Birds of Chignik Lake: Sharp-shinned Hawk – Sharp Claws and a Tomial Tooth

This handsome specimen occasionally hunted the grove of White Spruce trees where a variety of feeders attracted Pine Siskins, redpolls, crossbills and other passerines. That’s snow just behind his talons. (Chignik Lake, October 23, 2017)

“Tsst! Tsst!” I slowly turned to where Barbra was positioned 40 feet from where I’d set up. A subtle motion of her head directed me up into the spruce bows were a small, beautifully marked hawk was perched. I couldn’t believe how close he was. I knew I wouldn’t have more than moments in which to make a photo before I was noticed. Luckily, Barbra’s cue had drawn the bird’s attention to her, and since she was a relatively safe distance, the hawk didn’t seem to feel overly encroached upon. I swiveled the Wimberley-mounted lens toward where Barbra’s eyes were motioning, carefully tilting it up toward the bird’s perch. For almost two minutes the hawk cooperated and I was able to make some photographs. And then it was gone. The last frame I took shows only a blur of barred tail feathers.

I’d seen it before and I saw it again, but I never had another photo op like that. Focused on a newly arrived flock of Red Crossbills, I’d have missed my chance altogether had it not been for Barbra’s keen eyes. Come to think of it, it’s likely that those very same crossbills had the Sharp-shinned’s attention, tempting it to linger longer around a couple of humans than it otherwise might have.

Hawk’s gold – part of a flock of two dozen Red Crossbills. The crossbills were there for the spruce cone seeds; the hawk was there for the crossbills. (Chignik Lake, October 23, 2017)

Sharp-shinned Hawks are rare enough on the Alaska Peninsula that it isn’t included as part of their territory on most range maps. If you encounter one out here, you’re fortunate. Seldom found far from forests, Sharp-shinneds on the largely treeless peninsula are most likely migrants, merely passing through. The two copses of White Spruce trees and the feeders, which attracted the song birds that are this species’ favorite prey, no doubt induced it to hang around.

The protrusion on the upper bill of this Sharp-shinned Hawk is called a tomial tooth. It’s a trait shared by falcons, kites, and one group of songbirds, shrikes. Not actually a tooth, of course, the protrusion and the corresponding recess in the lower beak aid these predators in breaking the spines of small birds and other prey. (Chignik Lake, October 23, 2017)

Sharp-shinned Hawk Range Map: with permission from The Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Birds of the World

Sharp-shinned Hawk Accipiter striatus
Order: Accipitriformes
Family: Accipitridae
Accipiter: from Latin accipere = to grasp
striatus: from Latin strio = engraved with lines or stripes

Status at Chignik Lake, 2016-19: Rare

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

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

Aniakchak National Monument and Preserve Bird List: Not Reported

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Previous: Northern Harrier – Rare but There

Next Article: Rough-legged Hawk – Buteo of the Far North

*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: Norther Harrier – Rare but There

Len Blumin’s beautiful capture of a beautiful bird. Northern Harrier female, Las Gallinas Ponds, California. (Photo Credit: Len Blumin , Wikipedia)

Anytime a slim, long-tailed hawk is observed hugging the terrain as it glides over grasslands, marsh and field, I instinctively think “Marsh Hawk” and go from there. This is a slender, graceful predator with a very long tail, unique even in silhouette. But it is the Harrier’s distinctive white rump that often confirms its identity.

Not much of a photo, I’ll grant that. And yet with that very long tail and white rump patch, there is no doubt that this is a Northern Harrier gliding through the Chignik River valley. (August 29, 2016)

I’ve encountered Northern Harriers (formerly Marsh Hawk) in a number of states, from Florida to Oregon and north to Arctic Alaska. Although they are widespread and might be found anywhere their preferred habitat exists, they generally aren’t abundant anywhere. On the Alaska Peninsula, they’re rare, although they are known to breed out here.

That white rump is diagnostic. Note also the almost owl-like facial disk. Like owls, Harriers rely on a keen sense off hearing to detect the small mammals, occasional birds and other animals they prey upon. (Photo Credit, Dan Pancamo, Wikipedia)

This is exactly the kind of habitat Northern Harriers prefer. I encountered this specimen near Point Hope, Alaska, an Inupiat village located 200 miles north of the Arctic Circle. This kind of terrain is a good place to make a living on voles and lemmings. (September 3, 2011)

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

Northern Harrier Circus hudsonius
Order: Accipitriformes
Family: Accipitridae
Circus: from Ancient Greek kirkos = circle (as soaring in circular patterns)
hudsonius: Latin for of the Hudson Bay

Status at Chignik Lake, 2016-19: Uncommon to rare

David Narver, Birds of the Chignik River Drainage, summers 1960-63: Rare on Black River (listed as Marsh Hawk)

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

Aniakchak National Monument and Preserve Bird List: Present

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Previous: Nature Walk & Nest Finding – an Exercise in Mindfulness

Next Article: Sharp-shinned Hawk – Sharp Talons and a Tomial Tooth

*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: Red-breasted Merganser – Not Just Flashy. Fast!

