chignik Lake and looking at various species of ducks up and down the Chignik drainage, I’d never seen shovelers here. David Narver didn’t record them in his avian study of the Chigniks conducted in the early 1960’s, and a quick check of this species on the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s All About Birds site indicated very few sightings on the Alaska Peninsula and none at all on the Gulf of Alaska side where Chignik Lake is located. So I was astounded to look at my window in the predawn of April 28 and see the unmistakable silhouettes of ducks sporting those bills. Three drakes and a hen, milling near shore along the beach where many of us park our skiffs and scows. I knew I had to make my pictures quickly. It wouldn’t be long before people headed down to the beach to launch their crafts, at which point the ducks would surely take flight and continue their migration across the peninsula.

Among ducks, Norther Shovelers are particularly known for lifelong monogamous pairings. (4/28/21)

The problem I was facing was that what little light there was shone from behind the birds. Given that encountering this species is at best a rare event on the Chignik, my best option was to turn up the ISO, keep the aperture as open as practical, and at the very least make some decent “record” or documentation pictures and deal with image noise and softness later. The pictures in this article are all from photos I took in the pre-dawn light that morning.

As I feared, just as the sun began peeking over the snow-capped mountains rimming the lake, a honda engine pierced the morning calm. As it drew closer, the quartet began hurriedly paddling for deeper water. Suddenly they broke, sent the water into a froth as they took wing, and were gone. (4/28/21)

The Lake is the kind of place where, at any given moment, an interested person might take a closer look and see a species of bird never before recorded here. But in what part of the world isn’t that true? Regrettably, I cannot remember the author’s name, but there is a very short piece of Japanese Zen poetry that reads,

Tend the garden
any size

Those words might be paraphrased to read,

Make a study
anywhere

It seems that the closer one looks – at anything – the more there is to see and to learn and to marvel at.

Northern Shoveler Range Map: with permission from The Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Birds of the World. Note that the Alaska Gulf side of the Alaska Peninsula is not considered to be part of this species’ range.

Northern Shoveler, Spatula clypeata
Order: Anseriformes
Family: Anatidae
Spatula: Latin for spoon or spatula
clypeata: Latin for shield bearing or shield

Status at Chignik Lake, 2016 to present: Rare or perhaps even accidental. Most likely to be encountered as a spring migrant. However, as shovelers are known to breed on the Alaska Peninsula, this is a species to be on the lookout for in any likely habitat, particularly at Black Lake at the head of the drainage.

David Narver, Birds of the Chignik River Drainage, Spring & Summers 1960-63: Not reported.

Alaska Peninsula and Becharof National Wildlife Refuge Bird List, 2010:
Common in Spring; Uncommon in Summer & Fall; Not reported in Winter.

Aniakchak National Monument and Preserve Bird List: Presence Documented

Previous Article: Northern Pintail – the Dapper Dabbler

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

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

Birds of Chignik: Kittlitz’s Murrelet – North America’s Rarest Seabird

This Kittlitz’s Murrelet was caught in Kachemak Bay, Alaska (near Homer). Note the very small bill compared to the similar Marbled Murrelet. (Photo U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service on Wikipedia)

Kittlitz’s Murrelets are an uncommon, poorly studied species. Only a few nests have been located. They indicate solitary pairs (as opposed to colonial nesters) choosing sites above the tree line on the southern slopes of rugged mountains. Often the nests are located on scree fields associated with past or present glacial activity. The pair lays just one egg. The Kittlitz’s’ diet is not well known, but as bill size and shape generally indicate feeding preferences, it might be surmised that they pursue somewhat different prey than the closely related Marbled Murrelet, which has a larger, slightly curved bill.

Although the specimen in the above photo doesn’t show it, in addition to a small bill Kittlitz’s Murrelets show golden-brown in their plumage during breeding season. Non-breeding birds tend toward mottled white and black much like their Marbled cousins, but in the Kittlitz’s the eye is surrounded by white whereas in the Marbled a black cap extends downward to cover the eye and the upper cheek. (See the photos in Marbled Murrelet – Seabird of Moss Nests and Old Growth Forests.)

