Again to The Lake

It is good to be back. This was the view from our living room window this morning. If you look closely on the water, you can see the rings and dimples of salmon parr feeding on emerging midges.

May 22, Chignik Lake: After a day of glorious sunshine – which prompted us to go for a hike (a crane, two snipe, our first-of-the-year Savannah Sparrows, several other birds, wild violets) I woke this morning to drizzle with more in the forecast for the next few days. We’ll still get out. There’ll be sunbreaks, and we have rainwear. 

This rainbow arcing over the village featured in the view out our front door this morning. Our home is part of the school campus, to which these buildings also belong – additional housing (mostly vacant) to the right, the school itself to the left. Situated between the far house and the school is the diesel generator building, indicated by the two small smoke stacks. The mountains in the background received fresh snow just yesterday.

The department of Fish & Game will begin counting salmon on the first of June, just 10 days from this writing. A spate of small planes flying in personnel and supplies to the facility at the weir will occur any time now. Two friends set nets yesterday, but I haven’t yet had an opportunity to talk with them to see if they caught any early salmon. 

The landscape goes from brown to green with amazing rapidity this time of year. The lawn will be permitted to grow wild until after the dandelions have gone to down. Our finch population – Pine Grosbeaks, Pine Siskins and Common Redpolls – feast on the seeds. (See “Finches of the Dandelion Jungle.”)

The landscape is beginning to really green up. At 56.25° north (about the same as Edinburgh, Scotland), the climate here is perennially cool. First light, announced daily by a Golden-crowned Sparrow singing in earnest from the alders outside our bedroom window, came at 5:09 this morning. Last light won’t depart till 11:51 PM, so we’re already getting more than 19½ hours of daylight. Sunrise and Sunset times occurred at 6:04 AM and 10:56 PM – nearly 17 hours. Even obscured by clouds, that’s a lot of solar energy for plants rooted in rich volcanic soil and receiving abundant rainfall. During summer, the peninsula coast is as stunningly verdant (and the seaside cliffs, waterfalls sheeting from the tops, nearly as spectacular) as any imagination you might have of the Hawaiian Islands. Inland at The Lake, the summer’s deep and varied hues of green rival that of any emerald land. Already, the beginnings of Chocolate Lilies, Lupine, Wild Geranium, Iris, Horsetail, Cow Parsnip, ferns and more are pushing up… willows decorated with soft, fuzzy catkins, leaf buds on alders and salmonberry bushes near bursting.

I keep meaning to test my guitar against the Golden-crowned’s song – three notes, four if he begins with a slide on the first note. Coltrane, Davis and Armstrong had greater range, but for sheer clarity of tone these birds are masters. Blow, little sparrow! Blow!

We’ve been working each day to bring our home into shape. Having gathered in a couple of new interior decorating ideas while putting our place in Newhalen together and having had a year away to reimagine a few things in this house, we’ve got it looking better than ever. Yesterday, with Barbra’s help I hung 10 acrylic photographs I took in far flung places from Hokkaido to Mongolia to Alaska’s Kenai Fjords to here in the Chigniks. There’s even a favorite shot from a trout lake in Oregon. 

“Barbra!” a small boy cried out upon seeing us from a Covid-safe distance the other day. “Where did you go? Your whole class missed you!” Both of us were, in the words of Bob Dylan, “born a long way from home.” Amidst a peripatetic life, we finally found that place here at The Lake. Leaving when the school closed last year was difficult. The return has been stirring… at times overwhelming. 

Although the school district provides these rentals as “fully furnished,” at the modest prices they charge one would be correct in assuming that overall the furniture is pretty so-so. The beds are the exception; the mattresses are terrific!

Thinking that we’d be in Newhalen for several years, we acquired a few items – decent bookshelves, coffee and end tables, a small but elegant writing station that adjusts for working while either standing or sitting… even details such as nice throw pillows for the sofa… all of which have added up to make an appreciably more congenial living space. Perhaps our favorite item is a pub-style dining table – a high table with tall chairs. ”Up high” is more comfortable than “down low,” especially for us longer-legged types, and the additional six inches in height is just enough to enhance the vantage and view out the windows. 

A group of Greater Scaup has been showing up to dive for aquatic vegetation in a cove visible from our dining window and it was from that window that this photograph was taken. Into the breeding season now, most ducks have paired up and dispersed, but along with the scaup, we regularly see both White-winged and Black Scoters on the lake.

