Finches of the Dandelion Jungle

With just a few days remaining for us in Chignik Lake, we continue to add to our project documenting bird species within a three-mile radius of this tiny, remote village on the Alaska Peninsula. With approximately 75 different types of birds observed – and good photographs of most of those species – much as been accomplished, including getting photographs of birds that, to the best of our knowledge, had never before been recorded out here. But, as with any project of this scope and complexity, much remains undone. We only now are getting into making videos and immediately have been intrigued by the unique possibilities this medium offers. With open invitations to return for future visits, we hope to make it back to this paradise by The Lake.

Aside from brief clips of a Fox Sparrow in song, Pine Siskins coming to Barbra’s hand for seed, and a Red Crossbill going to town on White Spruce cones, this is the only bird video we’ve made. It’s the first video we’ve planned out and edited.

For the past few days, dozens of finches – Pine Grosbeaks, Pine Siskins and Common Redpolls – have been foraging virtually nonstop on dandelion seeds in the unmown lawn outside our front door. We’d been enjoying watching this show (and listening to the constant, cheerful bird chatter) from our kitchen and from the boardwalk leading from our house to the school where Barbra teaches. The Pine Grosbeaks in particular have been quite tolerant of our presence – if not downright curious to the point of approaching us. (I once had a Pine Grosbeak land on my head as I was photographing them.) In fact, individual of all three species have approached so close at one time or another we might have reached out and touched them.

The siskins’ numbers appear to be populated by recently fledged members. Earlier this past spring, we saw a redpoll with nesting material and they, too, appear to have young among them. We’re not sure about the Pine Grosbeaks. At present there are about eight grosbeaks – an even number of male and female birds – and although this species might be seen in any season here in Chignik Lake, we’re not sure if these are individuals that overwintered here and filled the spring air with their beautiful song, or whether this a group that is merely passing through. In any event, although David Narver who, back in the early 1960’s compiled the only other detailed list of birds occurring in we’ve been able to find, reported redpolls as “uncommon” and made no mention at all of Pine Siskins and Pine Grosbeaks, redpolls and grosbeaks have been common during our entire three years here. Siskins showed up for the first time two winters ago and have been common since. At times, we’ve counted upwards of 60 birds in flocks of redpolls and siskins, and at least 40 in a flock of Pine Grosbeaks that spent a week or two in the village stuffing themselves on alder cones.

After the Fog Burned off – Eagles

As swallows swooped and soared, this pair of Bald Eagles began a chorus of their characteristic high-pitched piping. The sunshine must’ve felt as good to them as it did to us.

Two days in a row we’ve woken to heavy fog here at The Lake. It wasn’t forecast either day. Yesterday by mid-morning, the mist had burned off. When it did, the birds came out in force. From our vantage point on the deck outside my “office,” Barbra and I saw or heard Pine Grosbeaks, Pine Siskins, Redpolls, Wilson’s Warblers, Ravens, Magpies, Golden-crowned Sparrows, American Robins, Fox Sparrows, Violet-green Swallows, Tree Swallows and out on the lake a small group of Black Scoters and a few passing Glaucus-winged Gulls. But the stars of the morning were a pair of mature Bald Eagles that took up perches on a favorite utility pole near the lakeshore.

This was the view from our dining room window yesterday morning just after dawn. The village of Chignik Lake lies only a few miles upriver from a bay on the Alaska Gulf, so we get our share of wet weather. 

As the sun began peeking through the fog, the first eagle to arrive did its best to dry its soggy wings. Either that, or this is one of those rare Peacock Eagles.

His (her?) mate hadn’t yet arrived and I moved a little closer to capture a portrait. Once the fog lifted, we had a day of blue skies. Temperatures climbed into the 60’s so we took the opportunity to work on our “Alaska Tans” – defined as tans that cover the backs of one’s hands, face and neck down to the level of a shirt or coat collar. But by early afternoon, it was warm enough (mid-60’s) to sit outside in a just a shirt, shorts and bare feet and read (Barbra) and play guitar (me).

