Birds of Chignik Lake: Long-tailed Duck – Political Correctness or Respect… when is a Name Change Merited?

No duck dives deeper (up to 200 feet) or more frequently than the Long-tailed. To catch The Chignik’s handsome, Neapolitan-ice-cream-colored drakes at their most colorful, you’ve got to get out on the lagoon in late winter when they are at their most abundant and resplendent. Later in spring and on through summer, they’ll disperse to tundra ponds where they molt into drabber plumage and lose their eponymous tails. (Chignik Lagoon, March 9, 2019)

You can find passages in older texts in which Long-tailed Ducks are identified by their former moniker, Old-squaws, an appellation assigned to these stunningly beautiful creatures for their habit of gathering in large groups where their somewhat gull-like calls and melodies fill the air almost without cessation. The name is a trifecta of insult – besmirching women, elders, and Native Americans in one fell-swoop. Come to think of it, it doesn’t do any honor to the ducks either. Several thoughts tempt my fingers to give them voice on this keyboard, but I refrain.

On patrol for mollusks and whatever else might be presented during a dive, a Long-tailed (left) ambles along with a female scaup on Chignik River. (December 30, 2016)

When, in the year 2000, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Alaska petitioned the American Ornithologists’ Union Committee on Classification and Nomenclature to change C. hyemalis’s common name, the committee balked. Categorizing empathy for those who might be offended by the term Old-squaw as “political correctness,” members of the AOU took the position that such sensibilities alone did not justify new nomenclature.

One might reasonably counter, “For goodness sake, why not?” We’re talking about language here; shouldn’t the way we speak be permitted to evolve alongside insight, understanding, and other manifestations of enlightenment?

The above Long-tailed Ducks were part of a group of 13 we came across on an Arctic tundra pond near Point Hope, Alaska. (August 25, 2013)

The objections of some AOU members notwithstanding, the pressure was on. Refuge was found by couching the long overdue change as a matter of maintaining consistency with the rest of the English-speaking world where “Long-tailed Duck” had already long been designated.

The matter of naming birds (and other beings) is interesting. Wouldn’t we all be better served by appellatives that describe a characteristic of the animal in question rather than some anthropomorphized perception of their behavior, or more arbitrary still, the surname of whomever claims first to have “discovered” it?

In any event, in the matter of C. hyemalis, Long-tailed Duck it is. Though, I’ve got to say, I can’t look at a drake in late-winter plumage and not think of that tri-colored Neapolitan ice cream, the candy-red eye a cherry on the chocolate.

From Flattop Mountain, you can take in a view of the Chignik River flowing into Chignik Lagoon. The entire drainage is rich with aquatic vegetation, mollusks and other invertebrates, and small fish, all of which represent potential meals for the area’s waterfowl. (September 21, 2018)

Long-tailed Duck Range Map: with permission from The Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Birds of the World

Long-tailed Duck: Clangula hyemalis
Order: Anseriformes
Family: Anatidae
Clangula: from the Latin clangare = to resound
hyemalis: Latin, of winter

Status at Chignik Lake, 2016-19: Common. At times abundant on Chignik Lagoon; Occasional on Chignik Lake; Summer ?

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

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

Aniakchak National Monument and Preserve Bird List: Present

loon silhouette

Previous: Canvasback – The Duke of Ducks

Next Article: Steller’s Eider

*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: Harlequin Ducks – Lords and Ladies of the Aquatic Court

A beautifully marked Harlequin Drake explodes from the waters of Chignik Lagoon. (March 8, 2019)

The nickname Rock Duck is apt for this species that favors swift-flowing, rocky rivers and ocean coasts with wave-lashed rocks. In search of insects, mollusks, crustaceans and small fish, Harlequins go where few other species will venture.  In fact, studies have shown that these birds’ roughhousing ways frequently result in broken bones.

Hen and Drake, Chignik River. (May 5, 2019)

At just 14 to 18 inches in length (34 – 46 cm), these daring ducks may be small, but they are eye-catching. And so another sobriquet, Painted Duck, suits well, particularly when considering the male’s impressively complex plumage featuring rusty red, navy blue, deep aqua and brilliant white. The female’s contrasting white face and cheek dot make her a standout even at surprising distances.