With a crest reminiscent of peacock herl and a bright red orange bill meant for the business of catching fish, Red-breasted Mergansers are both stunningly handsome and adapted for success in the Chignik Drainage. (Chignik Lake, December 31, 2016)

While there is some dispute as to the actual speed it can attain, it is said that the Red-breasted Merganser is the world’s fastest bird in level flight. That means that at speeds of somewhere in the vicinity of 80 miles per hour, while it can’t match a diving Peregrine Falcon’s break-neck 240 mph, it could outrun the predator in a flight parallel to land or water.

In winter and spring, it’s not unusual to see Red-breasted drakes associating with Common Mergansers. Note the Common’s slightly more stout bill, her light colored chest and distinctive white chin. Commons are also somewhat larger and bulkier looking than Red-breasteds. (Chignik Lake, December 2016)

As is the case with their Common cousins, Red-breasteds generally aren’t high on hunters’ lists. Mergansers are sea ducks, most of which are not esteemed as table fare. Though I must say as a fly-tier, the drake’s plumage is tempting. Fortunately there are synthetic materials that obviate the need to take one of these beautiful ducks merely for its feathers.

Mergansers are well-known for cooperative feeding strategies – behavior they learn as chicks while hunting with their mother. Although immature birds and females look a lot like immature and female Commons, note A) the very thin bill which can appear to be upturned, B) dark chest and C) absence or near absence of white on the chin. (Chignik Lake, January 14, 2018)

Unlike Common Mergansers, Red-breasteds don’t nest in cavities. They nest on the ground near water. Thus, they are known to breed on the largely treeless Alaska Peninsula.

A Red-breasted drake (forward most) mixes in with a group of Common Mergansers on a fishing expedition. Common Goldeneyes often join these groups. (Chignik Lake, March 23, 2017)

This drake, just coming up with a stickleback, was working an ice edge along with a female Common Merganser and a Common Goldeneye as another day on Chignik Lake came to a close. (December 2016)

Red-breasted Merganser Range Map: with permission from The Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Birds of the World

Red-breasted Merganser Mergus serrator
Order: Anseriformes
Family: Anatidae
Mergus: from Latin for an unspecified waterbird
serrator: Latin serra = saw

Status at Chignik Lake, 2016-19: Common

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

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

Aniakchak National Monument and Preserve Bird List: Present

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Previous: Common Merganser- She Wears the Crown

Next Article: Nature Watching & Nest Finding: an Exercise in Mindfulness

*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: Common Merganser – She Wears the Crown

Another stickleback bites the dust. Along with sculpins, the Chignik’s Three-spine and Nine-spine Sticklebacks frequently feature in the Common Merganser’s diet. (Female Common Merganser, Chignik Lake, March 14, 2017)

Often called Saw-bills for their serrated, fish-grabbing bills, Common Mergansers are one of the Chignik’s more common wintertime ducks. And happily for naturalists photographers, they’re one of the more approachable species. This is probably due to the fact that they aren’t much sought by gunners.

In typical duck fashion, the drakes are indeed strikingly handsome. Here a breeze out of the north is pushing the feathers on his crown up a bit, but they’re considerably shorter and never so dramatically displayed as the hen’s, making Common Mergansers the only species of duck in which the hen shows more of a crown than does the drake. (Chignik Lake, March 14, 2017)

The reason mergansers aren’t much hunted was nicely summed up by Edward Howe Forbush in Birds of America when he wrote: Its flesh as ordinarily cooked is so rank and strong that its flavor is not much superior to that of an old kerosene lamp-wick… As a result, their numbers are stable in North America and appear to be expanding in Europe, where they are known as the Goosander.

