Birds of Chignik: Kittlitz’s Murrelet – North America’s Rarest Seabird

This Kittlitz’s Murrelet was caught in Kachemak Bay, Alaska (near Homer). Note the very small bill compared to the similar Marbled Murrelet. (Photo U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service on Wikipedia)

Kittlitz’s Murrelets are an uncommon, poorly studied species. Only a few nests have been located. They indicate solitary pairs (as opposed to colonial nesters) choosing sites above the tree line on the southern slopes of rugged mountains. Often the nests are located on scree fields associated with past or present glacial activity. The pair lays just one egg. The Kittlitz’s’ diet is not well known, but as bill size and shape generally indicate feeding preferences, it might be surmised that they pursue somewhat different prey than the closely related Marbled Murrelet, which has a larger, slightly curved bill.

Although the specimen in the above photo doesn’t show it, in addition to a small bill Kittlitz’s Murrelets show golden-brown in their plumage during breeding season. Non-breeding birds tend toward mottled white and black much like their Marbled cousins, but in the Kittlitz’s the eye is surrounded by white whereas in the Marbled a black cap extends downward to cover the eye and the upper cheek. (See the photos in Marbled Murrelet – Seabird of Moss Nests and Old Growth Forests.)

This Kittlitz’s Murrelet shows a bit of golden-brown in its breeding plumage. Again, note the very small bill. Diving birds, they are known to prey on fish such as sand lances and herring as well as on crustaceans. (Photo U. S. Fish and Wildlife Services)

These are small birds, only about 9.5 inches from bill to tail. We will continue carefully checking the murrelets we encounter in Chignik Bay and Chignik Lagoon in hopes of getting a clear photograph. This is one of the rarest seabirds in North America. There aren’t many good photos of this species, and none at all that I could find of a Chignik bird. On the upside, our local coastal waters support abundant populations of both sand lances and herring which appear to be among the Kittlitz’s preferred dietary items, particularly during the nesting season. It is believed that about 14% of the Kittlitz’s population breeds on the Alaska Peninsula.

Due to this this species’ association with glaciers during breeding season, Kittlitz’s Murrelets appear to be particularly vulnerable to the impact of global warming trends.

Kittlitz’s Murrelet Range Map: Alaska Department of Fish and Game

Kittlitz’s Murrelet Brachyramphus brevirostris
Order: Charadriiformes
Family: Alcidae
Genus: Brachyramphus – from Ancient Greek brakhús = short + rhámphos = beak
Species: brevirostris – Latin: short-beaked

Status in Marine Waters near Chignik: Uncommon

David Narver, Birds of the Chignik River Drainage, summers 1960-63: Not observed as this is a marine species

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: Marbled Murrelet – Seabird of Moss Nests and Old-Growth Forests

Chignik Marbled Murrelet

Although rarely present in great numbers, Marbled and Kittzlet’s Murrelets can often be observed in the estuarial waters of Chignik Lagoon and along the rocky coast of Chignik Bay. (Chignik Bay, July 28, 2020)

Before I began this project, it never occurred to me that forest habitat might be critical to a seabird. Yet such is the case with the Marbled Murrelet. Although Russian explorers first identified this species in 1789, it’s nesting habits remained a mystery until 1974. Hoyt Foster, a tree-trimmer working high up on a Douglas Fir in California’s Big Basin Redwoods State Park noticed a ball of fluffy down in a mossy tree branch. He carefully wrapped the bird and took it to a biologist who identified it as a Marbled Murrelet chick.* Thus, a great mystery in avian biology was solved, and yet another very good reason was added to the growing list of reasons to preserve the remaining remnants of the West Coast’s old growth forests. Of particular importance to murrelets are those coastal forests growing within about 45 miles of rocky coastlines from northern California through southeastern Alaska.

Marbled Murrelet, Kenai Fjords, Alaska. The light-colored bill makes me think this is a recently-fledged specimen. Fully grown, this species measures just under 10 inches on average – small as seabirds go. (July 22, 2012)

In addition to moss covered tree branches, a smaller number of Marbled Murrelets lay their solitary egg amidst rocks on talus slopes and among boulders. Either way, the nests are unadorned and inconspicuous. Both parents feed the chick, generally returning in twilight or darkness to avoid leading predators to the nest. Like other diving seabirds, their diet consists of fish and other small animals they might catch in nearshore ocean waters.

