Next to Pacific Wrens, Golden-Crowned Kinglets are the smallest birds likely to be encountered on the Alaska Peninsula. Tiny, furtive, and constantly in motion, patience and persistence paid off with a few captures of these beautifully marked passerines.
We’ve had a week of cold, clear weather here in Chignik Lake, frosty dawns followed by days filled with blue skies and sunshine. With a new batch of home-brewed beer fermenting as I write this (our first batch came out great) and other important tasks attended to, it was a perfect week to tote the camera around the village.
A dizzying whir of color and motion, Golden-Crowned Kinglets are more often heard than seen.
To give an idea of just how small these Kinglets are, here’s a white spruce cone next to a quarter.
Cold mornings and clear days make for good birding – at least for passerines (song birds). Sparsely traveled dirt roads, lots of flowers gone to seed, thick stands of alder and willow brush, a few white spruce trees, abundant water and a few feeders scattered around town make for excellent habitat in this bird-friendly community.
An especially dark Song Sparrow regularly perched on one of the spruce trees where I was photographing kinglets.
Gulls generally don’t get much love, but our world would be poorer without daily sightings of Glaucous-Winged Gulls outside our living room window.
The week began on Halloween night, Monday. As dusk was falling, Barbra and I went for a walk along a mile-long course we call “The Salmon Point Loop,” so named because it takes us to a hill overlooking the place where we catch salmon in summertime. Just below the hill is a hollow with a grove of mature White Spruce trees – the first spruce trees brought from Kodiak Island and planted here when the village of Chignik Lake was new. From an ecological point of view, these trees don’t belong here. But they’re thriving, and here and there throughout the village people have planted their offspring.
As one might imagine, birds love these trees. Our resident Great Horned Owls regularly roost in the spruce grove. We suspect this is where their nest is as well, though the boughs of the trees are far too dense to reveal secrets of that nature. Evidence suggests that our Northern Shrikes, too, nest in these trees, and the grove is a favorite hunting ground of our summertime Merlins.
Haven’t yet gotten a photograph of the owls, but here’s the evidence. The spruce needle floor beneath their roosts is littered with magpie skulls, wishbones picked clean, and pellets dense with fur, feathers and bones. Update: click here to see the article Great Horned Owls of Chignik Lake.
As we approached the hollow, we noticed an oddly-shaped bulk close to a telephone pole. We both instinctively froze while our minds attempted to sort out what we were seeing. An electrical transformer we’d previously failed to notice? An unusually small, out of place eagle? Suddenly I got it.
“Owl!” I whispered to Barbra.
In the crepuscular light, we stared at it, it stared at us, and then it spread its soft, majestic wings and flapped back into the spruces. We lingered, whispering, not wishing to disturb it. A few moments later, it began hoo-hoo-hooing. We’ve heard these owls on several occasions just outside our bedroom window. We even saw a pair of them one early, pre-dawn morning. But this experience was somehow more intimate.
And then a second owl, further back in the spruce trees, a lower voice with a slower cadence, began answering the first owl.
Five days passed by – a week by some measures. Friday after lunch I walked The Salmon Point Loop. And heard the owl. My first time to hear a Great Horned Owl in broad daylight. So the week was end-capped by owls.
With their cheerful wheeet-wheeet, Pine Grosbeaks began arriving in the village toward the end of October. The female is in the upper left, the male in the lower right.
On Tuesday, November 1, the village erupted with birds. Pine Grosbeaks had been showing up in singles and pairs… Scouts. Mixed in were a very few small sparrows of some kind… And… Kinglets?
Monday, prior to our owl walk, on my nearly daily sojourn to the post office, I’d heard a new voice, an electric cricket-like buzz emanating from a spruce tree. I froze, watched, waited… and there it was. A tiny, olive-yellow-white whir of motion. Back home I consulted Sibley’s Field Guide and quickly eliminated everything but “Golden-Crowned Kinglet.”
A warming climate is presumably allowing Belted Kingfishers to remain later in the village than they would have in the past when the lake froze solid.
But there was a rub. On Sibley’s range map, Golden-Crowned Kinglets are not supposed to be out here.