Upon returning to The Lake, we were asked to agree to self-quarantine for a period of 14 days. Thus far there have been no cases of Coronavirus in The Chigniks and everyone wants to keep it that way. The Lake is a village of 50 people, many of them elders. Right now, we don’t have a permanent health aid, so our tiny clinic isn’t regularly open. There are two positions available… 

Even by Alaska standards, Chignik Lake is truly tiny and remote. No restaurants. One small store that would just about fit inside an average living room. A short, bumpy, dirt airstrip. A shed with a pair of diesel-fueled generators that supply the village’s electricity and that can pretty much be counted on to cut out or to be shut down for maintenance periodically – (you’re well advised to frequently save any work you’re doing on the computer).

A stunningly plumaged Male Tree Swallow stands watch near a nesting box occupied by his mate. Each time I think I’ve counted all the boxes put up for swallows in this village, I notice a couple more tucked away under the eaves of a house or mounted on a utility pole. Suffice it to say there are dozens. Native Americans’ happy association with these birds goes back beyond recorded history. Having lived in communities that don’t extend such welcoming to these insectivores, we can testify that their presence makes a huge difference in the number of flying bugs. 

Just about anything we need – screws, batteries, wood for birdhouses, baking powder, clothing… everything, really – has to be planned for ahead of time, shopped for online, ordered, and its arrival patiently awaited. Though it’s not common, there have been times when even groceries have taken weeks to make it out here. (The record has been three weeks.) One learns to think about it before ordering anything perishable, and it pays to advise people shipping goods out here to package them with special care to accommodate multiple plane changes and the bumpy landing. A dentist and an eye doctor fly out once a year to spend a day doing examinations. I suppose I’ll take student portraits for the school this year…

You simply can’t be of a frame of mind of “needing” anything “right now.” This is a wonderful place to hone the arts of planning ahead, a mindful approach to living, taking joy in the moment, and patience.

And here’s a male Violet-green Swallow. With midges hatching on the lake on and off throughout the day, the village is frequently filled with the chattering and aerial displays of these beautifully accomplished pilots that seem to redefine air.

There are, of course, difficulties associated with all this. While we do manage to usually have on hand fresh fruit and vegetables (potatoes, cabbage, carrots, parsnips, rutabaga, apples, avocados, grapefruit and Brussels sprouts ship well and can survive the typical two or three-day journey out; cauliflower, sweet corn, snap peas and pears are riskier. But forget about lettuce and most other fruits – those are city-visit foods unless a friend comes out and hand-carries them). Dried mushrooms take the place of fresh, and we go through canned diced tomatoes (and salsa!) like they’re goin’ out of style. 

Of course, we usually have some sort of wild berries on hand – fresh or fresh-frozen blueberries, lingonberries and salmonberries, and from time to time we make a salad of Fireweed shoots or Dandelion greens. We’re lucky in that we love salmon – which we take on flies we’ve tied – and are frequently gifted with moose meat, which we find superior to beef in most dishes. Every once in awhile we luck into some locally-gathered seafood: Tanner (Snow) Crab, clams, urchins, halibut, sea lettuce.

Getting other meat out here is expensive. If we go into town (into Anchorage), we bring back a tote filled with chicken, pork, beef and sometimes seafood such as scallops, shrimp and crab from Costco. Otherwise, we pay one of the bush airline employees to shop for us. She makes the purchases in the morning, gets our meat and and perhaps a few other delicate perishables on the plane that same day and with luck we have it by afternoon. We buy meat once or twice a year, repackage it into serving-sized portions, vacuum seal it and freeze it. 

We bake all our own bread – the best way of assuring fresh, quality loaves.

I took this photo, one of many tributaries in the Chignik drainage, as we flew into The Lake on May 12. One of these tributaries has a small run of Steelhead… and we finally figured out which one it is. So… If we can get up there…

There are other inconveniences. We’ve been waiting eagerly for our Hondas (ATV’s/quads) to ship out. Getting our boat out here is proving to be quite a logistical puzzle. Shopping online can be challenging. Often you’d just like to hold an item you’re thinking about purchasing in your hands – leaf through a few pages of a book, try on a pair of jeans, feel the grip of a kitchen utensil, evaluate fly-tying materials with your fingertips or see for yourself just how large or small a certain item is. But you can’t, so you make your best guess and hope whatever it is fits well enough or suits the purpose you have in mind.

You learn to look past some things. A shirt with slightly frayed cuffs still has “some good wear in it.” Something that could use a fresh coat of paint “can go awhile longer without one.” A window pane that has a bit of a problem is lived with, because getting the materials out here and figuring out how to make the repair… isn’t going to happen anytime soon.