This Kittlitz’s Murrelet shows a bit of golden-brown in its breeding plumage. Again, note the very small bill. Diving birds, they are known to prey on fish such as sand lances and herring as well as on crustaceans. (Photo U. S. Fish and Wildlife Services)

These are small birds, only about 9.5 inches from bill to tail. We will continue carefully checking the murrelets we encounter in Chignik Bay and Chignik Lagoon in hopes of getting a clear photograph. This is one of the rarest seabirds in North America. There aren’t many good photos of this species, and none at all that I could find of a Chignik bird. On the upside, our local coastal waters support abundant populations of both sand lances and herring which appear to be among the Kittlitz’s preferred dietary items, particularly during the nesting season. It is believed that about 14% of the Kittlitz’s population breeds on the Alaska Peninsula.

Due to this this species’ association with glaciers during breeding season, Kittlitz’s Murrelets appear to be particularly vulnerable to the impact of global warming trends.

Kittlitz’s Murrelet Range Map: Alaska Department of Fish and Game

Kittlitz’s Murrelet Brachyramphus brevirostris
Order: Charadriiformes
Family: Alcidae
Genus: Brachyramphus – from Ancient Greek brakhús = short + rhámphos = beak
Species: brevirostris – Latin: short-beaked

Status in Marine Waters near Chignik: Uncommon

David Narver, Birds of the Chignik River Drainage, summers 1960-63: Not observed as this is a marine species

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

Aniakchak National Monument and Preserve Bird List: Present

Table of Contents and Complete List of Birds of Chignik Lake

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

For a list of reference materials used in this project, see: Birds of Chignik Lake

Birds of Chignik: Common Murre – “The Flying Penguin”

Common Murre Alaska Gulf

The barring on this murre’s flank indicates a Common Murre. Thick-billed Murres, a close relative, have unmarked flanks. Standing about 15 to 18 inches tall, these somewhat penguin-like birds are close relatives of the Great Auk, a bird that stood 30 to 33 inches tall and went extinct in the mid-1800s. (Photo Resurrection Bay, Alaska, July 2012)

I haven’t yet managed to get a good photo of Chignik Bay’s murres, though we see them from spring through fall on excursions out onto salt water. Chowiet Island, located about 68 miles from Chignik Bay, is a known breeding site for this species.

When not nesting, murres are birds of the open sea. In fact, one of the most astonishing wildlife scenes we’ve ever witnessed was on a day in late summer when we hiked out to the tip of the peninsula at Point Hope. Apparently our hike coincided with the end of the breeding season. We stood on the beach and watched in awe as thousands upon thousands of murres and other seabirds poured from nearby sea cliffs and streamed passed us toward the open sea where they would spend the coming winter months. Having brought along no cameras, we drank in the moment, doing our best to commit the image to memory.

murres and puffins, Tikigaq Point Hope

At the tip of the Point Hope Peninsula 200 miles above the Arctic Circle, a birder can stand on the pebbled shoreline of the Chukchi Sea and watch murres, puffins, loons, ducks and other seabirds fly back and forth from nesting sites to feeding grounds throughout the nearly endless Arctic day. Flying from right to left, the birds in the photo are returning to nests, as evidenced by sand lances hanging from the bill of one of the puffins and one of the murres. You can bet that the rest of the flock have stomachs and gullets crammed full for waiting mates and youngsters! (August 20, 2012)

Unfortunately, the combination of a warming earth (and warming seas), oceans filling up with plastic and overfishing are taking their toll on murres. Although they remain abundant in most regions, numbers appear to be declining almost everywhere. The concern with any species that thrives as part of a crowd is that a threshold might be crossed after which numbers plummet drastically. We’ve seen this with avian species such as Eskimo Curlews and Passenger Pigeons as well as (I suspect) populations of salmon. Some species simply do better when there are lots of them.

Teuri Island Murres Flowerbed

As recently as 1963, there were an estimated 8,000 Common Murres nesting on Teuri Island off the coast of Hokkaido, Japan. When we visited the island in 2018, there were only eight. For certain species, when numbers become too low predation overwhelms the individuals that remain. This appears to be the case with Teuri’s murres. The few remaining birds are no match for the island’s Slatey-backed Gulls and aggressive Large-billed Crows. At some point, restoration efforts become nearly futile. Teuri’s murres are celebrated in art and literature and in decorative memorials such as this skiff converted into a flower garden. 

murres on sea stack near Homer Alaska

It truly is a joy to encounter a large colony of seabirds. These murres have crowded onto a sea stack near Homer, Alaska. (July 2009)

Common Murres on Sea Cliffs Kenai Fjords Alaska

Although they remind one of penguins, murres are actually members of the auk family. Capable of diving to depths of 150 feet or slightly more, they pursue fish, squid and krill as they “fly” through the water. (Kenai Fjords, Alaska, July 2013)

I’m looking out the window at an icy Chignik Lake as I write this on a blustery day in January, but I’m anticipating a calm morning at sea this coming summer when Barbra and I might be able to get a halibut for the cooler along with some good photos of our local murres.

