Birds of Chignik Lake: Merlin – Lady of the Lake

Male Merlin, Chignik Lake. In medieval times in Europe, Merlins were knows as “Lady Hawks” as it was noble women who most often used them in falconry. They are powerful fliers and deft hunters, adapted to chase down passerines, small shorebirds and occasional quail. (August 22, 2018)

Although I’m not certain as to the precise whereabouts, somewhere along the Chignik River there is a magpie nest or similar assemblage of sticks no longer used by its original inhabitants that a pair of Merlins move into each year and make their own. Merlins like nests; they just don’t like building them.

Hunting at White Spruce Grove. (Chignik Lake, August 19, 2016)

It takes a sharp eye to spot these little falcons – they zip by in a blur. My first encounter with Chignik Lake’s Merlins came shortly after I arrived that first year and decided to take on this project. On a dewy morning in mid-August, I hiked the half-mile to the grove of White Spruce where I planned to look for birds. Along the way, I noticed a phenomenon I’d never before seen: a slug was descending from a spruce bough by means of a very fine strand of… mucous? That’s what the filament appeared to be. Our slugs are tiny (and our snails are even tinier – I’ll show you when I write up the article on Pacific Wrens), but even so, I found it surprising that whatever this slug was discharging would be strong enough to support its weight. Perhaps this behavior is old hat to macalogists, but I couldn’t find much information about it.

A new one for me – slug thread. (Chignik Lake, August 19, 2016)

I’d set up my camera tripod on the falling-in porch of a tumbling down house atop a bluff that gave me a view overlooking a patch of red-ripe currants and the river in one direction, a hillside salmonberry brake in another, and a vantage right into the tops of the trees at White Spruce Grove in another. At the time, I was shooting with a Nikon D4 and a Nikkor 200-400 lens with a 1.4 teleconverter, giving me an effective range of 550 mm – albeit with a bit of a focusing challenge.

Birds, berries, and salmon, the bluff overlooking The Bend on the Chignik River is one of my favorite places to shoot. (Chignik Lake, August 16, 2016)

That morning, I’d already documented Sandhill Cranes, Wilson’s, Yellow and Orange-crowned Warblers, Fox Sparrows, Hermit Thrushes, a Pacific Wren, Black-capped Chickadees, Glaucous-winged Gulls, Mew Gulls, Bald Eagles, magpies, Common Ravens and a Wilson’s Snipe that exploded from a tangle of Alders right in front of me and practically flew into my head. The Lake’s swallows – Violet-greens, Tree and Bank – had departed by the beginning of August. Most of the Fireweed had gone to seed, but Yarrow and Wild Geranium were still in bloom.  Out on the river, early Silvers – Coho Salmon – were announcing their arrival with leaps and resounding splashes. Further down, I could hear a kingfisher’s rattle.

At about 10 inches in length and weighing less than half a pound, these falcons are tiny dynamos. Unlike Peregrine Falcons, they don’t dive from above at their prey, but instead either chase down the passerines they feed on or attack them from below. (Chignik Lake, August 17, 2018)

Feral Currants (Chignik Lake, August 17, 2016)

By the first week in August, the salmonberry season is over and the swallows are gone. Down at The Bend, raspberries begin to ripen. Fireweed starts to go to seed as the raspberries pass their peak. Then the currants ripen – cascades of red jewels. Up at the berry bog, the blueberries are ready. The Silvers are in, but the warblers will soon be leaving and when they’re gone, so to will be the Merlins. With so many choices tugging in different directions, life at The Lake can be rather hectic.

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

Merlin Falco columbarius
Order: Falconiformes
Family: Falconidae
Falco: from Latin falcis = sickle
columbarius: from Latin columba = dove

Status at Chignik Lake, 2016-19: Regular inhabitants during summer. Absent in other Seasons

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

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

Aniakchak National Monument and Preserve Bird List: Not Reported

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Previous: Bald Eagle – the Song of Summer

Next Article: Peregrine Falcon

*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: Bald Eagle – the Song of Summer

I’ve heard it said that Bald Eagles are so common in Alaska that after awhile people stop noticing them. I am happy to report that I’ve never met a soul so calloused as to be oblivious to these regal creatures. (Chignik Lake, May 20, 2019)

Late May, sometime around six AM, sun barely peeking above the mountains rimming the lake, and I’m wide awake. With a month remaining till the summer solstice, already we’ll have 17 hours of daylight – three more hours than on this same day back in my native Pennsylvania. The calendar says it’s still spring. But up here in The Chigniks, summer has begun.

Fish Hooks

It’s not the first hints of golden-rose sunshine filtering through the blinds on our bedroom windows pulling my eyelids open, and I don’t own an alarm clock and even if I knew how to use the cell phone Barbra and I share as an alarm, I wouldn’t. There’s better music than that to wake to.

