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

Common Murre Alaska Gulf

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

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

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

murres and puffins, Tikigaq Point Hope

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

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

Teuri Island Murres Flowerbed

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

murres on sea stack near Homer Alaska

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

Common Murres on Sea Cliffs Kenai Fjords Alaska

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

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

Range Map Common Murre

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

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

Status in Marine Waters near Chignik: Common

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

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

Aniakchak National Monument and Preserve Bird List: Present

Table of Contents and Complete List of Birds of Chignik Lake

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

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

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

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

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

plastic window bird feeder

The feeders drew customers within a few days of installation.

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

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

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

Taking advantage of seeds on the ground below:

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

Oh! And Red-backed Voles and a lemming!

red-backed vole chignik lake

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

Window box bird feeders

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

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

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

Birds of Chignik Lake: Bonaparte’s Gull

Chignik Bonaparte's Gull

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

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

Chignik Bonaparte's gull juvenile

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

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

Chignik Bonaparte's Gull first year

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Aniakchak National Monument and Preserve Bird List: Present

Table of Contents and Complete List of Birds of Chignik Lake

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

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

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

Least Sandpiper Chignik River

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

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

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

least sandpiper serrated bill

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

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

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

least sandpiper feeding

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Aniakchak National Monument and Preserve Bird List: Present

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

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

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

Birds of Chignik: Western Sandpiper – Elegance in a Tiny Being

Rufous scapulars and golden-brown highlights make the Western Sandpiper among our prettiest little shorebirds. Check out the tiny spoon at the tip of this little sandpiper’s down-curved bill. Such elegant detail in a tiny being. (Chignik River, July 24, 2020)

We had irregularly been encountering flocks of anywhere from dozens to perhaps a couple hundred small shorebirds on fishing trips to Devil’s Flats. Obsessed with putting flies in front of salmon and char, I had difficulty breaking away to attempt photographs of the little peeps. But as days passed and July headed toward August, I knew I’d better get with it before the visitors migrated out.

Chignik River Western Sandpiper

I am occasionally taken aback with photographic evidence of just how modest some of my field estimations of numbers in flocks can be. I’d been saying “dozens” when we encountered these sandpipers, but there are well over 100 birds spilling out of this frame and there are still more birds in a separate flock nearby. If you’ve got a screen large enough to not result in eyestrain, it might be interesting to see how many birds you come up with in the above picture. (Photo by Barbra Donachy, Chignik River, July 24, 2020)

Yet, even equipped with the right photographic equipment and good intentions, it wasn’t until the evening of a day late in July that Barbra and I finally got our shots. The fishing had been good, but the birds had been no-shows. We’d called it a day and were heading back to the skiff when the peeps finally arrived. Suddenly 200 or so birds were winging their way up the river, heading straight for the gravel shores of the island where we’d beached Buster. We immediately dropped our fishing gear into a loose pile and began setting up to shoot as the birds lit down along the rocky shoreline.

western sandpipers chignik river

At an average length of just 6½ inches – only a quarter of an inch larger than a junco – these birds presented us with the usual challenges in photographing, wary, tiny, ever-moving wild birds. We found that by crawling slowly and keeping vegetation between ourselves and the feeding sandpipers – tufts of tall grass, burdock, willows – we could approach fairly close without disturbing them. For a short while, they scurried through the river shallows and rocks bobbing their heads and feeding frenetically. At times they appeared to be using their bills to pick something minute from the water’s surface; at other times they jabbed and probed between rocks; and at still other times they seemed to use their bills as a small plows, pushing them forward to stir up the silty bottom, chirping and cheeping with enthusiasm at the smorgasbord they were finding. For a little while, there was quite a lot of busy activity.