Hens are mousy gray-brown, but that dot near the back of her cheek stands out. Her white face readily distinguishes her from female Buffleheads, which also have the white cheek marking but lack the Harlequin’s white face. (Chignik Lagoon, May 5, 2019)

They’re even sometimes called the Sea Mouse for their rather unducklike high-pitched squeak – and perhaps as a nod to the hen’s mouse-brown plumage as well.

Springtime love – a pair of Harlequins cruises a secluded location on a far bank of the Chignik River. (May 5, 2019)

But it’s hard to imagine a more appropriate appellation for this colorful navigator of mad currents than Harlequin. The name comes from Arlecchino, a character introduced to a form of Italian theater, Commedia dell’arte, in the 16th century. Arlecchino became Harlequin when this type of theater appeared in England. Watching these elaborately-plumed ducks effortlessly bounce down the rock-strewn rapids of a mountain stream, no descriptor could be better than one evoking an actor clad in bright costume and described as “light-hearted, nimble and astute.”1

One Mr. Ellar in the role of Harlequin, 19th century:  Marks, J.L. Details of artist on Google Art Project 

1wikipedia.org/wiki/Harlequin

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

Harlequin Duck Histrionicus histrionicus
Order: Anseriformes
Family: Anatidae
Histrionicus: from the Latin histrio = actor
histrionicushistrio = actor

Status at Chignik Lake, 2016-19: Common. Look for Harlequin in freshwater from spring through early fall; in the lagoon and nearby ocean throughout the year

David Narver, Birds of the Chignik River Drainage, summers 1960-63: Common on all rivers & streams

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

Aniakchak National Monument and Preserve Bird List: Present

loon silhouette

Previous: Canvasback – The Duke of Ducks

Next Article: Long-tailed Duck

*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: Canvasback – the Duke of Ducks

Canvasbacks and a female Common Goldeneye shyly paddle across Chignik Lake. The first, second and fourth birds from the left are female. The third bird, with its dark head and black bill, is a male. (November 27, 2017)

Hunted ducks are wary ducks, and so it is with the few Canvasbacks that visited Chignik Lake. Generally mixed in with other species, their propensity to turn and paddle out of camera range made scaup and even goldeneyes seem tame by comparison.

That big, dark bill – adapted to pull up aquatic vegetation – helps ID Canvasbacks among other ducks. A light reddish brown head with a pale eye-stripe ID’s this particular pair as females. (Chignik Lake, January 25, 2017)

This is another species not indicated for the Alaska Peninsula on most range maps. As they appear to be pushing further north, in future years they may become more common on the Peninsula. With beds of aquatic vegetation expanding in Chignik Lagoon and throughout the drainage, habitat for Canvasbacks looks promising.

As with other genus Aythya ducks, Canvasbacks are divers. Eclectic in their diets, while they show a preference for Wild Celery (which doesn’t look at all like celery) at certain times of year, they also eat mollusks and aquatic insects. Seldom going ashore, they even sleep on the water, as the drake (the duck on the right) in this photo is getting ready to do. (Chignik Lake, November 27, 2017)

A member of the tape-grass family, Wild Celery, (Vallisneria americana) is a freshwater plant that tolerates salt well enough to thrive in estuarine environments as well. Photo by Fredlyfish4, Wikipedia.

Female Canvasback with female Greater Scaup. At an average length of 24 inches, Canvasbacks are large. The manner in which the head slopes into the bill, creating one straight line, is a reliable field marker. (Chignik Lake, January 25, 2017)

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

Canvasback Aythya valisineria
Order: Anseriformes
Family: Anatidae
Aythya: from Ancient Greek, a term used by Aristotle believed to describe a duck or seabird
valisineria:   Vallisneria americana, the wild celery which is a favorite food. Antonio Vallisneri was the seventeenth century Italian botanist who named the plant.