Dawn hadn’t yet broken over the lake’s southern mountains when I looked out my window to see a group of a dozen or so mergansers working together to herd Dolly Varden Char against the shoreline. I snuck down to the lake, positioned myself behind a spruce tree and made a few photographs. During my youth back in Pennsylvania, we’d have called a char of that size a “nice keeper.” This merganser is probably a first-year bird and could be either a male or a female. The ducks in the background are Greater Scaup with a drake Common Goldeneye (second from left) mixed in. (December 12, 2016)

Common Mergansers primarily nest in tree cavities, and as they are large ducks (a little over two feet long on average), they require large trees. This would appear to be a key limiting factor in their range and distribution, and the main reason they are not commonly found in The Chigniks during the mid-spring through summer breeding season. As such, this is a species that would benefit from the installation of nesting boxes.

Deadly efficient piscivores, mergansers disappear in an arcing dive in a flash. Once they locate a school of fish, virtually every dive is successful, leaving them plenty of time to sleep or loaf on the water surface, shoreline, rocks or ice. (Chignik Lake, January 31, 2017)

Bellies filled with fresh fish, it’s time to loaf and catch some rays. The longer the ice remains, the longer the mergansers hang around in spring. As soon as forested ponds and lakes in the interior become ice free, these mergansers will be gone. But I have to wonder if nesting boxes of the right size might induce a pair to stay at the lake. (Chignik Lake, March 23, 2017)

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

Common Merganser Mergus merganser
Order: Anseriformes
Family: Anatidae
Mergus: from Latin for an unspecified waterbird
mergansercompound word from the Latin “mergus” as per genus name + “anser” = goose

Status at Chignik Lake, 2016-19: Common from late summer through early Spring

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 and Winter; Rare in Summer; Uncommon in Fall

Aniakchak National Monument and Preserve Bird List: Present

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Previous: Bufflehead – Our Smallest Diving Duck

Next Article: Red-breasted Merganser – Not just Flashy. Fast!

*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: Bufflehead – Our Smallest Diving Duck

Seen from a distance, Buffleheads often appear black and white – like plump, buoyant miniature Panda Bears bobbing on a lake surface, Viewed more closely and in the right light, the purples and greens on heads of this species’ males are brilliant and stunning. (Chignik Lake, December 31, 2016)

Averaging only 13 to 16 inches from bill to tail, Bufflehead are small but striking. Their diminutive stature plays to their advantage when it comes to nesting. Like their cousins, the goldeneyes, Bufflehead are cavity nesters. But thanks to their small size, they can make use of the not particularly large holes made my Northern Flickers, a medium-sized member of the woodpecker family.

The Chignik River in late winter is often a good place to see various species of ducks biding their time till waters further north become ice free. Beginning at nine o’clock and proceeding clockwise: female Bufflehead; 3 Mallard drakes; Mallard hen; Ring-necked drake; Bufflehead drake; Mallard drake; Greater Scaup hen; and at seven o’clock, that’s a Ring-necked hen on the outside and a Bufflehead drake on the inside. (Chignik River, March 14, 2017)

Buffleheads’ diets shift with seasons and habitats. I’ve seen them eat sculpins in the Chignik system, but they take in all manner of aquatic invertebrates as well as some plant material. Quick and wary, they’re agile divers – a headlong leap and disappear below the surface. Relatively easily fooled by decoys and relentlessly hunted and shot in the early part of the 20th century, their numbers have never fully recovered, though they remain fairly common.

The white sides and black back are consistent, but in the right light the drake’s head lights up with various shades of purple, blue and green. (Chignik Lake, January 27, 2017)

As with most other cavity nesting birds, this species is a good candidate for the benefits of strategically placed nesting boxes. Because their breeding range is generally limited to areas where Northern Flickers live, boxes could help Buffleheads expand their range and shore up their numbers elsewhere. Boxes suitable for Buffleheads might also attract small owls, which would also be interesting.

Even at a distance, it’s easy to identify the ducks this Bald Eagle is strafing as male Buffleheads. There’s no need to worry about anyone’s safety here; unless one of the ducks is injured or sick, they’ll all easily disappear beneath the water before the eagle closes in further. (Chignik Lake, December 31, 2015.)