And then they did something that astonished us. Almost as one, the feeding stopped, the chattering quieted, and the little birds seemed to disappear. Before we knew it, most of them had nestled into comfortable places among the rocks, tucked their bills beneath a wing, and closed their eyes. I’d never considered shorebirds roosting after a meal as do other birds, but of course they must. Had we not known the birds were there, I doubt we’d have noticed them. Suddenly, the many times I’d been walking along a shoreline and was startled by a flock of peeps exploding into flight practically under my feet came into focus. Even a falcon passing overhead might miss these birds at rest. It is their movement that gives them away.

western sandpiper sleeping Chignik River

Of course, not all of the birds slept at once. Always a few remained vigilant, continuing to feed and looking about them as they did. However, we’d learned something that day, and on subsequent outings we tested ourselves by carefully looking over the ground near any actively feeding birds. At times we were able to find additional birds that were roosting, birds that in the past we would have missed.

Western Sandpipers flight Chignik River

We stayed with the shoot as long as we could, but by the end the sunlight had gone from this part of the river and a chill was seeping into the air. Who knows what prompts avian decisions? At some point the sandpipers lifted into the air and flew back downriver. I read a short essay on how it is that they manage to fly together, banking and turning in unison without colliding into each other. But I still don’t really understand it, which is well enough.

All things come to an end, and so it was with this day. Our Sockeyes for the year had already been caught, cleaned, filleted and freezer-packed, so on this day we had successfully cast to the river’s Dolly Varden Char and Pink Salmon, and whether foul-hooked or fair, a few Reds had found our flies as well. It was early still for Silvers, but we searched anyway and in so doing took note of a few King Salmon which we failed to entice. Jacob’s Ladder, Yellow Monkeyflower and River Beauty were near their peak, signs of active bears were everywhere, and on the way home I got nice photos of our fledgling Rough-legged Hawks.

The range map indicates that these sandpipers are migrants, on their way south after nesting further north. As we’ll be able to begin skiffing the river as early as we want to this coming year, an objective will be to keep a keen eye out for when these birds arrive on The Chignik.

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

Western Sandpiper Calidris mauri
Order: Charadriiformes
Calidris: from Ancient Greek kalidris or skalidris, a term Aristotle used for some gray-colored shorebirds1
mauri: for the Italian botanist Ernesto Mauri

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

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

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

Aniakchak National Monument and Preserve Bird List: Present

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

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

1From the article “Calidris” in Wikipedia, which sites Jobling, James A (2010). The Helm Dictionary of Scientific Bird Names. London: Christopher Helm. p. 84. ISBN 978-1-4081-2501-4.

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

Birds of Chignik: Black Turnstone

black turnstone Chignik Lagoon

Note the sharp, well-defined toenails on this Black Turnstone. It shares this adaptive characteristic in common with Ruddy Turnstones, enabling the two species to easily walk on the slick, seaweed covered rocks they frequent. (Chignik Lagoon, July 27, 2020)

On the same day I photographed Ruddy Turnstones at Chignik Lagoon, I encountered their somewhat chubbier cousins, Black Turnstones. When we first arrived, there appeared to be a small flock of the Blacks, but they took wing as we beached our scow. I found the lone specimen in the above photo hanging out near a pair of Wandering Tattlers.

These stout, robin-sized birds get their name from the manner in which they use their chisel-like bill to turn over kelp, stones and other debris in search of invertebrates and fish eggs. They even use their bill as a plow, moving through washed up seaweed and dining on whatever is stirred up or uncovered. Black Turnstones also use their bills to hammer at and pry open barnacles and bivalves.

Because they are Pacific Coast residents rather than the long-distance migrants their Ruddy relatives are, they can be seen throughout the year on rocky coasts from the more southerly  parts of Alaska as far south as Mexico’s Baja Peninsula.

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

Black Turnstone Arenaria melanocephala
Order: Charadriiformes
ArenariaLatin arenarius. arena = sand; inhabiting sand
melanocephala: Ancient Greek melas = black +  kephale = head; black headed

Status at Chignik Lake: Occasional as a post-breeding migrant along the shorelines of Chignik Lagoon and Chignik Bay

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

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

Aniakchak National Monument and Preserve Bird List: Present

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

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

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

Birds of Chignik: Ruddy Turnstone – Birding, Boating & Procuring Fuel in the Alaska Bush

ruddy turnstone chignikThe Ruddy Turnstone’s harlequinesque plumage might seem impractical – until one finds them in a scene such as this, seamlessly blending in with an array of varicolored seaweeds. (Chignik Lagoon, July 27, 2020)