While I worked on photos, Barbra scanned for birds from the deck outside her former classroom. Off in the distance to the right, along the far edge of the lake, the second eagle can be seen soaring low. (You might have to enlarge this photo.) The duplex in front of Barbra is where we live – on the righthand side. 

There are at least 50 nesting boxes in this bird-loving village of only about 50 to 70 residents. The boxes are occupied almost exclusively by either Violet-green or Tree Swallows. Both species seem inclined to investigate anything out of the ordinary in their neighborhood – us, eagles, other birds. The real threats to swallows are Chignik Lake’s abundant Magpies – notorious nest robbers. In years past, Merlins, Northern Shrikes and occasional Sharp-shinned Hawks have also posed a threat, but none of these species appear to be present this year – at least so far.

A mated pair? Siblings? Friends? (Do eagles have friends?) It was interesting to watch these two repeatedly mirror each other’s behavior. We’ve read about these dreaded Dracula Eagles – another rare sighting.

As I mentioned, we’ve had two consecutive mornings of heavy fog. Inspired by the way the morning cleared up yesterday, last evening we prepared our pack raft in anticipation of doing a three-mile river float today. Unfortunately, the weatherman got it completely wrong. The fog only grudgingly lifted late in the morning and instead of the calm that had been forecast, winds – the bane of rafting – kicked up. So I spent the morning working on photos. Yet hope springs eternal. The prediction for tomorrow morning is for partial sunshine and calm, so perhaps we can get in one last river float before we have to pack up the gear and mail it to Newhalen. Every hour of these final days at The Lake is a time to savor.

If you enjoyed this post and would like to see some of the birds mentioned and more of the landscape around Chignik Lake, check out the link below:

Morning Nature Walk, the Chigniks

Hope your day is going well!

Our Violet-greens are Back at The Lake!

A single Violet-green Swallow can consume hundreds of mosquitoes and midges a day. With 40 or so nesting box cavities scattered throughout the village of Chignik Lake (population 50), these iridescently-plumaged little fellows and their Tree Swallow cousins are local favorites.

Chignik Lake’s first swallows, multi-hued Violet-greens, made their seasonal debut yesterday, May 15. This morning we went out to get photos of these much anticipated first arrivals. Tree Swallows, which will also use the dozens of nesting boxes residents have put up, should be arriving any time now along with the Bank Swallows that have established a colony on a bluff a mile or so down the Chignik River.

The Native American tradition of hanging nesting cavities for swallows goes as far back as anyone knows. Writing in the 1800’s, John J. Audubon noted that:

The… Indian is also fond of the Martin’s company. He frequently hangs up a calabash on some twig near his camp, and in this cradle the bird keeps watch, and sallies forth to drive off the Vulture that might otherwise commit depredations on the deer-skins or pieces of venison exposed to the air to be dried. The slaves in the Southern States take more pains to accommodate this favourite bird. The calabash is neatly scooped out, and attached to the flexible top of a cane, brought from the swamp, where that plant usually grows, and placed close to their huts. Almost every country tavern has a Martin box on the upper part of its sign-board; and I have observed that the handsomer the box, the better does the inn generally prove to be. 

It’s sad to see those annoying, energy-wasting, indiscriminate electric bug zappers, which kill beautiful moths along with everything else, hung more often than nesting boxes in these modern times. A nesting pair of birds will do a better job keeping pests under control, add cheer to any property, and when the wooden box has seen its best days it can be be left to return to soil rather than discarded to fill our world with yet more plastic, toxic parts and slowly-decomposing metal.

If nesting boxes around our village are any indication, they need not be elaborate. All that’s needed is untreated wood, a saw, a means to cut a hole, nails or screws and the appropriate tool for securing that hardware. Although it is often recommended that boxes be cleaned out annually, we know of no one here who does so. The swallows themselves seem perfectly capable of spring cleaning when they arrive, as they have done with natural cavities for as long as swallows have been around. However, if you’d feel better about cleaning out the boxes once the nesting season is finished, by all means go for it; you’ll be creating a clean space for birds that use the boxes as overnight and foul weather shelters during wintertime.