Bufflehead drakes in flight, Chignik River. (December 3, 2016)

This is about as close as I’ve been able to get to one of these shy little ducks. Clearly if I’m to improve my photographs of this species, I’ll need to set up a blind and put patience to practice. (Chignik River, January 17, 2017)

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

Bufflehead Bucephala albeola
Order: Anseriformes
Family: Anatidae
Bucephala:  Ancient Greek, boukephalos = bullheaded
albeola: from Latin albus = white

Status at Chignik Lake, 2016-19: Common in late Fall, Winter and early Spring

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, Fall and Winter; Absent in Summer

Aniakchak National Monument and Preserve Bird List: Present

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Previous: Barrow’s Goldeneye

Next Article: Common Merganser – She Wears the Crown

*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: Barrow’s Goldeneye – a Duck that will Nest in a Box

This fortuitous capture illustrates three key diagnostic differences distinguishing Barrow’s Goldeneye (forward) from the Common Goldeneye (back). 1) The back of the Barrow’s is distinctively more black. 2) The Barrow’s white facial marking is crescent-shaped as opposed to the Common’s rounded patch. 3) The Barrow’s crown is more flattened; the Common’s has a rounded peak. Still, the two species are similar enough that it pays to glass flocks. Females are so similar as to be difficult to distinguish. (January 14, 2019)

Barrow’s Goldeneyes visit the lake and river just frequently enough to make it worthwhile to keep a look out for them. My records indicate that we encountered at least one specimen each of the three years of this study, always a distinctively marked drake. However, one of those sightings involved a bird mixed with a flock of mergansers and (probably) female and juvenile Common Goldeneyes that was so far off I didn’t pick it out till I put the photo I’d taken on my computer.

Depending on their position, it can require a sharp eye to spot a Barrow’s among a group of Commons. Got your pick? Keep reading to see if you nailed it. (Chignik Lake, January 14, 2019)

Near Lake Myvatn in Iceland, Europe’s only population of Barrow’s Goldeneyes nests in holes and crevices in lava fields. The population of about 200 birds is enhanced with nesting boxes locals have installed on the sides of barns and other structures, showing that in many cases a lack of nesting sites limits bird populations, while adding additional sites can help a population thrive.

Nesting boxes for ducks (and other birds) needn’t be complicated. These examples are supplied with nesting material to get things started. Note the mesh screening on the door below each hole – very important. It’s there so that the tiny ducklings can use their strong little legs and feet to climb out of the box on that magical day when mom calls them to enter the world. Photo By: Master Sgt. April WickesReleased

Want to help out ducks in your area? The Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s NestWatch website has loads of information on everything from building nesting boxes to sharing the information you collect with the Lab’s scientists. Check it out!

(In the photo of the group of Common and Barrow’s Goldeneye above, did you pick the third bird from the right?)

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

Barrow’s Goldeneye Bucephala islandica
Order: Anseriformes
Family: Anatidae
Bucephala:  Ancient Greek, boukephalos = bullheaded
islandica: Latinized, of Iceland

Status at Chignik Lake, 2016-19: Uncommon on Chignik Lake and Chignik River

David Narver, Birds of the Chignik River Drainage, summers 1960-63: Only One Sighting Recorded – a Drake

Alaska Peninsula and Becharof National Wildlife Refuge Bird List, 2010Rare in All Seasons

Aniakchak National Monument and Preserve Bird List: Present

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Previous: Common Goldeneye

Next Article: Bufflehead – Our Smallest Diving 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: Common Goldeneye

Dapper drake and handsome hen, a pair of Common Goldeneyes hang out at The Lake on a calm, midwinter day. (Chignik Lake, January 2, 2017)

From fall through spring, Common Goldeneyes are indeed common throughout the Chignik River system. Although they seem to generally prefer the lake, they readily shift to the river if ice takes that option away. In either location they spend virtually all of their time on the water, loafing, sleeping or diving for small fish such as sticklebacks and sculpin.

The shimmering emerald green on the drake’s head doesn’t always show; it frequently appears black and in the right light can even look purple. But they’re called “goldeneye” for good reason. (Chignik Lake, January 2, 2017)

Hunted and cautious, these ducks cast a wary golden eye on any indication of human presence. Getting the right combination of somewhat approachable birds on a day calm enough and with enough light to photograph well at a distance is rare in the windblown Chignik drainage. Picking up the binoculars, glassing out the living room window and seeing these white-bodied ducks was a common occurrence. Being granted favorable shooting conditions was far less so.

Seen from straight on, the head shape of many diving ducks is reminiscent of an old-fashioned lightbulb held upside down. I suspect the pronounced jowls have something to do with the prodigious  jaw muscles required for pulling clams out of muck, clamping down on fish and crustaceans, and yanking up weeds. (Chignik Lake, January 2, 2017)

Those bright amber-yellow eyes aren’t the only unmistakable goldeneye characteristic. Many times, Barbra and I have been standing waist-deep in the river casting flies for salmon when our thoughts were interrupted by an approaching high-pitched whistling sound.