Range Map Common Murre

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

Common Murre Uria aalge
Order: Charadriiformes
Family: Alcidae
Genus: Uria – from Greek ouriaa for a waterbird
Species: aalge – Danish aalge from Old Norse alka = auk

Status in Marine Waters near Chignik: Common

David Narver, Birds of the Chignik River Drainage, summers 1960-63: Not observed, as this is a marine species

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

Aniakchak National Monument and Preserve Bird List: Present

Table of Contents and Complete List of Birds of Chignik Lake

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

For a list of reference materials used in this project, see: Birds of Chignik Lake

A Moment of Bliss: Hand-feeding Wild Finches (a short video)

Their hard little feet feel cool on one’s fingers, and despite sharp bills they are gentle feeders. The large red bird is a male Pine Grosbeak. The golden-yellow one is a female. The smaller birds are Pine Siskins. Both species are finches and at times are abundant in the village of Chignik Lake.

This past summer we placed skepticism aside and purchased a couple of clear plastic window feeders – the kind that attach to a window by means of suction cups. We didn’t know whether our resident seed-eating passerines would take to the feeders. Our main source of reservation, though, was doubt that they’d stay up. We get some fierce winds here at The Lake as well as hard freezes, and UV rays can make short work of plastic that is constantly exposed to the sun.

plastic window bird feeder

The feeders drew customers within a few days of installation.

But here it is, the New Year on a windy, snowy, freezing January afternoon and our two feeders remain firmly in place. With occasional soap and water cleanings, they’re as good as new. As many as 60 or so finches come around at a time, impatiently waiting for a turn at the feeders. This has prompted us to order a third.

Thus far, the feeders have attracted 12 species of birds. In the feeders:

  • Pine Siskins
  • Common Redpolls
  • Pine Grosbeaks
  • Black-capped Chickadees
  • Golden-crowned Sparrows
  • Black-billed Magpies (which we generally shoo away)
  • A lone European Starling (the first – and last – of this species to be documented this far down the Alaska Peninsula)
  • Downy Woodpeckers

Taking advantage of seeds on the ground below:

  • Dark-eyed Juncos (both Slate-colored and Oregon races)
  • One or two White-crowned Sparrows
  • a Tree Sparrow
  • and one lonely Snow Bunting

Oh! And Red-backed Voles and a lemming!

red-backed vole chignik lake

Shy little fellow, we often find voles – or signs of voles – where birds are being fed.

Window box bird feeders

That’s my computer on the left side of this photo. While writing and editing photographs, I now not only have a view of Chignik Lake, I sit a mere three feet from constant avian activity. It has been fascinating to have such an up close and personal view of the birds and to witness behaviors and characteristics I’d never before noticed. For example, one could make a study of the various hues of Redpoll caps and beak shapes.

Our dining table – a three-foot tall, window-heigh pub table – sits just to the right of the photo. It’s been a pleasant part of our day, dining along with the birds and the birds dining along with us.

Notice the translucent maple leaf affixed to the window. All of our windows are adorned with similar leaves and bird silhouettes in order to help birds be aware of the panes of glass, thereby avoiding deadly collisions. We encourage everyone to install similar decals on any clear window – home, school and place of business.

Birds of Chignik Lake: Bonaparte’s Gull

Chignik Bonaparte's Gull

If you encounter a “masked” or “hooded” gull in The Chigniks, it is most probably a Bonaparte’s. Note the red legs, black bill and white eye ring of a bird in breeding plumage. Non-breeding adults have paler legs and either a broken up hood or just a smudge of darkness on their heads. These small, almost tern-like gulls can be found in summertime at the braided outflow of Black River on upper Chignik Lake. (Chignik Lake, July 27, 2020)

Only the Northern European Little Gull and East Asia’s Saunders’s Gull are smaller than our Bonaparte’s. Averaging just 13.5 inches in length, they are agile, acrobatic flyers, able to stop in mid-air, sweep backwards and dip to the water to snatch small fish and other food from the water. In addition to consuming fish and an array of aquatic invertebrates, Bonaparte’s are well-known insectivores. Ever the opportunists, it is likely that they feed heavily on the Chignik’s robust midge population.