Cascade Mountains, Oregon: photo by Matt Betts, April 12, 2016

When you think of nesting Marbled Murrelets, think of ancient trees, early morning fog sifting through fir and redwood limbs covered in thick moss and a small, vulnerable seabird nestled into that moss, her body warming one tiny, downy being

Marbled Murrelet Range Map

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

Marbled Murrelet Brachyramphus marmoratus
Order: Charadriiformes
Family: Alcidae
Genus: Brachyramphus – from Ancient Greek brakhús = short + rhámphos = beak
Species: marmoratus – Latin: overlain with marble

Status in Marine Waters near Chignik: Not abundant but frequently encountered in Chignik Bay and Chignik Lagoon; Infrequently encountered on Chignik Lake, particularly in Clarks River Bay

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

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

Aniakchak National Monument and Preserve Bird List: Present

*See: Frost, Garrison, A Seabird in the Big Trees, Audubon Audublog, June 3, 2013

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: Common Murre – “The Flying Penguin”

Common Murre Alaska Gulf

The barring on this murre’s flank indicates a Common Murre. Thick-billed Murres, a close relative, have unmarked flanks. Standing about 15 to 18 inches tall, these somewhat penguin-like birds are close relatives of the Great Auk, a bird that stood 30 to 33 inches tall and went extinct in the mid-1800s. (Photo Resurrection Bay, Alaska, July 2012)

I haven’t yet managed to get a good photo of Chignik Bay’s murres, though we see them from spring through fall on excursions out onto salt water. Chowiet Island, located about 68 miles from Chignik Bay, is a known breeding site for this species.

When not nesting, murres are birds of the open sea. In fact, one of the most astonishing wildlife scenes we’ve ever witnessed was on a day in late summer when we hiked out to the tip of the peninsula at Point Hope. Apparently our hike coincided with the end of the breeding season. We stood on the beach and watched in awe as thousands upon thousands of murres and other seabirds poured from nearby sea cliffs and streamed passed us toward the open sea where they would spend the coming winter months. Having brought along no cameras, we drank in the moment, doing our best to commit the image to memory.

murres and puffins, Tikigaq Point Hope

At the tip of the Point Hope Peninsula 200 miles above the Arctic Circle, a birder can stand on the pebbled shoreline of the Chukchi Sea and watch murres, puffins, loons, ducks and other seabirds fly back and forth from nesting sites to feeding grounds throughout the nearly endless Arctic day. Flying from right to left, the birds in the photo are returning to nests, as evidenced by sand lances hanging from the bill of one of the puffins and one of the murres. You can bet that the rest of the flock have stomachs and gullets crammed full for waiting mates and youngsters! (August 20, 2012)

Unfortunately, the combination of a warming earth (and warming seas), oceans filling up with plastic and overfishing are taking their toll on murres. Although they remain abundant in most regions, numbers appear to be declining almost everywhere. The concern with any species that thrives as part of a crowd is that a threshold might be crossed after which numbers plummet drastically. We’ve seen this with avian species such as Eskimo Curlews and Passenger Pigeons as well as (I suspect) populations of salmon. Some species simply do better when there are lots of them.

Teuri Island Murres Flowerbed

As recently as 1963, there were an estimated 8,000 Common Murres nesting on Teuri Island off the coast of Hokkaido, Japan. When we visited the island in 2018, there were only eight. For certain species, when numbers become too low predation overwhelms the individuals that remain. This appears to be the case with Teuri’s murres. The few remaining birds are no match for the island’s Slatey-backed Gulls and aggressive Large-billed Crows. At some point, restoration efforts become nearly futile. Teuri’s murres are celebrated in art and literature and in decorative memorials such as this skiff converted into a flower garden. 

murres on sea stack near Homer Alaska

It truly is a joy to encounter a large colony of seabirds. These murres have crowded onto a sea stack near Homer, Alaska. (July 2009)

Common Murres on Sea Cliffs Kenai Fjords Alaska

Although they remind one of penguins, murres are actually members of the auk family. Capable of diving to depths of 150 feet or slightly more, they pursue fish, squid and krill as they “fly” through the water. (Kenai Fjords, Alaska, July 2013)

I’m looking out the window at an icy Chignik Lake as I write this on a blustery day in January, but I’m anticipating a calm morning at sea this coming summer when Barbra and I might be able to get a halibut for the cooler along with some good photos of our local murres.