“Goldeneyes!”

We didn’t even have to look up, although of course we always did.

There are times when their numbers on the lake are in the dozens. Here four handsomely-marked drakes are followed by a more demurely-marked hen. Note the yellow at the tip of the hen’s bill. (December 31, 2016) 

The distinctive whistling sound goldeneyes in flight make has led to their nickname: Whistler. Clangula, their scientific specific name is misleading; they don’t seem to be nearly as vocal as other ducks. When feeding, they are quite active, paddling with purpose and diving in a sudden arch. They often join in with mergansers to cooperatively feed along a shoreline or underwater edge – birds of both species surfacing with wriggling fish.

Led by a mature female, this is very likely her brood winging and whistling down the Chignik River. (November 27, 2017)

Although goldeneyes visit The Chigniks, it is unlikely that they breed there. The reason: there aren’t any trees to speak of. Goldeneyes are among the several species of ducks that are cavity nesters, preferring holes in trees that have been hammered out by woodpeckers or that have occurred due to broken off limbs and so forth. The female chooses cavities only a few feet above the forest floor to several tens of feet high, leading to the drama of her brood being forced to literally leap into the world.

Except for a the few White Spruce trees people have planted in the Chignik villages, the area is devoid of large trees. No trees. No tree cavities. No cavity-nesting goldeneyes. With old-growth forests being relentlessly reduced to lumber throughout the boreal regions where goldeneyes breed, installing a nesting box or three (or more) would make an excellent citizen scientist project.

As is the case with other “green-head” drakes, Greater Scaup and Mallards, in certain light the head feathers of Common Goldeneyes can appear purple, as is the case with all seven birds in this photo. (Chignik River, March 12, 2017)

Drakes in Springtime. (Chignik River, May 14, 2017)

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

Common Goldeneye Bucephala clangula
Order: Anseriformes
Family: Anatidae
Bucephala:  Ancient Greek, boukephalos = bullheaded
clangula: Latin, to resound

Status at Chignik Lake, 2016-19: Common on Chignik Lake and Chignik River from late fall through Spring

David Narver, Birds of the Chignik River Drainage, summers 1960-63: Common on both lakes in Spring and Fall; rare in midsummer

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

Aniakchak National Monument and Preserve Bird List: Present

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Previous: White-winged Scoter – A Lone, Rainy Day Visitor 

Next Article: Barrow’s Goldeneye – a Duck that will Nest in a Box

*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: White-winged Scoter – A Lone, Rainy Day Visitor

In winter rain… White-winged Scoter. (Chignik Lake, January 6, 2017)

A species that only shows up once in three years at a given location would best be described as “accidental,” and so it is with the White-winged Scoter, a bird much more likely to be found in the salt chuck most of the year. There they take in the usual diving duck diet of mollusks, crustaceans and small fish. Formerly classified as conspecific with Europe’s Velvet Scoter (cool name), White-wingeds nest in boreal forests – and less frequently on tundra – from interior Alaska through western Canada.

With almost silky-black plumage, it’s easy to see why the European version (Melanitta fusca) is called Velvet Scoter. The colorful bill and Nike eye-swoosh add to the White-winged’s striking look. (Wikipedia: Len Blumin)

I’ve read elsewhere that White-wingeds can be quite difficult to get close enough to for a photograph, so I felt lucky to make good my one opportunity with a bird in flight showing his diagnostic white markings. He was probably passing from one side of the peninsula to the other on that windy, rain-soaked January day when he decided to give the lake a look.

White-winged Scoter Range Map: with permission from The Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Birds of the World

White-winged Scoter Melanitta deglandi
Order: Anseriformes
Family: Anatidae
Melanitta: from Ancient Greek: melas = black; netta = duck
deglandi: Latinization of Degland, for French ornithologist Côme Damien Degland

Status at Chignik Lake, 2016-19: Rare to Accidental on Chignik Lake

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

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

Aniakchak National Monument and Preserve Bird List: Present

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Previous: Black Scoter – Springtime Courtship on a Wilderness Lake

Next Article: Common Goldeneye

*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: Black Scoter – Springtime Courtship on a Wilderness Lake

Female (left) and male Black Scoters frequently visit Chignik Lake in springtime, usually in what appear to be mated pairs or small groups of hens and drakes. (Chignik Lake, May 3, 2018)

Formerly lumped together with coots and until fairly recently considered conspecific with European Common Scoters, not as much is known about Black Scoters as is known about most other North American Ducks. A few nests have been found – depressions the female lines with grass in treeless environments. I witnessed a pair mating on the lake, so it might be presumed that they intended to nest someplace not too distant.