Status at Chignik Lake, 2016-19: Uncommon to Rare late Fall and Wintertime

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

Alaska Peninsula and Becharof National Wildlife Refuge Bird List, 2010Rare in Spring and Fall, Absent in Summer and Winter

Aniakchak National Monument and Preserve Bird List: Not Reported

loon silhouette

Previous Article: Tufted Duck – Rare Eurasian Visitor

Next Article: Harlequin Duck – Lords and Ladies of the Aquatic Court

*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: Ring-necked Duck – a Species Moving Northward?

A female Ring-necked Duck stretches her wings on Chignik Lake. (January 8, 2016)

This is a species that may well be expanding its range north. According the several range maps I consulted, including the Birds of the World map below, Ring-neckeds shouldn’t be here with any regularity. It is true that they’re fairly rare on the Alaska Peninsula, but they’re definitely here, and the appearance of pairs in resplendent plumage in late winter and early spring suggests that they’re breeding on the peninsula – or perhaps at points even further north.

The “ringed neck” of the Ring-necked is generally not visible in the field. Apparently it shows better on dead specimens, which were the referents early scientists used when naming this species. Look instead for a distinctively black-tipped bill, a tall head (often showing purple) and a neck that appears rather long compared with most other ducks. In a bit different light, the white ring at the base of this drake’s bill would show plainly, hence one of the alternate local names for this duck, “Ring-billed.” (Chignik Lake, January 7, 2016)

The overall appearance of both male and female Ring-neckeds is similar to male and female scaup. We found that it often paid to carefully glass flocks of scaup when looking for this species. Their bills give them away.

Mousy-gray winter light generally isn’t what I’m hoping for, but here it helps show the distinctive ring at the base of this drake’s bill. Note the peaked head and the scaup-like side.

Although we sometimes saw Ring-neckeds come up from a dive with a billful of aquatic vegetation, it was difficult to determine what they were eating. The weeds, certainly, but very likely whatever invertebrates and small fish that might be mixed in with those weeds as well. Opportunistic feeders, it is reported that Ring-billeds gather in the hundreds of thousands to feed on wild rice in certain Minnesota lakes.

You’ve got to tip your hat to ducks for their hardiness. From front to back: A female Ring-billed, male Ring-billed, and a male Greater Scaup dive for aquatic weeds while ice accumulates on their feathers. (Chignik Lake, January 8, 2016)

This photo offers size comparisons among various ducks: male and female Mallards, male and female Buffleheads, male and female Ring-billeds and a female scaup. (Chignik River, March 14, 2017)

This is a species to watch in terms of range. Maps may look different in the not-too-distant future as conditions on our planet continue to change.

Ring-billed Duck Range Map: with permission from The Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Birds of the World

Ring-necked Duck Aythya collaris
Order: Anseriformes
Family: Anatidae
Aythya: from Ancient Greek, a term used by Aristotle believed to describe a duck or seabird
collaris: from Latin for neck or collar

Status at Chignik Lake, 2016-19: Occasional to Regular late Fall, Wintertime and Spring Visitor, but rarely more than two at any one time. Often in flocks of Scaup.

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

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

Aniakchak National Monument and Preserve Bird List: Not Reported

loon silhouette

Previous Article: Greater Scaup

Next Article: Tufted Duck – Rare Eurasian Visitor 

*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: American Wigeon – America’s Most Vegetarian Duck

American Wigeons are a typical part of the the spring duck mix on The Chignik. This pair, along with another male, were hanging tight with a pair of Tundra Swans as they fed at an eddy favored by waterfowl. (May 4, 2019)

The first wigeons I ever encountered were of the Eurasian variety – back when I lived in Japan. On my way fishing, I’d often stop my bike on a bridge above Hiratsuka’s Hanamizu River. I wasn’t much of a birder back then, but the teal, wigeons, shovelers, mallards, pintails, egrets, and herons that gathered in the pools and riffles below the bridge fascinated me. At times, a shrike would put in an appearance as well. But sea bass, fluke and other species swimming the nearby coastal waters beckoned, and so I seldom lingered long. These days my priorities have shifted and I carry with me the small regret that I neglected to photograph the river’s kawasemi – glimmering aqua-and-orange plumaged Eurasian Kingfishers.

