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

Birds of Chignik: Double-crested Cormorant

Chignik Double-crested cormorant

Next to Pelagic Cormorants (left), at first glance Double-cresteds are bulkier birds. The yellow lores and throat are diagnostic. As is also the case with Red-faced Cormorants, the coloration is due to bare skin, not plumage. Note, too, the Double-crested’s heavy, hooked bill.

From a distance, the Chignik’s three species of cormorants, like most cormorants worldwide, look pretty much the same: a gangly cross between a loon and a goose dressed in drab, brown-black plumage. But if you’re lucky enough to get near to a cormorant, you might find that they are actually quite striking.

Like our other cormorants, Double-cresteds are primarily piscivorous. They are far and away the most wide-spread and common of North America’s cormorants, and unlike our other species, Double-cresteds frequently nest in trees. This could account for the fact that they are more frequently seen in fresh water than Red-faced or Pelagic cormorants, though they are still at home on ocean waters.

“Mike” Michael L. Baird’s photograph captures the double crest of this Double-crested Cormorant in breeding plumage. CC BY 2.0,

In non-breeding plumage, look for the yellow-orange skin around the Double-crested’s face. Photograph  © Frank Schulenburg, CC BY-SA 4.0,

From a distance, this Japanese Cormorant looked as black and nondescript as any cormorant, but a closer look revealed a pallet of subtle hues..

Double-crested Cormorant Range Map: with permission from The Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Birds of the World

Double Cormorant Phalacrocorax auritus
Order: Suliformes
PhalacrocoraxLatinized Ancient Greek = cormorant (from “bald” and “crow/raven”)
auritusLatin = eared (for its breeding plumage crests)

Status at Chignik Lake: Not observed in the freshwater drainage, but common in nearby coastal waters

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

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

Aniakchak National Monument and Preserve Bird List: Present

Table of Contents for the Complete List of Birds of Chignik Lake

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

Birds of Chignik: Red-faced Cormorant

Chignik red-faced cormorant

After a morning’s feeding, Red-faced Cormorants rest at a favorite roost near the outlet of Chignik Lagoon. 

Red-faced Cormorants are abundant in the sea near the villages of Chignik and Chignik Lagoon, and according to biologists their numbers appear to be increasing. They often roost and feed in mixed flocks alongside Pelagic and Double-crested Cormorants. Like other cormorants, they are primarily fish eaters, though they occasionally take crabs, shrimp and other marine invertebrates.

This beautifully colored Red-faced Cormorant was photographed by Lisa Hupp, USFWS, courtesy Wikipedia. The red face is actually bare skin which loses some of its color when the bird is not in breeding plumage.

Red-faced Cormorant Range Map: By Netzach,

Red-faced Cormorant Phalacrocorax urile
Order: Suliformes
Phalacrocorax: Latinized Ancient Greek = cormorant
urile: ?

Status at Chignik Lake: Not observed in the freshwater drainage, but common in nearby coastal waters

David Narver, Birds of the Chignik River Drainage, summers 1960-63Not observed (This is a marine species.)

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

Aniakchak National Monument and Preserve Bird List: Present

Table of Contents for the Complete List of Birds of Chignik Lake

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

Birds of Chignik Lake: Great Blue Heron – a Rare Visitor to The Lake

Great Blue Heron

A young Great Blue Heron stalks the shadow cast by a skiff in search of Chignik Lake’s char. Although this bird stands three-and-a-half feet tall or perhaps somewhat taller, it probably weighs only five pounds or so. This is quite likely the first photographic documentation of this species on the Alaska Peninsula.

“A tiger – in Africa?!” The line is a favorite line from Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life, pointing out the improbability that it is a tiger that has bitten off the leg of Eric Idle (playing army officer Perkins) while he was sleeping. Nor is the Latin for tiger Felis horribilis as is proclaimed by Graham Chapman in his role as Dr. Livingstone. The film came to mind one cold November morning when in the predawn light beginning to illuminate the beach outside our window, I suddenly noticed the unmistakable silhouette of a heron.

(All) ” A heron?! At Chignik Lake?!”

Yes, Ardea herodias paid us a visit. In fact, as of this writing, I believe the bird is still here despite snow on the ground, freezing temperature and the imminent probability of the lake freezing in the next few days. I saw our new friend briefly perched on a utility pole near the lake last night, though this morning’s frigid 12° F temperature surely gave him pause. I use the pronoun “him” advisedly. Letting aside the fact that the English language’s “it” seems unduly impersonal in talking about living beings, it is generally young males of any given bird species that are the first to push the boundaries of range maps.

Great Blue Heron catching Dolly Varden

Two char in one grab! The overall dark, non-contrasting plumage indicates an immature bird. Despite its youth, this heron was nonetheless an efficient fisherman. We watched him work the shoreline taking one Dolly Varden after another. His best success came in the shadows of beached skiffs. The wary bird has been feeding in the twilight of dawn and dusk, which makes me grateful for a camera that will handle high ISO values.

As can be seen on the map below, Great Blue Herons normally range as far north as coastal Southeast and South Central Alaska. With the population of this species growing in the lower 48 and as the climate continues to warm it will be interesting to see if herons become a more common part of the Alaska Peninsula’s avian fauna.

Great Blue Heron Range Map: with permission from The Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Birds of the World

Great Blue Heron Ardea herodias
Order: Pelecaniformes
ArdeaLatin = heron
herodiasAncient Greek erōdios = heron

Status at Chignik Lake: Rare to perhaps occasional visitor. Unconfirmed sightings have been reported by local residents of Chignik Lake as well as at Chignik Bay and, further down the Peninsula, Perryville. 

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

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

Aniakchak National Monument and Preserve Bird List: Not observed

Table of Contents for the Complete List of Birds of Chignik Lake

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


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

loon silhouette

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

loon silhouette

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)

loon silhouette

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

Next Article: Northern Harrier – Rare but There