The view at Hatchery Beach, a wind-swept shore on Chignik Lake where sufficient upwelling and pea-sized gravel create ideal conditions for Sockeye Salmon to spawn. The stream-fed pond behind the strip of land is a feasting area for our huge brown bears from summer through fall.
It was a perfect day for skiffin’ – full-on sunshine, light breezes and a mid-day high tide pushing far enough up the river for The Shallows to be passable. The tide meant access to the Lagoon, the saltwater estuary where Chignik River debouches into the Alaska Gulf and an opportunity to photograph Emperor Geese. So when a friend called with an invitation to go out in his 18-foot Lund, we made quick work of lunch and pulled our camera gear together. Oh, and we bundled up; highs are only reaching 40° or so (4 or 5 degrees C) and it’s always colder on the water.
The Chignik Mountains surrounding the lake were shouldered in fresh, powdery snow. Kudos to Barbra on the landscape photographs in this article. It can be tough getting good shots from a bouncing boat.
Every plane coming into the village prompts two questions: Mail? Freight? Other than this plane and one other skiff, we had the lake, the river, the lagoon and the day to ourselves.
Check out those talons… and that beak! Although we see eagles nearly every day, we always pause to admire these magnificent birds. I surprised myself a little with this shot. Even with a light breeze there was enough chop on the water to have the skiff (Chignik for what Pennsylvanians would call a boat) bouncing like crazy – a problem magnified several times over with a long wildlife lens and a teleconverter attached to my camera. Most of the time I couldn’t even find the bird in my viewfinder, and when I did I had less than a second to shoot before the boat rocked and the bird wildly bounced out of the frame. But he (or she) was patient with me and I had plenty of light to shoot fast when the chance came. They’ll be nesting soon, I imagine.
Here’s Hatchery Beach looking back toward the Clarks River watershed – a significant spawning tributary and with its nearly clear-as-air flow a magical place to fly-fish.
And a third shot moving up the lake along the Hatchery Beach shoreline. We’ve often thought that a lot of these mountains, which top out at just over 3,000 feet (1,000 meters), would make for a good climb. The main feat might be getting through the jungle-thick alders at the base.
Cute, right? There always seem to be a few Harbor Seals in Chignik Lake and, I’m told, further up in the headwaters at Black Lake.
Here in Alaska, the population of Harbor Seals in Lake Iliamna gets a fair amount of attention. Yet we’ve never read a single word about the year-round seals in the Chignik System. One year I got a photo of nine seals hauled out together on lake ice across from our house. On this day, we saw this one and another that was sunning itself on a rock. I’d love to know more about what they eat once the salmon runs are finished.
Heading back down the lake toward the lagoon we passed our village on the right. Our house is the white duplex closest to the water toward the right of the photo. The large building to the left and behind our house is the school, and just to the left of that, almost center, you can see the golden steeple on the Russian Orthodox Church. Just 30 yards from the lake, our living room/dining room windows are ideal for wildlife viewing. From these windows we’ve seen a wolf, a wolverine, a beaver, moose, ermine, voles, lemmings and a number of brown bears, otters and harbor seals. Eagles, kingfishers, several species of ducks, common loons, magpies, ravens and a number of passerines are common along with our resident Great Horned Owls. Falcons are less common but Merlins nest here, and during summer we frequently hear and occasionally see sandhill cranes.
This photo was taken at the head of the Chignik River on the return upriver to the village. I include it because it shows the copse of 20 trees we call White Spruce Grove – a small but important piece of bird habitat. This is where we see most of the black-capped chickadees, juncoes and other sparrows, redpolls, Pacific wrens, golden-crowned kinglets, pine siskins and white-winged and red crossbills we’ve written about in other articles. Thus far, we’ve documented over 70 species of birds in or near Chignik Village, a few of which had, to our knowledge, never before been reported on the Alaska Peninsula. Predators such as sharp-shinned hawks, merlins, owls and shrikes use these trees as well. Note the net, marked by a line of white floats on the water, extending from a skiff out into the river. A neighbor has been catching Sockeyes of about 22 to 23 inches, most probably a resident strain of fish that never go out to sea.
Although they occasionally visit the river during summers, and rarely are seen on the lake, we found lots and lots of harlequin ducks at the lagoon, the males (far right) already beginning to come into breeding plumage.
As with the harlequins, pelagic cormorants are uncommon visitors to the lake and river but abundant in the lagoon. And as with the photo of the eagle, some of these shots surprised me when I got them on the computer. This was a point, swing, hope and click effort with a pelagic heading in the opposite direction as our skiff cruised by.
I can count on one hand the number of times long-tailed ducks have shown up on the lake. Usually mixed in with other species, their distinctive coloration (a little like a scoop of strawberry, chocolate and vanilla Neapolitan ice cream) always makes me do a double-take. But they proved to be probably the most common bird on the estuarine lagoon on this outing, rivaled only by harlequins. The center bird is displaying his eponymous tail. Like harlequins, long-tailed ducks are fairly catholic in their dining habits and there’s simply a broader smorgasbord in the lagoon than in nearby freshwater. We foolishly left our binoculars behind, but there were a number of other species on the lagoon including what appeared to be a football-shaped phalarope so stuffed with whatever it was eating it could barely fly. From June through September the lagoon and nearby waters are a staging area for millions of returning salmon – in good years nearly two million reds (sockeyes) along with tens of thousands of silvers (coho) as well as pinks, chums and kings.
Our friend had mentioned the lagoon’s flocks of Emperor Geese and I was hopeful of getting some photos. Unfortunately, as a hunted species, they proved to be fairly wary. Here a group of 200 or so birds take flight while we’re still well off their sand spit roost. (Thanks for the hero shot, Barbra!)
At the one place where we were able to get reasonably close to a few geese, colliding current and wind caused the skiff to bounce like crazy. But these handsome birds with white heads and napes, pink bills and yellow-orange legs are emperors – the first I’d photographed and a new bird for my Chignik List.
There’s little as stirring as wildlife abundance. I estimated close to 200 geese crowded together along with a few gulls on this last significant spit before the lagoon opens into the Alaska Gulf.
And there they go. I hate spooking wildlife. Just prior to this shot, birds were still dropping in to join the roost – but often it only takes one bird with antsy wings to get the rest up and going. The day was a lot of fun though and we got a few shots. Hopefully we’ll do another episode of skiffin’ in a few weeks to inventory the bird population again!
If you enjoyed this article, try typing “birds” into the search bar near the top of the page. You can find additional reading about our tiny bush village of Chignik Lake by typing those words into the search bar as well.