There are benefits of making a mental contract to live with these inconveniences. (Many benefits, actually.) One of which is that none of the three Chignik villages have had cases of Coronavirus. A health team recently flew in and tested all three villages.

Of all the places I’ve lived, it is in this house that the rain falls on the roof like music and sometimes reminds me of similar music that lulled me to sleep in the Philippines and a small house where I lived in a quiet part of Japan. 

I’ve never lived any place where each morning begins with birdsong as it does here. In that regard, it’s like a permanent vacation on a favorite childhood lake – three far-too-short days in a tent or rented cabin supplanted by a life in a tidy, cozy lakeside home.

And there’s this… which only recently (upon moving back here) came to me. Imagine a sort of stock “beautiful view” from a window. An apartment high up in a skyscraper overlooking a city; a house commanding a view of a beach or a rocky coastline; or a window framing a vista of mountains – the Rockies, the Alps. 

All of these images are lovely.

Yet they are somewhat static. 

Except for the effect the relatively slow progression of seasonal change may bring to the view, or the changing light from day to day and hour to hour… to take in these views once is to take them in for the next several weeks or even months without much anticipation of change.

The view outside our windows is dynamic. The weather moving from sea to sea across this narrow peninsula is dramatic, the moods set by changing light sometimes stunning. There is wildlife – birds, bears, shoaling and leaping salmon, insect hatches, hungry seals, otters, foxes, an occasional wolf, eagles, owls… and there’s the comings and goings of friends (and everyone in this village is a friend) as they launch their boats or come in with the day’s catch, a freshly taken moose, or a shipment that was delivered to The Bay. 

Male Common Redpoll outside our kitchen window.

This morning, as I was proofreading this piece of writing, I saw the season’s very first school of salmon heading up the lake. Between now and October, hundreds of thousands more will follow, mostly Reds but also Pinks, Silvers, Kings, a very few Steelhead, lots of sea run char and close to the ocean, Chums.

Pine Siskins (above), redpolls, Golden-crowned Sparrows, Pine Grosbeaks and magpies have been daily visitors to our yard to take advantage of the seeds I put out for them. Watching them as we wash dishes makes the chore go faster.

Quiet. The entire time I have been writing this morning, (both yesterday and  today) the only sounds have been the off and on hum of the refrigerator (sometimes at night, I unplug it for awhile… real, blessed quiet), the gentle whistle of water coming to boil in our coffee kettle, the songs and cries of birds – thrushes, swallows, warblers, sparrows, redpolls, siskins, magpies, ravens, ducks, gulls -, and the steady music of rain on the roof. 

Today we will tackle the organization of the fishing & photography room.

I’ve been striving to practice three hours a day on the guitar. 

          O snail,
          Climb Mount Fuji
          But slowly, slowly!


Birds of Chignik Lake: Wandering Tattler – Sojourner from Far North Mountain Streams to Tropical Pacific Islands

It seems fitting that my first known encounter with Tringa incana was on Tattler Creek in Denali National Park – the very mountain stream where the first Wandering Tattler was discovered. (July 15, 2017)

Wandering Tattlers aren’t mentioned in my 1917 copy of Birds of America. As best as I can determine, the species hadn’t yet been discovered. Denali National Park wasn’t created until 1917 – and was known back then as Mount McKinley National Park. The first Wandering Tattler nest wasn’t found until 1923 along another Denali creek. In any event, the omission is interesting – a reminder of how new the world still was just 100 years ago.

Like the Greater Yellowlegs of the previous article, tattlers are classified as shorebirds, and except for the nesting season rocky shorelines are generally the best places to find them. (Chignik River, August 29, 2016)

I stated above that my first known encounter with this species occurred in Denali National Park. It turns out, I had seen a pair a year earlier along the Chignik River. Inexperienced at bird identification at the time, I labeled the photos I took “Yellowlegs.” But a closer look at the above photo reveals a number of differences between these two species of the genus Tringa, both of which nest inland and often perch in trees.

With more experience, Greater Yellowlegs (above)  and Wandering Tattlers (previous photo) appear to be rather dissimilar. However, in 2016 I didn’t know that there was such a thing as the latter species. (Chignik River, August 20, 2018)

As I write this, I’m in Newhalen, Alaska – on hold as is the case with most of the rest of the country. I am eager for the Coronavirus-related travel ban to be lifted so that I can get back Chignik Lake. I have a couple of suspicions as to which creeks our tattlers nest along – stony, remote flows with steep gradients. There is still comparatively little documentation regarding this species – small wonder when one considers the isolated mountain streams in their far north breeding territory. And so there are contributions yet to be made.