Range Map Common Murre

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

Common Murre Uria aalge
Order: Charadriiformes
Family: Alcidae
Genus: Uria – from Greek ouriaa for a waterbird
Species: aalge – Danish aalge from Old Norse alka = auk

Status in Marine Waters near Chignik: Common

David Narver, Birds of the Chignik River Drainage, summers 1960-63: Not observed, as this is a marine species

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

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: Bonaparte’s Gull

Chignik Bonaparte's Gull

If you encounter a “masked” or “hooded” gull in The Chigniks, it is most probably a Bonaparte’s. Note the red legs, black bill and white eye ring of a bird in breeding plumage. Non-breeding adults have paler legs and either a broken up hood or just a smudge of darkness on their heads. These small, almost tern-like gulls can be found in summertime at the braided outflow of Black River on upper Chignik Lake. (Chignik Lake, July 27, 2020)

Only the Northern European Little Gull and East Asia’s Saunders’s Gull are smaller than our Bonaparte’s. Averaging just 13.5 inches in length, they are agile, acrobatic flyers, able to stop in mid-air, sweep backwards and dip to the water to snatch small fish and other food from the water. In addition to consuming fish and an array of aquatic invertebrates, Bonaparte’s are well-known insectivores. Ever the opportunists, it is likely that they feed heavily on the Chignik’s robust midge population.

Chignik Bonaparte's gull juvenile

As is the case with many gulls, the plumage of juvenile’s differs from that of adults. These colors and markings are typical of a mid to late summer Bonaparte’s shortly after fledging. (Chignik Lake, July 27, 2020)

Although they will nest on the ground in some locales, Bonaparte’s are primarily tree nesters, a trait that makes them unique among gulls. As they prefer taiga spruce trees – which the Alaska Peninsula in the vicinity of Chignik Lake lacks – their breeding status in the Chigniks is doubtful. However, in summertime Bonaparte’s and their fledged young can be found at the head of Chignik Lake where Black River enters. There they can be found in association with Arctic Terns, Greater Yellowlegs, Semipalmated Plovers and occasionally other gulls and shorebirds.

Chignik Bonaparte's Gull first year

Bonaparte’s in their first summer typically lack the striking black hoods more mature breeding birds wear. (Chignik Lake, July 27, 2020)

So… Bonaparte’s? The bird is not named after that Bonaparte, but rather one of Napoleon’s nephews, a French ornithologist who visited America in the 1820’s.

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

Bonaparte’s Gull Chroicocephalus philadelphia
Order: Charadriiformes
Family: Laridae
Genus: Chroicocephalus – Ancient Greek khroizo = to color + kephale head
Species: philadelphia Latinized version of Philadelphia, the location where the first specimen was collected for study

Status at Chignik Lake: Common Summertime Gull on Chignik Lake near the mouth of Black River

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

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

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: Willow Ptarmigan – Once Abundant at The Lake; Now Nearly a Cryptid

Willow Ptarmigan male

Hmm… I wore white slacks something like these to my high school senior prom. I think they are better suited to this dapper male Willow Ptarmigan. While on a backcountry backpacking excursion in Denali National Park a few years ago, we had an opportunity to observe and photograph Willows in frame-filling portraits like this. The male’s “potato! potato! potato!” call woke us each morning in a breathtaking landscape we shared with carpets of wildflowers, rushing glacial rivers, Grizzlies, Dall’s Sheep, Caribou, Moose, Wolves and Wolverines. (Denali National Park, June 9, 2017)

In choosing photographs for this project, I try to use pictures taken of local birds and, to the extent possible, to use my own captures. At the same time, I strive to select at least one photo for the article that clearly depicts characteristic markings and coloration of that species. Sometimes that’s not possible. I have yet to get any photograph at all of the Gyrfalcons that occasionally cruise through our valley. Clear captures of a few other species I’ve positively ID’d have eluded me as well – Northern Harriers gliding in an unphotographable distance, a Saw-whet Owl who evaded being photographed through high winds and rainstorms and his own secretive habits during a brief visit to our village being among examples.

Willow Ptarmigan nest eggs

We startled ptarmigan from their nests several times while hiking through willow thickets in Denali. The best procedure is to give the nest a respectable berth and continue hiking, but on this occasion I took the opportunity to snap a quick photo – with a telephoto lens and not disturbing the vegetation surrounding the well-concealed eggs. The hen soon returned. Willows may lay as few as four or as many as 14 inch-and-a-half to two-inch eggs. (Denali National Park, June 7, 2017)

The Willow Ptarmigan presents a somewhat different challenge.

