Birds of Chignik Lake: Water Dancer – the Fork-tailed Storm-Petrel

Truly akin to avian ballet dancers, Fork-tailed Storm Petrels patter across the water’s surface gleaning zooplankton and small fish as well as the oil from carcasses they might encounter.

The last of the huge winds that had been buffeting the peninsula were still putting heavy chop on the river as we surveyed the pool below the boat landing. These kinds of storms, often packing winds that would make the national news if they occurred elsewhere, can occur any time of year in the Chigniks. The very place name is, in fact, Alutiiq for “big winds.” Downriver towards the islands, shrill squawks drew our attention to a flock of small, grayish birds hovering, wheeling and diving. Some of them appeared to be running across the water’s surface.

Terns? I said to Barbra. Yeah. They must be some kind of tern. 

Even as I spoke, I knew what I was saying didn’t make sense. The Chignik’s Arctic Terns had long since fledged their young and migrated out. Besides, these birds didn’t really look like terns. Not like any I’d ever seen, anyway.

They’re not terns, Barbra replied. They can’t be terns. They’re cool. Look at them dance!

In that instant, it hit me. Petrels!

I’ve gotta get home and get my camera like, right now! I exclaimed. I’ve read about these! This might be my only chance to get them on the river! We hopped on our honda and sped the three-miles home over the hilly dirt and gravel road. I gathered up my tripod and the camera with the big lens attached, hurried into a pair of waders, and made haste back to the landing.

Fortunately the birds were still there. Better yet, they took little notice of me as I scurried down the shoreline and waded out into the river toward where they were foraging. There were perhaps 20 of these small, Purple-Martin-sized seabirds. The blue-gray cast of their plumage at times made them difficult to pick out against the blue-gray sky and river. These are going to be difficult, I thought to myself.

The birds would hover, descend, and then dance across the water. It very much put in mind a production of Swan Lake. Certainly it was one of the most beautiful foraging displays I’d ever witnessed. What little light was left in the cloud-covered late afternoon sky was going fast. But I stayed with it and eventually began making some decent photographs.

fork-tailed storm petrel

The foraging birds didn’t rest for but a blink. Storm-Petrels belong to a group of pelagic seabirds called Procellariiformes – tubenoses. The hollow atop the petrel’s beak aids in expelling excess salt.

I was lucky to encounter this species on the river. David Narver reported seeing this bird on the open seas just once on the Chignik, then too after a heavy storm.

Fork-tailed Storm-Petrel Range Map: with permission from The Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Birds of the World

Fork-tailed Storm Petrel Oceanodroma furcata
Order: Procellariiformes
Oceanodroma: from ancient Greek okeanos = ocean + dromos = runner
furcata: Latin meaning forked

Status at Chignik Lake: Rare in the freshwater drainage, but probably common in or near Alaska Gulf offshore ocean waters

David Narver, Birds of the Chignik River Drainage, summers 1960-63: One observation on Chignik Lake after a severe storm

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

Aniakchak National Monument and Preserve Bird List: Presence Documented

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: Mew Gull – The Gull of The Lake

In breeding season, the Mew Gull’s eye ring becomes brilliantly erubescent. (Denali National Park, July 7, 2017)

Approximately 10,000 Mew Gulls populate Alaska during the summertime nesting season, making it one of the gulls you’re most likely to encounter – particularly if you are around a large inland lake or river. They begin showing up at Chignik Lake in mid-spring and hang around well into fall, their ongoing crying and calling a welcome sign of warmer days.

This is an act of courtship rathe than aggression. Potter Marsh, near Anchorage, is an excellent place to observe Mew Gulls nesting. Unlike our Chignik Birds, the Potter Marsh birds are habituated to humans and are reasonably tolerant of photographers. (June 24, 2017)

When it comes to gull identification – often a vexing matter – in one way Alaskans are fortunate. The gull most likely to be confused with Mews, the Ring-billed, doesn’t make it this far north. So if you see a gull that looks like a Mew – smallish, rounded white head, relatively thin bill, light gray back, dark wingtips with a splotch of white – it’s probably a Mew. When not in breeding plumage, the red orbital ring disappears. So, as with the color of the Mew’s iris (lighter in breeding birds, very dark in non-breeding birds) it can’t always be relied on as a field marker. However, there are two other characteristics worth noting. In Alaska, other than kittiwakes, as adults Mews are the only yellow-billed gull that lacks a red or black marking near the tip of the bill; (Young birds do typically have a dark bill tip.) The other feature is the adult Mew’s greenish-yellow legs. This shows up well in good light.

Behavior is often an excellent clue as to a species’ identity. Mew gulls have a penchant for perching in trees. In fact, they are the only white-headed gull to sometimes nest in trees – though in most locales they more commonly make their nests on the ground. Note the green cast to the legs of this specimen. (Denali National Park, July 7, 2017)

In past years, we haven’t been able to arrive at The Lake until August. By then, the nesting season is over. But we’ve seen enough very young Mews to conclude that they breed locally. As the fall salmon runs dissipate, most of Chignik Lake’s gulls leave. But throughout winter, from time to time a gull or two might show up . They’re opportunistic feeders – small fish, aquatic invertebrates, berries and carrion – particularly dead salmon – all figure in their diet. They can even catch insects on the wing.

Adult Mew Gull and chick, Savage River, Denali National Park. (July 7, 2017)

A first-year Mew Gull glides above the Chignik River in early winter, perhaps searching for salmon scraps. Note the dark bill tip. Even at this late date, there are still salmon in the Chignik system. (Chignik Lake, January 4, 2017)

Wingtips on Water – Chignik Lake, August 17, 2018

As is likely the case with many birders, when I first took on this project not only did I not know much about gulls, I wasn’t sure I wanted to know much about them. Blasé white and gray ice-cream cone thieves, parking lot patrollers, I just couldn’t make myself care very much about which species I was observing.

But I’ve come to care. These are beautiful birds, adapted to all kinds of environments. Far from garbage dump parasites, Mews generally avoid human traffic, preferring instead pristine lake, river, woodland and tundra environments where they assiduously rear their chicks. Chignik Lake is a more vibrant place with them.

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

Mew Gull Larus canus
Order: Charadriiformes
Family: Laridae
Larus: from Latin for (large) sea bird
canus: Latin – gray

Status at Chignik Lake, 2016-19: Common mid-Spring through fall; Uncommon in Winter

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

Alaska Peninsula and Becharof National Wildlife Refuge Bird List, 2010: Common Spring through fall; Uncommon in Winter

Aniakchak National Monument and Preserve Bird List: Present

loon silhouette

Previous: Wilson’s Snipe – Ghostly Sound of Spring

Next Article: Glaucus-winged Gull – So… What’s Up with the Red Dot?

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