Birds of Chignik Lake: Greater Scaup

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Aniakchak National Monument and Preserve Bird List:

loon silhouette

Previous Article: Life on the Frozen Chignik

Next Article: Ring-necked Duck

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

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

Birds of Chignik Lake: Pied-billed Grebe – an Alaska Peninsula First

As far as I can determine, this is the lone example of a Pied-billed Grebe recorded on the Alaska Peninsula. The facial striping indicates a first-year bird. (Chignik Lake, January 5, 2019)

The sun hadn’t yet peeked over the mountains rimming Chignik Lake when I noticed a small, grebe-like bird working a nearshore cove. I picked up the binoculars always handy near the living/dining room window and glassed the little bird.

The same bird as above in profile, skim ice in the background. (Chignik Lake, January 5, 2019)

Whoa! There’s a Pied-billed Grebe down below Fred’s! I exclaimed to Barbra. A couple of minutes later, I was clad in waders, camera fixed to its tripod slung over my shoulder. I quietly worked my way toward this out-of-place fellow. Wading out into the water, I stood still, hoping the bird might come closer to check me out.

The grebe did move in a little, but it was still a long shot and there was very little light. I set my aperture to its maximum opening, spun the ISO dial further than I would have cared to, and managed a couple of shots. Then the grebe swam off. Although it hung around for a few days, after that first morning it was always on the far side of the lake. And then it was gone.

From Wikipedia, a Pied-billed in summer plumage. (Mdf – First upload in en wikipedia on 21:02, 27 May 2005 by Mdf)

It’s hard to know what to make of a one-off such as this. Pied-billeds very occasionally have been reported in southern Alaska, but as the map below indicates, this individual was well beyond the typical range for this species. Things are changing in our world; it could be that Pied-billeds are pushing north. For now though, an occurrence such as this is best thought of as an “accidental.” In any event, I was happy to record this species. Maybe this small puzzle piece will have some significance in the future when others study the Chignik area.

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

Pied-billed Grebe Podilymbus podiceps
Order: Podicipediformes
Podilymbus: Podi from Greek, refers to feet at the rear; lympus from the Greek kolympus = diver
podiceps: from Latin for rump-headed

Status at Chignik Lake 2016-19: Accidental

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

Alaska Peninsula and Becharof National Wildlife Refuge Bird List, 2010:
Not Reported

Aniakchak National Monument and Preserve Bird List: Not Reported

Previous Article: Red-necked Grebe

Next Article: Pelagic Cormorant

*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: Yellow-billed Loon

This handsome Yellow-billed Loon was hanging out in an eddy favored by piscivores on the Chignik River. During breeding season, in addition to a distinctive black-and-white chessboard back and bright red eyes, that massive bill would be a diagnostic lemon-sunshine yellow. (November 27, 2017)

When I began this project, I didn’t know that there was such a thing as a Yellow-billed Loon, so I was stoked when in November of 2016 a “different looking” loon sent me to my copy of The Sibley Field Guide. I’d love to see this species in its dramatic breeding plumage, but any sighting of this fairly rare bird constitutes a red-letter day.

What first drew my attention to the Yellow-bills I encountered was their size. Compared even with Commons, they’re large. And of course there’s that dagger Yellow-bills are armed with. While the bills of wintertime Commons can take on a light, blueish-silver color, there’s no mistaking the yellow in a Yellow-billed.

Salmon parr dimple the surface of The Bend on the Chignik River just below Chignik Lake. This is a good place to set a net for Sockeyes, cast a fly for Silvers, or check for fish-eaters such as otters, seals, eagles, kingfishers, mergansers and goldeneyes. (May 7, 2019)

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Range: Yellow-billed Loons are circumpolar Arctic breeders with about half of the world’s 10,000 birds living in Alaska. Their winter range includes the coastal waters of the Aleutian Islands, the Alaska Peninsula, and the Alaskan coast as it extends south and on into British Columbia. They are occasionally observed in fall and winter as far down the Pacific Coast as California, rarely to Mexico, occasionally to inland lakes.

Yellow-billed Loon: Gavia adamsii
Order: Gaviiformes
Gavia: sea mew
adamsii: after British naval surgeon & naturalist Edward Adams who collected and sketched this species

Status at Chignik Lake 2016-19: Occasional in Fall & Winter

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

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

Aniakchak National Monument and Preserve Bird List: Probable but not Verified

Previous Article: Common Loon

Next Article: Red-necked Grebe

*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: Pacific Loon

A Pacific Loon stretches between dives on a cold winter day. The Pacifics we encountered on Chignik Lake and Chignik River were wintertime visitors and therefore in their more drab plumage.  (Chignik River, January 12, 2018)

Pacific Loons are uncommon to occasional wintertime visitors on Chignik Lake and Chignik River. Although they sometimes appear in pairs, they didn’t arrive until well into wintertime and I saw no Pacifics in breeding plumage. As this species is known to nest on the Alaska Peninsula, it is possible that Pacific Loons could be found in spring and summer on Black Lake.