American Wigeon drake, Chignik River, Alaska. Wigeons are well-known food thieves, mixing in with other ducks and stealing food right from their bills. (May 4, 2019)

I don’t recall seeing American Wigeons until I lived at The Lake, but during breeding the male’s white crown-stripe framed in iridescent green makes this species unlikely to be mistaken for anything else. “Baldpate,” they are named in my copy of Birds of America1an unfortunate epithet for this handsome fellow. The same text gives an alternative common name as “American Widgeon” (with the added d) and the genus name Mareca which later became Anas and has since reverted back to Mareca, so nomenclature for this species has changed since that book’s 1917 publication.

Female wigeon, Chignik River. The most vegetarian duck, wigeons’ blue-gray bills are short compared with other ducks – an adaptation for pulling and breaking off tough vegetation. However, particularly during the breeding season, females take in more insects and other invertebrates. (May 12, 2019)

We generally encountered wigeons in pairs on the lake, on the river and on nearby ponds. As with other dabbling ducks, it is likely that breeding occurs at remote places in the drainage. It pays to listen for the male’s soft, whistling call when approaching likely habitat.

On the one hand, this drake in profile nicely shows the male wigeon’s cinnamon-brown flanks. On the other hand, he illustrates a point common to bird plumage: In this light, although photographed from several angles, his head showed none of the green wigeons in breeding plumage are known for. In different light, the shimmering green likely would have been obvious. In still different light, the stripe might take on a coppery-bronze iridescence. (May 12, 2019)

1Birds of North America, T. Gilbert Pearson, ed., Garden City Books, Garden City, New York, 1917

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

American Wigeon Mareca americana
Order: Anseriformes
Family: Anatidae
Mareca: from Brazilian-Portuguese marréco = small duck
americana: of America

Status at Chignik Lake, 2016-19: Occurs regularly in Spring

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, Summer & Fall. Absent in Winter

Aniakchak National Monument and Preserve Bird List: Presence Documented

loon silhouette

Previous Article: Northern Pintail – The Dapper Dabbler

Next Article: Green-winged Teal – Bantam-weight Duck

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

Birds of Chignik Lake: Northern Pintail – the Dapper Dabbler

With glossy hints of purple and green highlighting a chocolate-brown neck and head, male pintails are downright regal. (Chignik River, May 2, 2019)

From the first time I encountered Northern Pintails, they became my favorite among the duck tribe. Perhaps it is that their slender, elongated features somewhat resemble my own. Or maybe I’m just plain envious of the drake’s handsome jacket and eye-catching head plumage. In any regard, while there certainly are more brightly-colored birds, it is hard to argue that any are more handsome.

This female and male arrived on The Chignik in late April and hung around for a few days. They appeared intent on nesting. Alas, it seemed that daily boat traffic eventually prompted them to look elsewhere. (May 2, 2019)

The case of the mated pair of pintails in the above photo gives one pause to wonder: In addition to deforestation, draining wetlands, depleting food sources, hunting, poaching, light pollution, pollution in general, and the various hazards presented by windowed buildings,  windmills and other structures, how much negative impact does human traffic in all its forms have on bird populations? The Chignik is relatively lightly traveled, and yet the impact motorized boats have on bird populations (and most likely, on Chinook Salmon populations as well) is readily apparent. The noise and commotion interrupts feeding, mating, nesting, and brood rearing as cruising boats set nervous birds to wing. Every burst into flight constitutes wasted calories. A nest left unguarded for even moments leaves eggs and chicks vulnerable to predation. Waves created by boats contribute to the siltation of weed beds and salmon redds and might even inundate nests along shorelines or situated on small islands. It has long puzzled me that in many locales, wildlife managers seem to take little to no account of this type of traffic.

Portrait of a Lady: With scalloped patterns in shades of gray and brown, female pintails are a beautiful bird in their own right. (May 2, 2019.)