The village of Chignik Lake was out of gas. It happens from time to time, one of the generally minor inconveniences living in this remote community entails. All of our fuel, gasoline as well as diesel and propane, must be barged or boated upriver from The Bay or The Lagoon. When a handwritten cardboard sign on the village’s lone gasoline pump says “Out,” it’s out. There is nothing to do for it but pick a day when the weather is fair and a high tide makes the river navigable and make a fuel run. With gloriously long summer days upon us and all kinds of wildlife viewing, berry picking, fishing and general exploring beckoning, we needed gas for our hondas and the scow. And so on a favorable daytime tide, we packed the back of the scow with bright red plastic jerry cans and skiffed the six-miles downriver to Chignik Lagoon. And since you never know what you might see along the way, we brought along cameras as well.

It was just before high slack-water when we beached our boat at The Lagoon. Barbra and I carried the first of our jerry cans the short walk up a little slope where we were met at the gas pump by Jeremy. He turned on the pump for us, Barbra phoned our credit card information over to the village office, and after a few trips back and forth we had the tank on our boat as well as all the spare cans filled. No problem.

But you’ve got to keep an eye on the tide.

Chignik Lagoon Ruddy Turnstone

Ruddy Turnstone in non-breeding plumage – possibly a juvenile. (Chignik Lagoon, July 27, 2020)

With our chore behind us, we set about attempting to photograph the shorebirds we’d been noticing. A pair of dippers were flitting in and out from under the hull of a rusty barge on the beach and a few Least Sandpipers were working the shoreline, but a group of shorebirds with rich plumage and brilliant orange legs drew my attention. Although the tide was now dropping, with a jet-drive engine powering our little boat we were confident we’d have no problem making it back upriver. Nonetheless, we should have thought to push it off the beach as the tide pulled away. The double-hulled boat is deceptively heavy; if it doesn’t have water beneath it, it is a bear to move.

I didn’t quite get the photographs I wanted of the Ruddy Turnstones, but I managed some nice documentation shots. It was Barbra who thought of the scow. “We need to get going!” she exclaimed with some alarm in her voice. “Look at the boat!”

It was almost, but not quite, high and dry. Oh boy. This was going to be work. Fortunately a passerby happened along on his honda. As is almost always the case around here, upon seeing our plight he jumped off and lent a hand. Inch by inch we swung the bow seaward. We said thanks, pushed off, and Barbra assumed the steering wheel, fired up the engine and we began the return trip toward home, another “learned by error” piece of savvy acquired as we expand our skill-set in this way of life.

Ruddy Turnstone Chignik LagoonAfter a brief stopover at the lagoon, these birds will be on their way south again. New Zealand? Australia? Some seldom seen Pacific Island? The migrations shorebirds and terns undertake boggle the mind… (Chignik Lagoon)

Based on the range map (below), it appears to have been happenstance that we ran into the Ruddy and Black Turnstones we encountered that day. Ruddy Turnstones that breed in Alaska and Siberia migrate northward from Australia and Pacific islands in spring, then return south via Alaska’s Pribilof Islands, the Aleutians and the Alaska Peninsula. So these were post-breeding migrants. As is the case with Semipalmated Plovers, the adults embark on the southerly migration first; the chicks don’t fledge until after the adults have departed and are therefore left to make the journey over many thousands of miles of the vast Pacific Ocean on their own.

How do they know where to go?

As their name indicates, turnstones employ their wedge-shaped bills to upend pebbles and other debris as they search for invertebrates. When nesting, insects, particularly mosquitoes and midges, figure heavily in their diet, but they also consume berries, vegetation and even carrion and the eggs of other birds.

This is a species in decline. Coastal development, plastic pollution and overfished horseshoe crab populations (some turnstones rely on horseshoe crab eggs as a major food source during migration) are among the culprits. The horseshoe crabs, in case you’re wondering, are used as conch and eel bait by commercial fishermen. Seems a waste… as are plastic bags, plastic bottles, and discarded cigarette butts.