Chignik Bonaparte's gull juvenile

As is the case with many gulls, the plumage of juvenile’s differs from that of adults. These colors and markings are typical of a mid to late summer Bonaparte’s shortly after fledging. (Chignik Lake, July 27, 2020)

Although they will nest on the ground in some locales, Bonaparte’s are primarily tree nesters, a trait that makes them unique among gulls. As they prefer taiga spruce trees – which the Alaska Peninsula in the vicinity of Chignik Lake lacks – their breeding status in the Chigniks is doubtful. However, in summertime Bonaparte’s and their fledged young can be found at the head of Chignik Lake where Black River enters. There they can be found in association with Arctic Terns, Greater Yellowlegs, Semipalmated Plovers and occasionally other gulls and shorebirds.

Chignik Bonaparte's Gull first year

Bonaparte’s in their first summer typically lack the striking black hoods more mature breeding birds wear. (Chignik Lake, July 27, 2020)

So… Bonaparte’s? The bird is not named after that Bonaparte, but rather one of Napoleon’s nephews, a French ornithologist who visited America in the 1820’s.

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

Bonaparte’s Gull Chroicocephalus philadelphia
Order: Charadriiformes
Family: Laridae
Genus: Chroicocephalus – Ancient Greek khroizo = to color + kephale head
Species: philadelphia Latinized version of Philadelphia, the location where the first specimen was collected for study

Status at Chignik Lake: Common Summertime Gull on Chignik Lake near the mouth of Black River

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

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

Aniakchak National Monument and Preserve Bird List: Present

Table of Contents and Complete List of Birds of Chignik Lake

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

For a list of reference materials used in this project, see: Birds of Chignik Lake

Birds of Chignik: Black-Legged Kittiwake

Black-legged Kittiwake nesting

You can imagine the high-pitched clamor as a boat draws near a colony of nesting kittiwakes. The gregarious gulls cram into every available ledge, adding their own beds of mud, grass and seaweed. There the females will lay one to three eggs in hues that might range from blue to olive to brown. (Resurrection Bay, Alaska, June 22, 2013)

Fancifully named for a cry that resembles kit-ti-wake, Black-legged Kittiwakes are generally the most common gull – and at times the most common seabird – along the Chignik Coast. At an average size of 17 inches, the relatively slender kittiwake is a graceful master of the salt air, soaring and coasting effortlessly until it spies a herring or other small fish at which point it dives tern-like into the water. Because they snatch fish from near the surface, kittiwakes are the friends of fishermen and whale watchers alike; flocks of these smallish gulls crashing the ocean surface for baitfish are reliable indicators that cod, salmon, halibut or other gamefish – or whales – are pushing the small fish to the surface. Kittiwakes have an uncanny capacity for somehow knowing when whales are about to surface – cueing photographers as to where to focus.

Black-legged Kittiwake with herring

Some have described the kittiwake as a “dainty” gull, but there’s nothing dainty about that bill. Note the bright red mouth of this bird in breeding plumage. It will cram as many of these herring as it reasonably is able to into its stomach and regurgitate a good portion of them to feed its young. (Chignik Bay, Alaska, June 28, 2020)

With the exception of breeding season, these are birds of the ocean, seldom venturing inland. While they may follow fishing boats and other vessels in search of fish that might be disoriented in the wake, kittiwakes will not be found at garbage dumps as are some other gulls. In addition to diving from the air to catch fish, kittiwakes sometimes sit on the surface and catch prey.

Black-legged Kittiwakes Chignik Bay

Following a morning of feeding, a flock of kittiwakes rests on Eagle Rock in Chignik Bay. (July 28, 2020).

Black-legged Kittiwake flight

Look for distinctive black wingtips, a dark eye, an all yellow bill, angular, somewhat tern-like wings, and a more slender profile than that of most other gulls.

Black-legged Kittiwake nonbreeding plumage Kenai Fjords

The dark splotch on the back of the head is indicative of a nonbreeding kittiwake. Juveniles will also have this splotch as well as a dark collar, a distinctive dark pattern on their wings, and a dark bill. (Kenai Fjords National Park, Alaska, August 2, 2009)

As the climate continues to warm and overfishing throughout the world persists, kittiwakes are a species to keep a a concerned eye on. Although their populations worldwide are in the millions, steep declines have been observed in recent years.

