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.

loon silhouette

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

Next Article: Greater Scaup

The Loons of Chignik Lake

Beneath calm, blue skies a group of Common Loons cruise The Lake on a morning in late summer. In addition to Commons, I frequently encountered Pacific Loons. Yellow-billed Loons showed up two of three years, and just one Red-breasted Loon, which David Narver had reported as occasional in his earlier study, made an appearance in those years. Perhaps the estuary or the headwaters at Black Lack would have been a more productive place to look for the latter two species. (Photo: August 20, 2016)

Loons of The Lake

Of all the wild creatures which still persist in the land, despite settlement and civilization, the Loon seems best to typify the untamed savagery of the wilderness.
Edward Howe Forbush, Game Birds, Wild-Fowl and Shore Birds, 1916

Often solitary, mysterious and romantically wild, it seems fitting that this project should begin with genus Gaviidae, the loons. We encountered our initial Chignik loons, a group of four Commons, in early August shortly after our arrival at The Lake. We had made our first hike to the mouth of Clarks River, three miles along quad trails that cut through willow and alder thickets and across rolling tundra, berry bogs and savannah-like meadows. Fireweed, yarrow, geranium and goldenrod were in full bloom, and electric flashes of yellow darting through brushy thickets offered tell-tale signs that warblers hadn’t yet migrated south. Along the way we took note of ripening blueberries, sampled the last of the salmonberries and measured our boots against the tracks of the Chignik’s massive Brown Bears – some of the largest in the world, we had read. Salmon parr flashed in air-clear pools at stream crossings and the prints of foxes, moose, wolves and Sandhill Cranes gave evidence that we were hardly alone in this sweeping landscape rimmed by snow-capped mountains.

Walking in the footsteps of giants. (September 24, 2017)

Two miles into the hike the trail curved down to a sandy lakeside beach. With huge paw prints coursing up and down the shoreline, the beach had the appearances of a Brown Bear superhighway. Vibrations transmitted through the sand by our own footsteps set the shoreline water into rippling motion as schools of salmon flipped their caudal fins and scurried for the safety of deeper water. Out on the lake, a pair of harbor seals popped up and gave us studied looks before slowly sinking out of sight.

This is amazing! we agreed.

Like River Otters, Red Foxes, and Black-capped Chickadees, ever-curious Harbor Seals can’t seem to help but pop up for a look when something new comes into their domain. Chignik Lake’s seals are not strictly lacustrine as tis the Lake Iliamna population. However, in nearly every month there seem to be a few around. (March 9, 2019)

And then we spotted them: loons! Swimming together as they worked along the shoreline and occasionally diving to feed, they seemed unconcerned by our presence . At the time, the notion of making a multi-year study of The Lake’s birds was only barely beginning to form in my mind, and, as luck would have it, I had not brought my camera along on the six-mile round trip hike. Too bad. August was young and the birds were still wearing their distinctive chess-board breeding plumage. Their bright red eyes caught the sunlight as we watched through binoculars.

And then an odd thing happened. The loons began swimming closer to us. And closer. It was as though they were curious. We’ve had foxes, coyotes, otters, ermine, bears, whales, porpoises, Salmon Sharks and even a wolf engage in this behavior, and anyone who has spent time around chickadees knows that they often can’t help themselves from coming in to examine whatever has come into their territory. But loons? The very symbol of wilderness mystique? This was a new one for us. Soon, we no longer needed our binoculars. Even a simple pocket camera might have recorded a decent photograph. The soft morning light was perfect. Barely a ripple creased the lake’s calm surface.

As I bemoaned the fact that I had nothing to shoot with, Barbra consoled me with words of wisdom.

Just pet the whale.

Pet the whale… Nat. Geo. photographer Joel Sartore’s advice to sometimes set the camera aside and enjoy the moment you’re in. What a moment it was. Welcome to Chignik Lake.

Fireweed gone to seed. August 19, 2016.

Previous Article: The Chigniks – Avian Diversity and Change in a Remote, Unique Environment

Coming Next: Red-throated Loon

*For a clickable list of bird species and additional information about this project, click here: Birds of Chignik Lake

Finches of the Dandelion Jungle

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

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

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

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