Engaged in housekeeping (removing his offsprings’ excrement) this Violet-green and his mate made a nest behind a knothole in the side of a store in McCarthy, Alaska.  

Two additional tips for your own backyard nesting boxes:

  1. Do Not put any sort of ledge or peg in front of the hole. As you can see in the photo below, swallows and other cavity nesters don’t need a perch. Their claws are adapted to cling to the sides of trees. The only purpose a ledge or peg serves is to give nest-raiders such as magpies, crows and other predators a perch from which to get at eggs and nestlings.
  2. Give some thought to the species of bird you hope to attract, then research the size of entry hole and the size of the interior cavity that bird prefers.

To those tips, we’ll add a third. Invasive European Starlings and House Sparrows haven’t yet found us out here on the Alaska Peninsula. If they are a problem where you live, we urge that they be discouraged from nesting by any means necessary. Both of these birds represent a significant, growing threat to species diversity.

Don’t have the time or the right tools to build your own boxes? Consider purchasing. A cedar box will last a long time, making it an economical gift to birds for years or even decades to come. And don’t be discouraged if your boxes don’t attract guests right away. Sometimes it takes more than one season for birds to move in.

Flowers are blooming, insects are out, swallows are returning and salmon are beginning to stage in the bay for their annual spawning run up the Chignik River. It still feels like spring, but summer is just around the corner.

Sandhill Cranes Foraging and Vocalizing – Alaska Peninsula

Barbra’s school year ended on May 1st. With a new home waiting for us in Newhalen, Alaska, we could have left Chignik Lake the following day. But bears are waking, buds are bursting and springtime’s migrant birds have begun to return, so we’ll remain at The Lake till late June. We’ve been loving our decision. In the past few days we’ve scored photo upgrades of several Chignik species including Northern Pintails, American Widgeons and Harlequins. We just missed adding photos of a skittish dark morph Rough-legged Hawk as well, but we got nice American Robin photos (the ones that pass through the Chigniks are considerably more wary than the suburban birds we’ve known) and…

…our first really good photos of Chignik’s Sandhill Cranes.

The more we photograph birds, the more we appreciate how difficult it can be to predict their behavior. Years ago, we had a photo op with a pair of Sandhill Cranes foraging on a lawn in Homer. While Barbra crept around the yard with our “fledgling” camera gear snapping photos, the cranes very casually walked off a few paces to let her know when she got too close. After that, Barbra tucked in and shot away. We left before the birds did. We weren’t birders in those days. The encounter was one of our first with cranes, and so we concluded that cranes must not be particularly wary.

Years later and multiple mind’s eye images of Sandhills that saw us long before we saw them gliding off toward the horizon on six or seven foot wingspans have prompted revisions of our earlier ideas about these magnificent birds. Cranes are hunted, and like most species that are hunted, they can be exceedingly wary. Unless the cranes have located themselves in a refuge of some sort, it seems that your best chance of getting close enough for a decent look at them is to a) stay quiet and b) don’t look like a human.

The other day while birding, we lucked out. Using a truck as a blind, we were able to observe a pair of foraging cranes for about 15 minutes – plenty of time to add quality photographs to our library and to make a short video which, happily, caught them vocalizing. The male in this video stands over four feet tall. From now till September, their brassy, ratchety calls will echo through the Chigniks, carrying as much as two-and-a-half miles. In addition to the full-throated vocalizations, listen for the little croak the male gives early in the video. And incidentally, the songbird in the background is one of our recently-returned Sooty Fox Sparrows. (The chirping is the modified sound of Jack’s camera shutter.)

Ink and Light: Chickadee Flamenco and thoughts on art and spring from Su Tung P’o

Chickadee Flamenco

What a wonderful talent – that can create an entire Spring
from a brush and a sheet of paper. If he would try poetry
I know he would be a master…
Su Tung P’o – On a Painting by Wang the Clerk of Yeng Ling, c. 1080

Also known as Su Shi, Su Tung P’o (1037-1101) was a Song Dynasty writer, calligrapher, painter, poet, statesman and noted gourmet. The dish “dungpo pork” is named for him.