We’ve never seen one here at The Lake. Or anywhere near The Lake.

Nor heard one, though we are familiar with their calls.

Nor found their scat, though we know what that looks like and have searched likely places for it.

willow ptarmigan scat

Willow Ptarmigan scat… in case you were wondering… (Denali National Park, June 14, 2017)

No one else has seen a clue of this species around here in recent years either, though everyone agrees that they were once abundant. “We used to sometimes find them in the swamp (marsh) right in the center of the village,” a guy my age told me. “Yeah, they used to be everywhere,” another friend observed. “Especially around Black River and Upper Lake.”

Not anymore. Whether they were locally shot out (they are famously unwary), overcome by  disease or simply no longer find the habitat here suitable is uncertain. In recent years they have been absent, and there are enough eyes looking out for them that if any were around, it would be known.

Willow Ptarmigan unwary

They’re not guarding nests. They’re not tame. They haven’t been baited. They’re just Willow Ptarmigan being Willow Ptarmigan, and as Barbra could as easily be approaching with a 20 gauge shotgun as with a camera, they’re illustrating a susceptibility to being locally extirpated by hunters. They aren’t merely “dumb.” Ptarmigan have been known to exhibit playful behavior with each other and they’re well adapted to the harsh environments they thrive in. But perhaps they trust the camouflaging qualities of their plumage – which becomes white during wintertime – a little too much. (Point Hope, Alaska, September 2, 2013)

And then, just a few weeks ago one morning while Barbra and I were out exploring after a fresh carpet of snow had been lain down, there they were. Not the birds themselves, but tracks. Unmistakable. Miniature three-toed snowshoes gently pressed into the powdery snow. Ptarmigan. No cryptozoologist on the trail of Bigfoot could have felt their heart soar higher than did ours at the finding. We stood rock still and listened. We watched, our eyes peering as far up the trail as we could see and into every little pocket and open space along the way searching for movement, a dark eyeball, anything. We quietly followed the tracks, not even daring to whisper till they abruptly disappeared. We continued our hunt in ever broadening circles, eyes sharp for a bird we knew would be as white as the snow itself this time of year.

No birds.

Yet.

But maybe they’re coming back. Oh, happy day!*

Willow Ptarmigan hen on nest

The portent of good things to come – and a scene we’d like to find near The Lake: a Willow hen brooding her eggs. Members of the grouse family, Willows are the only grouse species in which the males regularly assist in raising the young. (Denali National Park, June 8, 2017)

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

Willow Ptarmigan Lagopus lagopus
Order: Galliformes
Lagopus: Ancient Greek Lagos = hare + pous = foot: hare foot, for its heavily feathered feet which, as with hares, allows the ptarmigan to more easily walk on snow
lagopus: as per genus definition above

Status at Chignik Lake: Now rare, but as Willow Ptarmigan are seen elsewhere on the Alaska Peninsula, could repopulate in the future

David Narver, Birds of the Chignik River Drainage, summers 1960-63: Common around Chignik Lake; Abundant around Black Lake

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

Aniakchak National Monument and Preserve Bird List: Present

*From Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Part 2. Bardolph: “Oh Happy Day! I wouldn’t even trade a knighthood for my new, good fortune.”

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: Least Sandpiper – the Tiniest Peep… And Why the Serrated Bill?

Least Sandpiper Chignik River

Although he’s got some bulk to him, at a mere five to six inches from bill tip to toenail, this ball of white and russet feathers would have to look up to make eye contact with a House Sparrow. But to the tiny crustaceans and other small invertebrates that make up most of his diet, the Least Sandpiper is undoubtedly viewed as a formidable predator. (Chignik River, July 24, 2020)

The Least is our smallest sandpiper, which makes it, I believe, our smallest shorebird. In fact, until a flock of them takes flight, they can easily be overlooked on pebbled shorelines where their size and plumage allow them to blend in almost perfectly. On the other hand, they’re numerous and widely distributed, making them one of the more frequently encountered peeps. In addition to their tiny size, look for yellowish legs. This characteristic distinguishes them from Western Sandpipers and most other similar birds which generally have dark legs. They use their long, slightly down-curved bills to probe mud, sand and silt or to glean suspended minutia from the water surface. Often found among flocks of other waders, it is reported that Least Sandpipers tend to feed a little higher up the flat or shoreline in slightly drier habitat, probably to avoid competition from larger birds. Alongside the Semipalmated Plovers and Western Sandpipers we saw them feeding among, they seemed to mix right in though, often wading up to their downy chests along the edge of the river.