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

Ruddy Turnstone Arenaria interpres
Order: Charadriiformes
Arenaria: Latin arenarius. arena = sand; inhabiting sand
interpres: Latin for messenger

Status at Chignik Lake: Occasional as a post-breeding migrant along the shorelines of Chignik Lagoon and Chignik Bay

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

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

Aniakchak National Monument and Preserve Bird List: Present

Table of Contents and Complete List of Birds of Chignik Lake

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

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

Birds of Chignik: Black Oystercatcher – the Bill that Fits the Bill

black oystercatcher chignik bay

A Black Oystercatcher works an intertidal mussel shoal at the base of Eagle Rock in Chignik Bay. 

A sharp eye is likely to pick out the crimson of a Black Oystercatcher’s bill before the entire bird can be made out. Although, as can be seen in the above photo, their plumage has more brown that black in it, they tend to blend in well with the rocky, mussel-strewn habitat they prefer. There seldom seem to be many of these birds in any one place, but from the Aleutian Islands to Baja Mexico they are frequently seen in pairs, as single birds or as small family groups.  I’ve read that at times flocks of these striking birds can number in the dozens or even hundreds – no doubt an amazing sight. Look for oystercatchers especially on small rocky islands or sloping shorelines, especially at low tide when barnacle and shellfish colonies are exposed.

black oystercatcher with kittiwakes

At 17.5 inches from bill to toe, the oystercatcher’s overall size compares with that of these Black-legged Kittiwakes, which measure about 17 inches.

Oystercatchers tend to be wary, taking flight with shrill yelps and piping whistles, so it pays to have a long lens or a good pair of binoculars when watching them forage. Contrary to what their name implies, their diet is fairly eclectic and includes a variety of bivalves, chitons, crabs, sea urchins, worms and other invertebrates. At times they may also feed on sandy beaches and mudflats.

black oystercatcher foraging mussel bed

Doubtless there is all manner of deliciousness to be pried from this bed of blue mussels, and the Black Oystercatcher has the bill that fits the bill. Why the bright color? Thees matters usually have to with intraspecies identification and mating, with a nice bright bill and eye signifying health and good genes to a prospective partner.

Oystercatchers appear to mate for life. Females lay two or three eggs in a nest the male has casually scraped out above the tide line, usually on a small, rocky island. Though the young can walk soon after hatching, parents spend considerable time teaching them the ins and outs of foraging.

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

Black Oystercatcher Haematopus bachmani
Order: Charadriiformes
Haematopus: Greek haima = blood + pous = foot
bachmaniNamed by John James Audubon for his friend John Bachman

Status at Chignik Lake: This marine species is occasional along the shorelines of nearby Chignik Lagoon and Chignik Bay

David Narver, Birds of the Chignik River Drainage, summers 1960-63As this is a marine species, not reported

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

Aniakchak National Monument and Preserve Bird List: Present

Table of Contents and Complete List of Birds of Chignik Lake

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

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

Birds of Chignik Lake: Semipalmated Plover

semipalmated plover alaska

Semipalmated Plover, male in his striking breeding plumage. The partial webbing between this bird’s toes is visible; it is this partial webbing from which the term “semipalmated” is derived. Denali Highway, Alaska

As I may have mentioned elsewhere, finally obtaining a small boat here on the Chignik opened up new worlds in terms of wildlife viewing in general, birding in particular, fishing and all around exploring. As to the birding, with the greater range the scow provided we immediately began cataloguing species new to us in the drainage, The little Semipalmated Plover, already a favorite from other birding ventures, was among the first of these new-to-us Chignik species.

semipalmated plover juvenile chignik river

Semipalmated Plover juveniles, Chignik River, July 24, 2020. These plovers typically occurred on river gravel bars and shorelines in mixed flocks of Western and Least Sandpipers

As we didn’t acquire our scow until July, there is still documentation to be done. The Semipalmateds we encountered appeared to all be juveniles. According to Herbert K. Job, writing in Birds of America*, this isn’t unusual. He reported flocks of nothing but young birds migrating into the Atlantic seaboard in September, a month or so after adults had arrived from their northern breeding grounds. At any rate, we took lots of photos, searched through them carefully on the large screen of our computer, and found no adults. This coming spring, we will begin early searching the various shorelines, river bars and rocky islands for signs of adult birds and breeding.