Ink and Light: Bohemian Waxwing and Lines from Robert Francis

Panache: Bohemian Waxwing, Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia

The red, waxy tips on the Bohemian Waxwings’ wings are actually flattened feather shafts. 

…beneath a silk-blue sky…
To sun, to feast, and to converse
and all together – for this I have abandoned
All my other lives.
Robert Francis – Waxwings, 1960

– Robert Francis (1901-1987) lived for 40 years in a two-room house he built in Amherst, Massachusetts. Of Francis, Robert Frost noted, “…of all the great, neglected poets, (he is) the best.”

Purple Martins: The Highest-Flying Swallow

purple martins w draggonfly n

The Catch: Purple Martins, Kimiwan Lake Bird Walk, Alberta, Canada

Swallows are a favorite bird wherever they fly, and among them North America’s largest and most universally appreciated species is without a doubt the Purple Martin (Progne subis). Before Europeans ever came to North America, Native Americans in the South were known to hang hollow gourds as nesting boxes to attract these birds. The beneficial nature of Martins is well known: not only do they consume enormous quantities of insects that humans consider pests – among them horseflies, beetles, termites and grasshoppers -, they also aggressively drive away birds of prey as well as crows and thus were traditionally welcomed by farmers. Often soaring at altitudes of several hundred feet, Martins capture their prey exclusively on the wing; they quench their thirst on the wing as well, skimming the surface of ponds, lakes and rivers.

purple martin male gun metal n

Iridescent purples and gun metal blues mark the plumage of the male Martin.

Although the range of the three subspecies of Martins covers most of the U. S. and sections of southern Canada, they tend to be rather uncommon. This is due in part to their very specific nesting requirements and to the fact that invasive species – European starlings and house sparrows – frequently outcompete Martins for preferred sites. Formerly found in hollow trees, Eastern Martins have almost exclusively shifted their nests to human created housing: apartment-like complexes on poles, rows of houses side-by-side, or, particularly in the South, hollow gourds. Like Chimney Swifts and Barn Swallows, Eastern Purple Martins have become dependent upon humans for nesting sites.

purple martin female n

The plumage of females is lighter in color, predominated by shades of brown.

Writing in the early 1800’s, John Audubon observed the ubiquitous nature of Martin nesting boxes in America:

The… Indian is also fond of the Martin’s company. He frequently hangs up a calabash on some twig near his camp, and in this cradle the bird keeps watch, and sallies forth to drive off the Vulture that might otherwise commit depredations on the deer-skins or pieces of venison exposed to the air to be dried. The slaves in the Southern States take more pains to accommodate this favourite bird. The calabash is neatly scooped out, and attached to the flexible top of a cane, brought from the swamp, where that plant usually grows, and placed close to their huts. Almost every country tavern has a Martin box on the upper part of its sign-board; and I have observed that the handsomer the box, the better does the inn generally prove to be. 

All our cities are furnished with houses for the reception of these birds; and it is seldom that even lads bent upon mischief disturb the favoured Martin. He sweeps along the streets, here and there seizing a fly, bangs to the eaves of the houses, or peeps into them, as he poises himself in the air in front of the windows, or mounts high above the city, soaring into the clear sky, plays with the string of the child’s kite, snapping at it, as he swiftly passes, with unerring precision, or suddenly sweeps along the roofs, chasing off grimalkin, who is probably prowling in quest of his young. Birds of America, John J. Audubon, printed 1827 – 1838.

Purple Martin male wings n

Healthy Martin colonies indicate a healthy environment.

The next time you see a large flock of dark birds, look closely. Although often starlings, Martins, too, come together in the thousands and even hundreds of thousands, particularly in late summer as they prepare to migrate to South America.

For more information about Purple Martins, or to learn more about building a nesting complex of your own to attract them, visit www.purplemartin.org

For more information on the wonderful Kimiwan Nature Walk and Interpretive Center in McLennan, Alberta, please visit www.kimiwanbirdwalk.ca.