It wasn’t until we returned home and uploaded the photos that the Least’s most interesting characteristic – to me – became evident.

least sandpiper serrated bill

Avian adaptations make for fascinating study in their own right. Questions beginning with “Why,” and “How” immediately pop into one’s mind when examining the unique characteristics birds have evolved to ensure success in their environments, though no degree of explanation can diminish one’s amazement at these adaptations. 

From the time when at a young age I first noticed the sharp, undulating teeth on a steak knife, serrations have fascinated me. I can’t resist running the pad of my thumb along the edge of a fossilized Megalodon tooth, and I have spent hours contemplating the fearsome saw-toothed edges of Atlantic Stingray tail spines. Although they no longer possess the dentition of the dinosaurs that preceded them, several species of birds – today’s dinos – have evolved serrated bills. Apparently Least Sandpipers are among those species. Why? 

Serrations make sense in dedicated piscivores such as Red-breasted and Common Mergansers, but how are they useful to these little peeps? The serrations don’t seem long enough to serve as filters; perhaps they aid in grasping any of the larger invertebrates that might be encountered as the birds probe beneath rocks and sift through silt.

least sandpiper feeding

This little gal or guy has some sort of tiny morsel in its bill. It can use water tension to transport small items such as this from its bill to its mouth.

The range map, below, indicates that this species might nest in the Chigniks, yet another reason to man the skiff early this coming year and resume exploring.

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

Least Sandpiper Calidris minutilla
Order: Charadriiformes
Calidrisfrom Ancient Greek kalidris or skalidris, a term Aristotle used for some gray-colored shorebirds1
minutilla: Medieval Latin minutilla = very small

Status at Chignik Lake: Common on Chignik River gravel shorelines and bars for a few weeks in summer

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

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

Aniakchak National Monument and Preserve Bird List: Present

Click here for the: 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: Western Sandpiper – Elegance in a Tiny Being

Rufous scapulars and golden-brown highlights make the Western Sandpiper among our prettiest little shorebirds. Check out the tiny spoon at the tip of this little sandpiper’s down-curved bill. Such elegant detail in a tiny being. (Chignik River, July 24, 2020)

We had irregularly been encountering flocks of anywhere from dozens to perhaps a couple hundred small shorebirds on fishing trips to Devil’s Flats. Obsessed with putting flies in front of salmon and char, I had difficulty breaking away to attempt photographs of the little peeps. But as days passed and July headed toward August, I knew I’d better get with it before the visitors migrated out.

Chignik River Western Sandpiper

I am occasionally taken aback with photographic evidence of just how modest some of my field estimations of numbers in flocks can be. I’d been saying “dozens” when we encountered these sandpipers, but there are well over 100 birds spilling out of this frame and there are still more birds in a separate flock nearby. If you’ve got a screen large enough to not result in eyestrain, it might be interesting to see how many birds you come up with in the above picture. (Photo by Barbra Donachy, Chignik River, July 24, 2020)

Yet, even equipped with the right photographic equipment and good intentions, it wasn’t until the evening of a day late in July that Barbra and I finally got our shots. The fishing had been good, but the birds had been no-shows. We’d called it a day and were heading back to the skiff when the peeps finally arrived. Suddenly 200 or so birds were winging their way up the river, heading straight for the gravel shores of the island where we’d beached Buster. We immediately dropped our fishing gear into a loose pile and began setting up to shoot as the birds lit down along the rocky shoreline.

western sandpipers chignik river

At an average length of just 6½ inches – only a quarter of an inch larger than a junco – these birds presented us with the usual challenges in photographing, wary, tiny, ever-moving wild birds. We found that by crawling slowly and keeping vegetation between ourselves and the feeding sandpipers – tufts of tall grass, burdock, willows – we could approach fairly close without disturbing them. For a short while, they scurried through the river shallows and rocks bobbing their heads and feeding frenetically. At times they appeared to be using their bills to pick something minute from the water’s surface; at other times they jabbed and probed between rocks; and at still other times they seemed to use their bills as a small plows, pushing them forward to stir up the silty bottom, chirping and cheeping with enthusiasm at the smorgasbord they were finding. For a little while, there was quite a lot of busy activity.