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

Black-legged Kittiwake Rissa tridactyla
Order: Charadriiformes
Rissa: From Rita, the Icelandic name for this bird
tridactyla: Ancient Greek tridaktulos – three-toed. The kittiwake’s rear toe is reduced in size, giving the appearance of just three toes.

Status at Chignik Lake: Abundant in Chignik Lagoon and Chignik Bay, particularly in summer

David Narver, Birds of the Chignik River Drainage, summers 1960-63: Occasional in Chignik Lagoon

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

Aniakchak National Monument and Preserve Bird List: Present

Table of Contents and Complete List of Birds of Chignik Lake

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

For a list of reference materials used in this project, see: Birds of Chignik Lake

Birds of Chignik Lake: Least Sandpiper – the Tiniest Peep… And Why the Serrated Bill?

Least Sandpiper Chignik River

Although he’s got some bulk to him, at a mere five to six inches from bill tip to toenail, this ball of white and russet feathers would have to look up to make eye contact with a House Sparrow. But to the tiny crustaceans and other small invertebrates that make up most of his diet, the Least Sandpiper is undoubtedly viewed as a formidable predator. (Chignik River, July 24, 2020)

The Least is our smallest sandpiper, which makes it, I believe, our smallest shorebird. In fact, until a flock of them takes flight, they can easily be overlooked on pebbled shorelines where their size and plumage allow them to blend in almost perfectly. On the other hand, they’re numerous and widely distributed, making them one of the more frequently encountered peeps. In addition to their tiny size, look for yellowish legs. This characteristic distinguishes them from Western Sandpipers and most other similar birds which generally have dark legs. They use their long, slightly down-curved bills to probe mud, sand and silt or to glean suspended minutia from the water surface. Often found among flocks of other waders, it is reported that Least Sandpipers tend to feed a little higher up the flat or shoreline in slightly drier habitat, probably to avoid competition from larger birds. Alongside the Semipalmated Plovers and Western Sandpipers we saw them feeding among, they seemed to mix right in though, often wading up to their downy chests along the edge of the river.

It wasn’t until we returned home and uploaded the photos that the Least’s most interesting characteristic – to me – became evident.

least sandpiper serrated bill

Avian adaptations make for fascinating study in their own right. Questions beginning with “Why,” and “How” immediately pop into one’s mind when examining the unique characteristics birds have evolved to ensure success in their environments, though no degree of explanation can diminish one’s amazement at these adaptations. 

From the time when at a young age I first noticed the sharp, undulating teeth on a steak knife, serrations have fascinated me. I can’t resist running the pad of my thumb along the edge of a fossilized Megalodon tooth, and I have spent hours contemplating the fearsome saw-toothed edges of Atlantic Stingray tail spines. Although they no longer possess the dentition of the dinosaurs that preceded them, several species of birds – today’s dinos – have evolved serrated bills. Apparently Least Sandpipers are among those species. Why? 

Serrations make sense in dedicated piscivores such as Red-breasted and Common Mergansers, but how are they useful to these little peeps? The serrations don’t seem long enough to serve as filters; perhaps they aid in grasping any of the larger invertebrates that might be encountered as the birds probe beneath rocks and sift through silt.

least sandpiper feeding

This little gal or guy has some sort of tiny morsel in its bill. It can use water tension to transport small items such as this from its bill to its mouth.

The range map, below, indicates that this species might nest in the Chigniks, yet another reason to man the skiff early this coming year and resume exploring.

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

Least Sandpiper Calidris minutilla
Order: Charadriiformes
Calidrisfrom Ancient Greek kalidris or skalidris, a term Aristotle used for some gray-colored shorebirds1
minutilla: Medieval Latin minutilla = very small

Status at Chignik Lake: Common on Chignik River gravel shorelines and bars for a few weeks in summer

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

Alaska Peninsula and Becharof National Wildlife Refuge Bird List, 2010:
Common in Spring & Summer; Uncommon in Fall; Not reported in Winter

Aniakchak National Monument and Preserve Bird List: Present

Click here for the: Table of Contents and Complete List of Birds of Chignik Lake

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

For a list of reference materials used in this project, see: Birds of Chignik Lake