Abundant fish attract loons and other piscivorous birds to The Lake. As with other loons, in wintertime the estuary might be the best place to look for them. (Chignik Lake, December 5, 2017)

Several years before I got into birding (or serious photography), Barbra and I encountered this beautiful specimen in breeding plumage on a pond near Point Hope, Alaska. At the time, I didn’t realize that there is more than one species of loon! (Point Hope, Alaska, August 24, 2012)

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

Pacific Loon Gavia pacifica
Order: Gaviiformes
Gavia: sea mew
pacifica: of the Pacific region

Status at Chignik Lake 2016-19: Uncommon/Occasional

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

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

Aniakchak National Monument and Preserve Bird List: Probably Present but not Documented

Previous Article: Red-throated Loon

Next Article: Common Loon

*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: Red-throated Loon

Fine and far off. In fly-fishing, the phrase refers to light tippets and long casts to wary trout. Here it refers to my lone Red-throated Loon sighting on Chignik Lake. It’s difficult to see the eponymous star-like speckling on its back in this photo, but a fine bill angled up slightly, a face showing more white than in other loons, and a smaller, more rounded overall profile add up to Red-throated. A pair of male Red-breasted Mergansers nap to the right on an icy Chignik Lake. (April 1, 2017)

Although Narver regularly encountered Red-throated Loons during his summertime observations in the early 1960’s, I recorded only one specimen during my three years at The Lake. This could reflect that in summertime Red-throateds mainly reside further up the watershed at Black Lake – and possibly breed there -, or it could indicate that in recent years Common Loons have supplanted their smaller cousins in the Chignik Drainage. Except for the breeding season, Red-throated Loons show a decided preference for salt water, so from fall through early spring Chignik Lagoon and nearby ocean waters – areas beyond the scope of this study – might be good places to check for them.

Red-throated in breeding plumage: Photo by David Karnå / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY 3.0

Red-throated Loon Range Map: with permission from Birds of North America

Red-throated Loon – Gavia stellata
Order: Gaviiformes
Gavia: sea mew
stellata: set with stars

Status at Chignik Lake 2016-19: Rare

Status on other relevant checklists:

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

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

Aniakchak National Monument and Preserve Bird List: Presence Documented

Swallow Silhouette

Previous Article: Loons of Chignik Lake

Next Article: Pacific Loons

*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.

 

 

The Loons of Chignik Lake

Beneath calm, blue skies a group of Common Loons cruise The Lake on a morning in late summer. In addition to Commons, I frequently encountered Pacific Loons. Yellow-billed Loons showed up two of three years, and just one Red-breasted Loon, which David Narver had reported as occasional in his earlier study, made an appearance in those years. Perhaps the estuary or the headwaters at Black Lack would have been a more productive place to look for the latter two species. (Photo: August 20, 2016)

Loons of The Lake

Of all the wild creatures which still persist in the land, despite settlement and civilization, the Loon seems best to typify the untamed savagery of the wilderness.
Edward Howe Forbush, Game Birds, Wild-Fowl and Shore Birds, 1916

Often solitary, mysterious and romantically wild, it seems fitting that this project should begin with genus Gaviidae, the loons. We encountered our initial Chignik loons, a group of four Commons, in early August shortly after our arrival at The Lake. We had made our first hike to the mouth of Clarks River, three miles along quad trails that cut through willow and alder thickets and across rolling tundra, berry bogs and savannah-like meadows. Fireweed, yarrow, geranium and goldenrod were in full bloom, and electric flashes of yellow darting through brushy thickets offered tell-tale signs that warblers hadn’t yet migrated south. Along the way we took note of ripening blueberries, sampled the last of the salmonberries and measured our boots against the tracks of the Chignik’s massive Brown Bears – some of the largest in the world, we had read. Salmon parr flashed in air-clear pools at stream crossings and the prints of foxes, moose, wolves and Sandhill Cranes gave evidence that we were hardly alone in this sweeping landscape rimmed by snow-capped mountains.

Walking in the footsteps of giants. (September 24, 2017)

Two miles into the hike the trail curved down to a sandy lakeside beach. With huge paw prints coursing up and down the shoreline, the beach had the appearances of a Brown Bear superhighway. Vibrations transmitted through the sand by our own footsteps set the shoreline water into rippling motion as schools of salmon flipped their caudal fins and scurried for the safety of deeper water. Out on the lake, a pair of harbor seals popped up and gave us studied looks before slowly sinking out of sight.

This is amazing! we agreed.

Like River Otters, Red Foxes, and Black-capped Chickadees, ever-curious Harbor Seals can’t seem to help but pop up for a look when something new comes into their domain. Chignik Lake’s seals are not strictly lacustrine as tis the Lake Iliamna population. However, in nearly every month there seem to be a few around. (March 9, 2019)

And then we spotted them: loons! Swimming together as they worked along the shoreline and occasionally diving to feed, they seemed unconcerned by our presence . At the time, the notion of making a multi-year study of The Lake’s birds was only barely beginning to form in my mind, and, as luck would have it, I had not brought my camera along on the six-mile round trip hike. Too bad. August was young and the birds were still wearing their distinctive chess-board breeding plumage. Their bright red eyes caught the sunlight as we watched through binoculars.

And then an odd thing happened. The loons began swimming closer to us. And closer. It was as though they were curious. We’ve had foxes, coyotes, otters, ermine, bears, whales, porpoises, Salmon Sharks and even a wolf engage in this behavior, and anyone who has spent time around chickadees knows that they often can’t help themselves from coming in to examine whatever has come into their territory. But loons? The very symbol of wilderness mystique? This was a new one for us. Soon, we no longer needed our binoculars. Even a simple pocket camera might have recorded a decent photograph. The soft morning light was perfect. Barely a ripple creased the lake’s calm surface.

As I bemoaned the fact that I had nothing to shoot with, Barbra consoled me with words of wisdom.

Just pet the whale.

Pet the whale… Nat. Geo. photographer Joel Sartore’s advice to sometimes set the camera aside and enjoy the moment you’re in. What a moment it was. Welcome to Chignik Lake.

Fireweed gone to seed. August 19, 2016.

Previous Article: The Chigniks – Avian Diversity and Change in a Remote, Unique Environment

Coming Next: Red-throated Loon

*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.