After making his intentions known with displays featuring wing-flapping and rearing up with his bill pointed to the sky, Sir mounted his Good Lady. With Narver reporting the species as common on both lakes during summers, Black Scoters must surely nest in the Chignik Drainage. (May 3, 2018)

Considered “sea ducks,” nearby ocean bays are likely where Black Scoters winter. I never saw them on the lake earlier than spring. With the male’s black plumage and bright orange bill, these ducks are unlikely to be overlooked. For that matter, the female too is fairly easily distinguished by her contrasting dark brown cap and pale, almost white, face. If you can get a look at the bill, check for a distinctive hook at the tip. This may be an adaptation for digging up shellfish, the Black Scoter’s favorite food.

Female Black Scoter in flight over Chignik Lake. Note the hook at the tip of her bill. (August 16, 2018)

Another nearly diagnostic characteristic is the call the drakes produce. Gentle, high-pitched tones sung in a minor key are the norm. At other times the whistling sounds slightly reedy, though still quite pleasant. It’s a music I’ve come to associate with springtime at The Lake.

A peaceful morning on Chignik Lake (May 3, 2018)

Perhaps Chignik Lake is only a stopover for this pair as they travel up the drainage to the marshy tundra around Black Lake where the female will make her nest. Or maybe they’ve already got a nest, above the tree-line on one of the mountains overlooking the lake. The Chigniks remain a wonderfully under-explored and seldom studied corner of the world. (May 3, 2018) 

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

Black Scoter Melanitta americana
Order: Anseriformes
Family: Anatidae
Melanitta: from Ancient Greek: melas = black; netta = duck
americana: Latin, of America

Status at Chignik Lake, 2016-19: Occasional on Chignik Lake

David Narver, Birds of the Chignik River Drainage, summers 1960-63: Common on both lakes (Reported by former name, Common Scoter Oidemia nigra

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

Aniakchak National Monument and Preserve Bird List: Present

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Previous: Steller’s Eider

Next Article: White-winged Scoter – A Lone, Rainy Day 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: Steller’s Eider

Female Steller’s Eider, Chignik River. Rarely seen on the river, Steller’s Eiders inhabit The Chignik’s nearby ocean bays and estuaries. (November 16, 2016)

Straight away I could see that the small, dark duck bobbing on the Chignik on a cold, windy, misty November day was something “different.” As it was milling around at a downriver location I couldn’t get to, I snapped a couple of photographs from a distance and hoped I’d be able to figure it out when I got home and could look at my Sibley’s Field Guide and the various bird websites bookmarked on my computer.

I was not guessing eider. New to birding, the only eiders I’d ever seen were further north – rocketing splashes of color pointed out to me by local Natives as they winged by. Brilliantly marked drakes. A friend at The Lake tells me he sees King Eiders down at The Bay. If I can get my boat out to The Lake…

Steller’s Eider drakes are, to say the least, eye-catching when they’re in breeding plumage. (Wikipedia: Ron Knight from Seaford, East Sussex, United Kingdom – Steller’s Eider Polysticta stelleri)

During the breeding season, Steller’s Eiders head to Siberia and the Alaskan Arctic. The rest of the year, the Aleutians and the Alaska Peninsula are good places to find them. As is the case with Brant, Cackling Geese and Emperor Geese, Izembek National Wildlife Refuge, located at the end of the Alaska Peninsula, is a good place to find them.

Like many other diving ducks, eiders are catholic in their diets. At sea they primarily go for mollusks, worms, small fish and crustaceans. While on their tundra breeding grounds, they consume fairy shrimp, insects, grasses, sedges, and berries.

Eiders, Point Hope, Alaska. (August 30, 2012)

These Arctic ducks are especially sensitive to a changing climate. Their numbers are in decline. Probably one reason for this is that as temperatures warm, various predators – particularly those of eggs and nestlings – are able to move northward.

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

Steller’s Eider Polysticta stelleri
Order: Anseriformes
Family: Anatidae
Polysticta: from Greek: poly = many; sticte = varied or spotted
stelleri: Latinization of Steller – German zoologist/naturalist George Wilhelm Steller

Status at Chignik Lake, 2016-19: Rare Wintertime Visitor on Chignik River

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, Fall and Winter; Absent in Summer

Aniakchak National Monument and Preserve Bird List: Present

loon silhouette

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*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.