semipalmated plover nest denali highway alaska

If you didn’t know they were there, you’d probably miss them, but even when you feel certain a nest may be nearby, the eggs can be quite difficult to locate. The nest itself is a barely discernible depression lined with twigs and leaves. The precocial young will leave the nest upon hatching and although the parents will stay close, the little ones will find their own food. There may be nothing in the avian world quite so cute as the scurrying ping-pong ball of fluff a young shore peep resembles. Approximately four weeks after hatching, they’ll be able to fly. (Denali Highway, Alaska)

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

Semipalmated plover Charadrius semipalmatus
Order: Charadriiformes
CharadriusLatin derived from Greek kharadrios for a bird found in river valleys
semipalmatusLatin – semi = half + palmatus = palm – referring to this species’ partly webbed feet

Status at Chignik Lake: Occasional to Common in Summer; Status in Spring uncertain; Absent in Fall and Winter

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

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

Aniakchak National Monument and Preserve Bird List: Present

able of Contents and Complete List of Birds of Chignik Lake

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

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

Birds of Chignik Lake: Gyrfalcon – World’s Largest Falcon

Gyrfalcons Louis Agassiz Fuertes Birds of America

In the absence of a photo of my own of this magnificent species, here offered is Louis Agassiz Fuertes’ beautiful plate from the 1936 edition of the classic Birds of America*.

Twice this past fall a dark, bulky hawk-like shape quite unlike our resident Rough-legged Hawks and our occasional Peregrine Falcons flew close, directly over my head. In the first instance Barbra and I were cruising downriver in our scow, and although I had my camera with me, it was to no avail. “Gyrfalcon!” I shouted to Barbra over the noise of the two-stroke. We were fairly certain we’d seen this species at a distance in previous years, but this was by far our best look at one.

In the second instance I was by myself at the boat landing. With no camera along, I watched through my binoculars as the falcon cruised downriver along the far shoreline. Suddenly it veered my way, crossed the river, and for a few exciting seconds hovered low, directly over my head as though investigating me. I lowered my binoculars and, as Joel Sartore might say, simply enjoyed “petting the whale,” understanding that in that moment I was probably closer to a wild gyrfalcon than I ever again would be. As suddenly as it had changed direction to come my way, it was off again, this time heading for downriver islands where ducks and yellowlegs can often be found feeding in the shallows.

At a length of roughly two feet from beak to tail and bulkier even that most buteos, this is the world’s largest falcon. It is almost strictly a denizen of the far north where it typically preys heavily on ptarmigan. The “gyr” of gyrfalcon is pronounced “jer” according to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s Birds of the World. “Gyr” may have evolved from the Old High German or Norse for vulture, or it may have its roots in Greek and Latin indicating curving or circular flight bringing to mind the opening lines of Yeats’s poem The Second Coming:

Turning and turning, into the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer…

It’s one of the most frequently quoted poems in the English language, various lines showing up in everything from book titles to folk and rock music to film. It was especially frequently drawn from in the year 2016, a fact which might pique interest…

Although Gyrfalcons occur in both a dark, gray plumage morph and in what must surely be a spectacular white morph, the handful of birds we have seen along the Chignik Drainage have all been of the darker variety. This is a fairly rare species; encountering one is always a thrill. Look for a bulky silhouette with much more rounded wings than the related Peregrine Falcon.

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

Gyrfalcon Falco rusticolus
Order: Falconiformes
FalcoLatin for falcon – from falx, falcis – sickle, as in the shape of the falcon’s talons
rusticolus: Latin – rus = country + colere = to dwell; country dweller

Status at Chignik Lake: Rare

David Narver, Birds of the Chignik River Drainage, summers 1960-63Rare, near Black Lake

Alaska Peninsula and Becharof National Wildlife Refuge Bird List, 2010:
Rare in all seasons

Aniakchak National Monument and Preserve Bird List: Present

Table of Contents and Complete List of Birds of Chignik Lake

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

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