I consulted other lists. A U. S. Fish and Wildlife checklist identifies them as “rare” on the Peninsula. I could find no record of Golden-Crowned Kinglets ever being recorded this far down the peninsula. When I entered the sighting into Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s website, I got an automated message asking for more details as this is an “unusual” sighting for this area.
I was certain I’d seen what I’d seen… So the past four days have been dedicated to (first) obtaining irrefutable evidence that Golden-Crowned Kinglets are here and (then) getting quality photographs.
A funny thing happened on the way to the opera.
On Tuesday afternoon I found myself standing in the middle of our lightly-traveled village dirt road utterly surrounded by a large flock of pine grosbeaks. So I began photographing them. One even startled me by landing on my head for a moment! I went home and looked them up. “Uncommon” on the Alaska Peninsula, and Chignik Lake is right at the very edge of their range on Sibley’s map.
Not my best photo… but this certainly appears to be an Oregon race Dark-eyed Junco.
And then, on Wednesday…
Have you seen any of those birds… I call them “Batman birds.” I don’t know what they are. They have black heads, like they’re wearing a hood, a village elder asked me.
I knew exactly what he was talking about. Dark-eyed Juncos. Just that day I’d seen a small group of them and managed to make one, hurried capture before they disappeared. From my native western Pennsylvania to homes in California and Oregon and elsewhere, I’d seen plenty of juncos, including the Oregon subspecies I’d just photographed. But the fact that a village elder wasn’t sure what they were piqued my curiosity, so I looked them up.
Again, the U. S. Fish and Wildlife checklist categorizes Dark-eyed Juncos (generic) as “uncommon” to “rare” on the Peninsula; and specifically, Oregon Juncos out here are way off Sibley’s range map. I am hoping that people with more expertise than I have will take a look at the photo and weigh in.
First year Golden-Crowned Sparrow? This beautifully marked bird was tiny.
Loosely mixed in with the flocks of Pine Grosbeaks have been (I think) Golden-Crowned Sparrows. But here, too… some of these sparrows are tiny. Much smaller than other Golden-Crowned Sparrows I’ve seen. They’re drab, first year and non-mating birds. I’m hoping others will look at the photo(s) and either confirm or correct my observations.
As with fishing, it’s the ones that get away that keep you going back. A nanosecond before I snapped this shot, a Pacific Wren was chattering away on the frosted hood of this old, junked car.
Yesterday, November 4, while wearing my camouflage jacket and standing as still as possible in front of a well-lit trio of young White Spruce trees while waiting for a group of Kinglets to reveal themselves, a truly tiny Pacific Wren nearly hopped onto my foot. I’d seen and photographed one this summer and had assumed they were strictly summertime birds this far north. This was my second wren sighting this week. Again, I was prompted to do some research. While Sibley indicates that this bird is a year-round resident on the Peninsula, the Fish & Wildlife resource lists them as “rare” and only occurring in fall.
It is a rare day when bald eagles aren’t present in the village. This one’s head is reflecting the dark gray of its wings.
All of this illustrates how sparsely documented this part of the world is. Kingfishers are supposed to be “uncommon” out here. We see them on a near daily basis, not only in the village, but on hikes well beyond the village. Northern Shrikes, Merlins, Northern Harriers, Common Loons, Red-Throated Loons, Brandt, Golden-Crowned-Kinglets, Slate-colored Juncos, Oregon Juncos, Pine Grosbeaks, Tundra Swans and more… all listed as “uncommon” or “rare,” or absent from checklists or inconsistently reported from one resource to the next.
This place is changing before it’s adequately understood.
The view from a lakeshore point near our house… every day.
Bird Checklist for October 31 – November 4, 2016, within a half mile of our home in Chignik Lake, Alaska:
- Red-throated Loon
- Common Goldeneye
- Glaucous-winged Gull
- Bald Eagle
- Great Horned Owl
- Black-billed Magpie
- Common Raven
- Belted Kingfisher
- Northern Shrike
- Pine Grosbeak
- Golden-crowned Sparrow
- Song Sparrow
- Golden-Crowned Kinglet
- Black-capped Chickadee
- Dark-eyed Junco (Oregon race)
- Pacific Wren
When we moved out here, becoming a “birder” was as far from my mind as any other remote thought. But it seems that there is meaningful work to be done and a fairly large learning curve ahead. Stay tuned.