Wandering Tattlers heading south along the Chignik. Eventually, their migration flight might take them to the west coast of the Lower 48, to the rocky coasts of Pacific Islands, or even as far as Australia. (Chignik River, August 29, 2016)

Range Map for Wandering Tattler

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

Wandering Tattler Tringa incana
Order: Charadriiformes
Family: Scolopacidae
Tringa: New Latin, from Ancient Greek trungus = white-tailed, bobbing shorebird mentioned by Aristotle.
incana: Latin – hoary or grayish white

Status at Chignik Lake, 2016-19: Uncertain. Probably an uncommon but regular resident and breeder along certain rocky tributaries. As Narver observed, probably more likely to be seen in late summer along main river, after chicks have fledged.

David Narver, Birds of the Chignik River Drainage, summers 1960-63: Common along Chignik River after about July 20

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

Aniakchak National Monument and Preserve Bird List: Present

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Previous: Greater Yellowlegs – Shorebird of the Treetops

Next Article: Wilson’s Snipe – Ghostly Sound of Spring

*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: Merlin – Lady of the Lake

Male Merlin, Chignik Lake. In medieval times in Europe, Merlins were knows as “Lady Hawks” as it was noble women who most often used them in falconry. They are powerful fliers and deft hunters, adapted to chase down passerines, small shorebirds and occasional quail. (August 22, 2018)

Although I’m not certain as to the precise whereabouts, somewhere along the Chignik River there is a magpie nest or similar assemblage of sticks no longer used by its original inhabitants that a pair of Merlins move into each year and make their own. Merlins like nests; they just don’t like building them.

Hunting at White Spruce Grove. (Chignik Lake, August 19, 2016)

It takes a sharp eye to spot these little falcons – they zip by in a blur. My first encounter with Chignik Lake’s Merlins came shortly after I arrived that first year and decided to take on this project. On a dewy morning in mid-August, I hiked the half-mile to the grove of White Spruce where I planned to look for birds. Along the way, I noticed a phenomenon I’d never before seen: a slug was descending from a spruce bough by means of a very fine strand of… mucous? That’s what the filament appeared to be. Our slugs are tiny (and our snails are even tinier – I’ll show you when I write up the article on Pacific Wrens), but even so, I found it surprising that whatever this slug was discharging would be strong enough to support its weight. Perhaps this behavior is old hat to macalogists, but I couldn’t find much information about it.

A new one for me – slug thread. (Chignik Lake, August 19, 2016)

I’d set up my camera tripod on the falling-in porch of a tumbling down house atop a bluff that gave me a view overlooking a patch of red-ripe currants and the river in one direction, a hillside salmonberry brake in another, and a vantage right into the tops of the trees at White Spruce Grove in another. At the time, I was shooting with a Nikon D4 and a Nikkor 200-400 lens with a 1.4 teleconverter, giving me an effective range of 550 mm – albeit with a bit of a focusing challenge.

Birds, berries, and salmon, the bluff overlooking The Bend on the Chignik River is one of my favorite places to shoot. (Chignik Lake, August 16, 2016)

That morning, I’d already documented Sandhill Cranes, Wilson’s, Yellow and Orange-crowned Warblers, Fox Sparrows, Hermit Thrushes, a Pacific Wren, Black-capped Chickadees, Glaucous-winged Gulls, Mew Gulls, Bald Eagles, magpies, Common Ravens and a Wilson’s Snipe that exploded from a tangle of Alders right in front of me and practically flew into my head. The Lake’s swallows – Violet-greens, Tree and Bank – had departed by the beginning of August. Most of the Fireweed had gone to seed, but Yarrow and Wild Geranium were still in bloom.  Out on the river, early Silvers – Coho Salmon – were announcing their arrival with leaps and resounding splashes. Further down, I could hear a kingfisher’s rattle.

At about 10 inches in length and weighing less than half a pound, these falcons are tiny dynamos. Unlike Peregrine Falcons, they don’t dive from above at their prey, but instead either chase down the passerines they feed on or attack them from below. (Chignik Lake, August 17, 2018)

Feral Currants (Chignik Lake, August 17, 2016)

By the first week in August, the salmonberry season is over and the swallows are gone. Down at The Bend, raspberries begin to ripen. Fireweed starts to go to seed as the raspberries pass their peak. Then the currants ripen – cascades of red jewels. Up at the berry bog, the blueberries are ready. The Silvers are in, but the warblers will soon be leaving and when they’re gone, so to will be the Merlins. With so many choices tugging in different directions, life at The Lake can be rather hectic.