Eagle Song

Not 30 yards outside my window a mated pair of Bald Eagles have taken up a familiar perch atop a utility pole offering a sweeping view of the lake. Their piping – sonorous, joyous -, sends an electrifying rush through my entire being. I know what their song is about.

Juvenile

The salmon have returned.

Perhaps just a few this morning, the first trickle, silvery-blue backs glistening in the early light as they push along the shoreline heading up the lake to Clarks River, or further up to the Alec, or to Hatchery Beach, which is not a hatchery at all but a stretch of lake shoreline where underwater, mountain-fed springs push up through clean gravel to create perfect spawning habitat for Sockeye Salmon.

These first few fish are but the vanguard of runs that will continue into fall and that will be counted in the hundreds of thousands.

Out in the kitchen, fixing breakfast for Barbra and myself, I find that I, too, am singing. It’s been a long, wet winter. Summer is finally here. How could I not?

Fall salmon

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

Bald Eagle Haliaeetus leucocephalus
Order: Accipitriformes
Family: Accipitridae
Haliaeetus: Latin derived from Ancient Greek haliaetos = Sea Eagle
leucocephalus: Latinized from Ancient Greek leukos = white + kephalḗ = head. The “bald” in Bald Eagle stems from older English in which bald could be a referent to white. A related term, piebald, refers to a contrasting pattern of colors, often of white and black, which is also evident on the Bald Eagle.

Status at Chignik Lake, 2016-19: Common Spring, Summer and Fall; Less Common in Winter and may be Absent on drainage in coldest months, especially if water is iced over

David Narver, Birds of the Chignik River Drainage, summers 1960-63: Common along Chignik and Black Rivers; Occasional on both lakes

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: Rough-legged Hawk – Buteo of the Far North

Next Article: Merlin – Lady of the Lake

*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: Rough-legged Hawk – Buteo of the Far North

To the extent possible in this project, I’m using images captured in the study area around Chignik Lake. However, since luck conspired against me getting a usable photo of a Rough-legged Hawk in The Chigniks, I’m using photographs of Rough-leggeds I took in Mongolia. There is essentially no difference from continent to continent in the overall appearance of this circumpolar species. (Gobi Desert, Mongolia, October 2014)

This is the hawk of the north, the only species of Buteo to breed in Arctic regions. Around the village of Chignik Lake, we’ve seen both the typical light-colored form as well as an example of the dark morph – an almost uniformly chocolate brown bird when observed roosting, and in flight showing a much darker overall wing, belly and tail band. On lighter birds, when in flight look for almost light-colored wings accented with a dark fringe, dark wingtips and a distinctively dark patch at the carpal joint (wing wrist).

Although this cruising Rough-legged has a flock of Wheatears in a panic, this species has a decided preference for mice, voles and other small rodents. (Gobi Desert, Mongolia, October 2014)

A bulky shape, light, round head, heavily feathered legs and small talons are good field markers when identifying perched Rough-leggeds. In flight, look for a dark wrist patch on the underwing, dark flanks and belly, dark wingtips, and a dark tail band. These are reported to be the most nocturnal of hawk species, thus the crepuscular hours of morning and evening are a good time to watch for them. In flight, soft wing feathers make them nearly as silent as owls.

Stocky, broad wings, small talons, heavily feathered legs, dark patches at the wrist (wing bend)… Rough-legged! (Gobi Desert, Mongolia, October 2014)

It may not look like much more than a jumble of sticks, but for a number of years this nest on a bluff overlooking Chignik River was home to a pair of Rough-legged Hawks. Unfortunately, winter winds in the valley whose very name means “Big Winds” took the nest down. But in the spring of 2019 – our final spring in The Chigniks -, we saw a pair of Rough-leggeds near their old nesting site. Hopefully they’ll return. (Chignik River, August 29, 2016)

Ermine, lynx, foxes, owls, shrikes and hawks – predators move into an area for a time, do a number on whatever prey species brought them there in the first place, and then they move on. David Narver’s report of Rough-legged Hawks being “common” in the Chignik Valley likely coincided with an abundance of lemmings, voles or possibly ground squirrels and successive successful nesting seasons. We noted these prey species as relatively uncommon to rare during our three years at The Lake, as was the case with Rough-legged Hawks.

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

Rough-legged Hawk Buteo lagopus
Order: Accipitriformes
Family: Accipitridae
Buteo: from Latin for hawk (or in Europe, buzzard)
lagopus: from Ancient Greek lago = hare; and pous = foot, referent to the heavily feathered legs of this species. Note that Lagopus is the genus name for ptarmigan, which also have heavily feathered legs and feet.  

Status at Chignik Lake, 2016-19: Uncommon

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

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

Aniakchak National Monument and Preserve Bird List: Present

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Previous: Sharp-shinned Hawk – Sharp Claws and a Tomial Tooth

Next Article: Bald Eagle

*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: 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.