The Chignik’s pintails can be observed in more or less the same seasons as other migrant dabbling ducks – from late spring through early fall. Anytime you see ducks standing or walking along the shore in these seasons it’s worth glassing for pintails as they often come off the water to rest or to look for insects, seeds and land plants.

In profile, the drake pintail’s long, almost gun-metal blue bill only further accentuates his sharp plumage. (May 2, 2019)

Although the upper river and Black Lake are beyond the scope of this study, we’ve seen pintails at those locations. It is almost certain that they nest along the shores of those quieter waters.

The long bill and eponymous tail make pintails one of the easiest birds to identify in flight – even in silhouette at considerable distance. (Shishmaref, Alaska, May 15, 2011)

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

Northern Pintail Anas acuta
Order: Anseriformes
Family: Anatidae
Anas: Latin for duck
acuta: from Latin for “to sharpen” – a reference to the Pintail’s tail

Status at Chignik Lake, 2016-19: Common Spring and Fall migrant; Occasional on Chignik Lake. Occasional throughout the system in Summer.

David Narver, Birds of the Chignik River Drainage, summers 1960-63: Common in early and late Summer throughout the watershed; occasional in midsummer

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

Aniakchak National Monument and Preserve Bird List: Presence Documented

Previous Article: Mallard – “Wary, Wise, Handsome”

Next Article: American Wigeon – America’s Most Vegetarian Duck

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

Birds of Chignik Lake: Brant – the Goose that Was Once a Fish (sort of)

No white patch on cheek, white necklace, short bill, a constant, chatty murmur as opposed to the more distinctive honking associated with Canada and Cackling Geese… Brant!. For awhile during spring, wave upon wave of these migrants can be heard passing over The Lake. (May 5, 2018)

At The Lake, we slept with our bedroom window cracked open in all but most inclement weather. Nighttime sounds included Harbor Seals chasing down Silver Salmon, Brown Bears scavenging the beach, waves lapping the shore, hooting owls and – for a few nights in spring and fall – flocks of migrating geese.

To get a look at Chignik Lake’s migrating Brant, you need a bit of luck with timing (late April through mid May are best), clear skies or high cloud cover, and a good pair of binoculars or a long camera lens. With few exceptions, they’re up there, though David Narver reported them as “occasional” on the river. Birders seriously intent on getting a good look at this species would do well to check out Izembek National Wildlife Reserve way down at the big toe of the Alaska Peninsula. More than 90 percent of the Brant population that utilizes the Pacific flyway – along with half the world’s Emperor Geese – stop here each fall. That’s about 150,000 Brant and tens of thousands of Emperor Geese. (Note to self: go to Izembek!)

Here’s a little better look at Brant in flight. They’re fairly abundant near Point Hope, Alaska, which is situated within their breeding range. (Point Hope, Alaska, September 1, 2013)

Among Brants’ favorite forage is Eel Grass. As Chignik Lagoon continues to grow more silted-in and Eel Grass beds there expand, it will be interesting to see if in the future Brant begin to utilize this area. So why, as Brant feed extensively on Eel Grass, is their specific name “bernicla” (barnacle)? It was formerly believed that certain geese were spontaneously generated from barnacles. In fact, until fairly recently the Catholic Church permitted Catholics to eat these geese on Fridays as they counted as fish. See: Wikipedia.

The shifting forms flocks of geese glide in and out of invite a wandering imagination. With Sockeye Salmon soon to ascent the river, these Brant seem to be pointing the way. (May 3, 2018)

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

Brant Branta bernicla
Order: Anseriformes
Family: Anatidae
Branta: Latinized Old Norse Brandgás = burnt-black goose
bernicla: from the Latin for barnacle

Status at Chignik Lake, 2016-19: Spring & Fall migrant seen and heard flying in flocks

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

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

Aniakchak National Monument and Preserve Bird List: Presence Documented

Previous Article: Cackling Goose (Aleutian Form) – Picture a Canada Goose with a White Necklace

Next Article: Mallard

*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.