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

Merlin Falco columbarius
Order: Falconiformes
Family: Falconidae
Falco: from Latin falcis = sickle
columbarius: from Latin columba = dove

Status at Chignik Lake, 2016-19: Regular inhabitants during summer. Absent in other Seasons

David Narver, Birds of the Chignik River Drainage, summers 1960-63: Rare on Chignik River (Listed as Pigeon Hawk)

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

Aniakchak National Monument and Preserve Bird List: Not Reported

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Previous: Bald Eagle – the Song of Summer

Next Article: Peregrine Falcon

*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.

Nature Watching & Nest Finding: An Exercise in Mindfulness

Male Common Merganser, Chignik Lake, March 23, 2017

I have a particular photograph that, when I got it, I was quite stoked. It’s beautiful. Everyone who has seen it says it’s a great picture. But I look at it now…

It’s a shot of a Common Merganser taking wing. Click. Capture. The camera settings were correct. The light was wonderful. The moment is frozen in time.

He was feeding. Diving. Occasionally coming up with a small fish of some kind. Stocking  calories on a cold winter day.

I moved closer. And closer. And I flushed him.

See the nest? Spring through summer, anytime you flush a bird – and especially if a bird is behaving as though it is injured, tread carefully; there’s probably a nest nearby.

The speckling, which breaks up their silhouette, makes these Semipalmated Plover eggs especially difficult to see from a distance – unless you’re looking for them. (Interior Alaska, June 2017)

It’s a dilemma. Ongoing. As a naturalist, a photographer, a student of wildlife, I want to get close. I am drawn toward invading a being’s space. I want to see them in detail. I want to find their nest or den. I want to see what they are eating. I want to learn where they roost or rest.

But I really don’t want to disturb them. Most of my favorite photographs of animals are those in which they aren’t looking at me – photos in which they are going about their business hunting, eating, digesting, loafing, soaking up sunshine or huddling against a storm.

This is how I hope to capture birds – going about their business, oblivious to me. (Pileated Woodpecker, Oregon, June 2012)

As sportsmen and naturalists, we disturb animals all the time. We flush birds. We invade habitat. If my fishing season was limited to catching only what I need to stock my freezer, it would be a mighty short season. But I love to fish. So I fish for charr and trout that I have no intention of keeping, and I cast flies for salmon long after I’ve got plenty of fillets to get me through another year, letting go the additional Silvers that come to hand after I’ve got my quota.

This is not a dilemma to be solved, I think. Rather it is one to keep in mind.

As soon as we step foot in nature, we’re going to have an impact. Plants and invertebrates will be crushed underfoot. Birds will be flushed. A friend of mine walking on a river island once heard a crunch underfoot. He lifted his shoe to find a dripping smear of yolk and albumen from the crushed remains of a Killdeer’s nest. He felt really bad about that. If the world was populated only by bird-loving naturalists, I suppose evolution would have arranged for eggs in shades of neon and florescence.

Let’s hope all four of these greenish, brown-speckled eggs made it into fully fledged Siberian Rubythroats. (Hokkaido, Japan, June 2017)

In recent years, I’ve become pretty good at finding birds’ nests – a skill I’m reluctant to put into practice unless circumstances make it necessary. Hiking through an overgrown field in Hokkaido, Japan, a Siberian Rubythroat burst into flight practically beneath my feet. I knew from experience that there was undoubtedly a nest nearby, and that I’d better take great care with each footstep until I either located the nest and avoided trampling it or had gingerly stepped altogether clear of the area.  

Singing his heart out not far from the above nest, this male Siberian Rubythroat has staked out his small piece of Hokkaido. (June 2017)

I once flushed a mallard off her nest. Didn’t know she had a nest until I walked closer to where she had been. I quickly backed away, but it was too late. Before I could get completely out of the area, a pair of crows were happily going to town on eggs that would not become ducklings. Initially, I was mad at the duck for choosing such an open place to build a nest. But the fault was mine; I didn’t know enough about duck behavior to understand that she was brooding.

Those crows knew, though. Smart birds.

Birds are amazingly aware of their surroundings, and so I have little doubt that this merganser and her brood were aware of my presence. But I was tucked away behind vegetation photographing terns. She passed by with a circumspect eye directed my way, but not in panic. Good. A short distance upriver, they resumed feeding. (Tuul River, Mongolia, July 2015)

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Previous: Red-breasted Merganser – Not just Flashy. Fast!