And then they did something that astonished us. Almost as one, the feeding stopped, the chattering quieted, and the little birds seemed to disappear. Before we knew it, most of them had nestled into comfortable places among the rocks, tucked their bills beneath a wing, and closed their eyes. I’d never considered shorebirds roosting after a meal as do other birds, but of course they must. Had we not known the birds were there, I doubt we’d have noticed them. Suddenly, the many times I’d been walking along a shoreline and was startled by a flock of peeps exploding into flight practically under my feet came into focus. Even a falcon passing overhead might miss these birds at rest. It is their movement that gives them away.

western sandpiper sleeping Chignik River

Of course, not all of the birds slept at once. Always a few remained vigilant, continuing to feed and looking about them as they did. However, we’d learned something that day, and on subsequent outings we tested ourselves by carefully looking over the ground near any actively feeding birds. At times we were able to find additional birds that were roosting, birds that in the past we would have missed.

Western Sandpipers flight Chignik River

We stayed with the shoot as long as we could, but by the end the sunlight had gone from this part of the river and a chill was seeping into the air. Who knows what prompts avian decisions? At some point the sandpipers lifted into the air and flew back downriver. I read a short essay on how it is that they manage to fly together, banking and turning in unison without colliding into each other. But I still don’t really understand it, which is well enough.

All things come to an end, and so it was with this day. Our Sockeyes for the year had already been caught, cleaned, filleted and freezer-packed, so on this day we had successfully cast to the river’s Dolly Varden Char and Pink Salmon, and whether foul-hooked or fair, a few Reds had found our flies as well. It was early still for Silvers, but we searched anyway and in so doing took note of a few King Salmon which we failed to entice. Jacob’s Ladder, Yellow Monkeyflower and River Beauty were near their peak, signs of active bears were everywhere, and on the way home I got nice photos of our fledgling Rough-legged Hawks.

The range map indicates that these sandpipers are migrants, on their way south after nesting further north. As we’ll be able to begin skiffing the river as early as we want to this coming year, an objective will be to keep a keen eye out for when these birds arrive on The Chignik.

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

Western Sandpiper Calidris mauri
Order: Charadriiformes
Calidris: from Ancient Greek kalidris or skalidris, a term Aristotle used for some gray-colored shorebirds1
mauri: for the Italian botanist Ernesto Mauri

Status at Chignik Lake: Common on Chignik River gravel shorelines and bars for a few weeks in summer

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 & Fall; Uncommon in Summer; Not reported in Winter

Aniakchak National Monument and Preserve Bird List: Present

Click here for the: Table of Contents and Complete List of Birds of Chignik Lake

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

1From the article “Calidris” in Wikipedia, which sites Jobling, James A (2010). The Helm Dictionary of Scientific Bird Names. London: Christopher Helm. p. 84. ISBN 978-1-4081-2501-4.

For a list of reference materials used in this project, see: Birds of Chignik Lake

Birds of Chignik: Black Turnstone

black turnstone Chignik Lagoon

Note the sharp, well-defined toenails on this Black Turnstone. It shares this adaptive characteristic in common with Ruddy Turnstones, enabling the two species to easily walk on the slick, seaweed covered rocks they frequent. (Chignik Lagoon, July 27, 2020)

On the same day I photographed Ruddy Turnstones at Chignik Lagoon, I encountered their somewhat chubbier cousins, Black Turnstones. When we first arrived, there appeared to be a small flock of the Blacks, but they took wing as we beached our scow. I found the lone specimen in the above photo hanging out near a pair of Wandering Tattlers.

These stout, robin-sized birds get their name from the manner in which they use their chisel-like bill to turn over kelp, stones and other debris in search of invertebrates and fish eggs. They even use their bill as a plow, moving through washed up seaweed and dining on whatever is stirred up or uncovered. Black Turnstones also use their bills to hammer at and pry open barnacles and bivalves.

Because they are Pacific Coast residents rather than the long-distance migrants their Ruddy relatives are, they can be seen throughout the year on rocky coasts from the more southerly  parts of Alaska as far south as Mexico’s Baja Peninsula.

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

Black Turnstone Arenaria melanocephala
Order: Charadriiformes
ArenariaLatin arenarius. arena = sand; inhabiting sand
melanocephala: Ancient Greek melas = black +  kephale = head; black headed

Status at Chignik Lake: Occasional as a post-breeding migrant along the shorelines of Chignik Lagoon and Chignik Bay

David Narver, Birds of the Chignik River Drainage, summers 1960-63: Occasional at Black Lake

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

Aniakchak National Monument and Preserve Bird List: Present

Click here for the: 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: 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