Next Article: Northern Harrier – Rare but There

Birds of Chignik Lake: Barrow’s Goldeneye – a Duck that will Nest in a Box

This fortuitous capture illustrates three key diagnostic differences distinguishing Barrow’s Goldeneye (forward) from the Common Goldeneye (back). 1) The back of the Barrow’s is distinctively more black. 2) The Barrow’s white facial marking is crescent-shaped as opposed to the Common’s rounded patch. 3) The Barrow’s crown is more flattened; the Common’s has a rounded peak. Still, the two species are similar enough that it pays to glass flocks. Females are so similar as to be difficult to distinguish. (January 14, 2019)

Barrow’s Goldeneyes visit the lake and river just frequently enough to make it worthwhile to keep a look out for them. My records indicate that we encountered at least one specimen each of the three years of this study, always a distinctively marked drake. However, one of those sightings involved a bird mixed with a flock of mergansers and (probably) female and juvenile Common Goldeneyes that was so far off I didn’t pick it out till I put the photo I’d taken on my computer.

Depending on their position, it can require a sharp eye to spot a Barrow’s among a group of Commons. Got your pick? Keep reading to see if you nailed it. (Chignik Lake, January 14, 2019)

Near Lake Myvatn in Iceland, Europe’s only population of Barrow’s Goldeneyes nests in holes and crevices in lava fields. The population of about 200 birds is enhanced with nesting boxes locals have installed on the sides of barns and other structures, showing that in many cases a lack of nesting sites limits bird populations, while adding additional sites can help a population thrive.

Nesting boxes for ducks (and other birds) needn’t be complicated. These examples are supplied with nesting material to get things started. Note the mesh screening on the door below each hole – very important. It’s there so that the tiny ducklings can use their strong little legs and feet to climb out of the box on that magical day when mom calls them to enter the world. Photo By: Master Sgt. April WickesReleased

Want to help out ducks in your area? The Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s NestWatch website has loads of information on everything from building nesting boxes to sharing the information you collect with the Lab’s scientists. Check it out!

(In the photo of the group of Common and Barrow’s Goldeneye above, did you pick the third bird from the right?)

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

Barrow’s Goldeneye Bucephala islandica
Order: Anseriformes
Family: Anatidae
Bucephala:  Ancient Greek, boukephalos = bullheaded
islandica: Latinized, of Iceland

Status at Chignik Lake, 2016-19: Uncommon on Chignik Lake and Chignik River

David Narver, Birds of the Chignik River Drainage, summers 1960-63: Only One Sighting Recorded – a Drake

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: Common Goldeneye

Next Article: Bufflehead – Our Smallest Diving 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: Black Scoter – Springtime Courtship on a Wilderness Lake

Female (left) and male Black Scoters frequently visit Chignik Lake in springtime, usually in what appear to be mated pairs or small groups of hens and drakes. (Chignik Lake, May 3, 2018)

Formerly lumped together with coots and until fairly recently considered conspecific with European Common Scoters, not as much is known about Black Scoters as is known about most other North American Ducks. A few nests have been found – depressions the female lines with grass in treeless environments. I witnessed a pair mating on the lake, so it might be presumed that they intended to nest someplace not too distant.

After making his intentions known with displays featuring wing-flapping and rearing up with his bill pointed to the sky, Sir mounted his Good Lady. With Narver reporting the species as common on both lakes during summers, Black Scoters must surely nest in the Chignik Drainage. (May 3, 2018)

Considered “sea ducks,” nearby ocean bays are likely where Black Scoters winter. I never saw them on the lake earlier than spring. With the male’s black plumage and bright orange bill, these ducks are unlikely to be overlooked. For that matter, the female too is fairly easily distinguished by her contrasting dark brown cap and pale, almost white, face. If you can get a look at the bill, check for a distinctive hook at the tip. This may be an adaptation for digging up shellfish, the Black Scoter’s favorite food.

Female Black Scoter in flight over Chignik Lake. Note the hook at the tip of her bill. (August 16, 2018)

Another nearly diagnostic characteristic is the call the drakes produce. Gentle, high-pitched tones sung in a minor key are the norm. At other times the whistling sounds slightly reedy, though still quite pleasant. It’s a music I’ve come to associate with springtime at The Lake.

A peaceful morning on Chignik Lake (May 3, 2018)

Perhaps Chignik Lake is only a stopover for this pair as they travel up the drainage to the marshy tundra around Black Lake where the female will make her nest. Or maybe they’ve already got a nest, above the tree-line on one of the mountains overlooking the lake. The Chigniks remain a wonderfully under-explored and seldom studied corner of the world. (May 3, 2018) 

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

Black Scoter Melanitta americana
Order: Anseriformes
Family: Anatidae
Melanitta: from Ancient Greek: melas = black; netta = duck
americana: Latin, of America

Status at Chignik Lake, 2016-19: Occasional on Chignik Lake

David Narver, Birds of the Chignik River Drainage, summers 1960-63: Common on both lakes (Reported by former name, Common Scoter Oidemia nigra

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

Aniakchak National Monument and Preserve Bird List: Present

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Previous: Steller’s Eider

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

*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: Canvasback – the Duke of Ducks

Canvasbacks and a female Common Goldeneye shyly paddle across Chignik Lake. The first, second and fourth birds from the left are female. The third bird, with its dark head and black bill, is a male. (November 27, 2017)

Hunted ducks are wary ducks, and so it is with the few Canvasbacks that visited Chignik Lake. Generally mixed in with other species, their propensity to turn and paddle out of camera range made scaup and even goldeneyes seem tame by comparison.

That big, dark bill – adapted to pull up aquatic vegetation – helps ID Canvasbacks among other ducks. A light reddish brown head with a pale eye-stripe ID’s this particular pair as females. (Chignik Lake, January 25, 2017)

This is another species not indicated for the Alaska Peninsula on most range maps. As they appear to be pushing further north, in future years they may become more common on the Peninsula. With beds of aquatic vegetation expanding in Chignik Lagoon and throughout the drainage, habitat for Canvasbacks looks promising.

As with other genus Aythya ducks, Canvasbacks are divers. Eclectic in their diets, while they show a preference for Wild Celery (which doesn’t look at all like celery) at certain times of year, they also eat mollusks and aquatic insects. Seldom going ashore, they even sleep on the water, as the drake (the duck on the right) in this photo is getting ready to do. (Chignik Lake, November 27, 2017)

A member of the tape-grass family, Wild Celery, (Vallisneria americana) is a freshwater plant that tolerates salt well enough to thrive in estuarine environments as well. Photo by Fredlyfish4, Wikipedia.

Female Canvasback with female Greater Scaup. At an average length of 24 inches, Canvasbacks are large. The manner in which the head slopes into the bill, creating one straight line, is a reliable field marker. (Chignik Lake, January 25, 2017)

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

Canvasback Aythya valisineria
Order: Anseriformes
Family: Anatidae
Aythya: from Ancient Greek, a term used by Aristotle believed to describe a duck or seabird
valisineria:   Vallisneria americana, the wild celery which is a favorite food. Antonio Vallisneri was the seventeenth century Italian botanist who named the plant.

Status at Chignik Lake, 2016-19: Uncommon to Rare late Fall and Wintertime

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

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

Aniakchak National Monument and Preserve Bird List: Not Reported

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Previous Article: Tufted Duck – Rare Eurasian Visitor

Next Article: Harlequin Duck – 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: Tufted Duck – Rare Eurasian Visitor

Check out those scaup and Ring-billeds carefully. Who knows? You might get lucky. Here a female Tufted Duck visiting from perhaps Japan or Russia scooped up one of Chignik River’s clams. They also eat aquatic vegetation. (January 26, 2017)

It’s always a thrill to add a new bird to a personal list – all the more so when the species is one that’s fairly rare. While it’s certainly not unheard of for a Tufted Duck or two to be mixed in with other ducks in Southwestern Alaska, they are still unusual enough that they aren’t included on North American range maps.

I found this Tufted Duck (foremost) feeding along Chignik River shore ice along with a Ring-necked drake and three female scaup (probably Greater Scaup). (January 21, 2017)

Even in silhouette the sleeping Tufted is easy to pick out from other ducks. From left to right: Male Greater Scaup, Tufted, female Greater Scaup, male Ring-necked, Canvasback, female Greater Scaup. (Chignik Lake, January 25, 2017)

Tufted Duck Aythya fuligula
Order: Anseriformes
Family: Anatidae
Aythya: from Ancient Greek, a term used by Aristotle believed to describe a duck or seabird
fuligula: from Latin fuligo = soot and gula = throat

Status at Chignik Lake, 2016-19: Rare Wintertime Visitor

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

Alaska Peninsula and Becharof National Wildlife Refuge Bird List, 2010Accidental in Spring

Aniakchak National Monument and Preserve Bird List: Not Reported

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Previous Article: Ring-necked Duck – a Species Moving Northward

Next Article: Canvasback – the Duke of Ducks

*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: 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:

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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.

Ice Changes Everything – Wintertime Life on the Frozen Chignik

While River Otters are generally gregarious, playful sorts that get along beautifully, it’s hard not to project a twinge of envy on the otter to the left. Starry Flounder travel from the saltwater lagoon miles up The Chignik. Winter ice provides a lucky fisherman with a dining table. (Chignik Lake, February 2, 2017)

Clad in a 600-fill down parka, camouflage snow pants, insulated Muck Boots, a warm hat and heavy-duty mittens stuffed with hand warmers, I continue bellying forward on slick, solid ice toward a patch of open water near the lake’s outflow. With nearly effortless nudges from me, the tripod where my camera with its great, big wildlife lens is mounted slides before me. I’ve been at this since first light, moving slow and low. As careful as I’ve been, the otters have already taken notice. An assemblage of Greater Scaup, Common Goldeneyes, two species of mergansers, Canvasbacks and other waterfowl are either hauled out and resting on the edge of the ice or diving the frigid water for fish, clams and aquatic weeds. A pair of Bald Eagles perched on utility poles are taking in the scene, and I’m sure there are foxes – and maybe even a wolf or two – on patrol somewhere in the vicinity. Now I’m close enough to hear the otters snorting, breathing and crunching the bones of the fish they’ve caught. A pair of harbor seals pop their heads above water, survey the goings on, and quietly resubmerge.

Ice creates both new opportunities and new perils for the various species of the Chignik System. Here Skit, one of several Red Foxes we saw frequently enough to name, barely misses out on a sumptuous repast of Common Goldeneye. (Chignik Lake, February 3, 2017)

In early January of 2017, something happened to Chignik Lake that by local accounts used to happen nearly every winter but hadn’t happened in the past five years: save for a a couple of surface acres near the outflow, it froze solid. Over the ensuing days and weeks, while upwelling subsurface springs continued to keep the water near the outflow open, the lake ice grew thicker and the river itself froze in most places. For humans, foxes and wolves, the effect was to create an ice highway. The impact on waterfowl was to concentrate whatever birds remained in the system into the few patches of open water.

The more or less official book on the Chignik System is that Red-breasted Mergansers are common, and that Common Mergansers are uncommon or rare. While that tends to be true during summertime, we found that during wintertime, particularly during icy winters, Commons (above photo) greatly outnumber Red-breasteds and were in fact, common. Aside from research pertaining to salmon (and to a certain extent, Dolly Varden Char), the Chignik Drainage has been only lightly studied. Each new puzzle piece adds to a fuller picture of this complex ecosystem. (Chignik Lake, March 14, 2017)

As wintery conditions set in, scaup begin to show up on the lake, at times in flocks counted in the dozens. In the 2016-2017 winter, when the lake froze, scaup were fairly abundant. During the relatively mild 2018-2019 winter, scaup occurred less frequently and in smaller numbers. (Chignik Lake, January 3, 2017)

Icy conditions tend to concentrate any remaining waterfowl, making it a good time to look for less common or even rare birds. In a pocket of open water on the Chignik River, three female scaup (facing away from the camera), mill about with a fairly uncommon drake Ring-necked Duck (right) and, in the lower left, a somewhat rare visitor from Asia, a female Tufted Duck. 

Ice changes relationships among animals and creates new theater. I watched for several minutes as this River Otter used his catch (a flounder) to taunt a pair of eagles. The drama ended when one of the eagles took wing and made a half-hearted attempt to catch the otter, a maneuver the sleek fellow easily avoided by slipping back into the water. Resigned, the eagles flew off and the otter gnawed away at his catch. (Chignik Lake, January 25, 2017)

There always seem to be at least a few Harbor Seals somewhere in the freshwater lakes and river of the Chignik System. Here, a group haul out on ice to catch some rays. Events such as this are no doubt of great interest to the area’s wolves, as occasionally the pinnipeds get trapped on solid ice with no escape route. The foreground birds are male Common Goldeneyes – menaces in their own right to local sculpin and stickleback populations. (February 3, 2017)

Some of the preceding photos might give one a less than accurate picture of wintertime at The Lake. Chignik is an Alutiiq word meaning “Big Winds,” a suiting epithet. Weather bullying its way from one side of the Alaska Peninsula to the other can be formidable. Here a group of female Common Mergansers hunker down on an ice point to wait out fierce winds and snow. (January 6, 2016)

A Pacific Loon shakes of snow out on The Lake. (January 13, 2018)

As wintertime conditions change in coming years, those of us interested in wildlife of all kinds will want to keep our eyes sharp for commensurate changes in flora and fauna. In this global study, the role of citizen scientist has never been more important. Every well-documented backyard feeder, walk along local trails, and note of what is – and isn’t – nesting in hedgerows and elsewhere is a unique, vital data point.

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Previous Article: Birds of Chignik: Green-winged Teal – Bantam-weight Duck

Next Article: Greater Scaup

*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.