The Chigniks – Avian Diversity and Change in a Remote, Unique Environment

The village of Chignik Lake is situated approximately halfway down the Alaska Peninsula. The Bering Sea lies to the northwest, the Alaska Gulf to the southeast, and the Aleutian Islands to the west. The main draw for birders are seabirds, but in this ever-changing landscape, you never know what will show up. Yellow-billed Loons and Tufted Ducks are among uncommon species occasionally seen here and passerines that have strayed well beyond their normal range show up every year.

The Chigniks

By any standards, the three tiny villages that comprise The Chigniks are remote. None of these communities have more than a few miles of road, almost all of which is unpaved. Where the roads end, a vast wilderness begins. From Lake Clark, located at what might be thought of as the peninsula’s hip, all the way to the big toe of Cold Bay, the entire area is comprised of 32,922 square miles, a size just slightly larger than South Carolina. Yet it is inhabited by fewer than 2,000 full-time residents. Humans are significantly outnumbered by the region’s Brown Bears, the latter some of the world’s largest specimens. In any given season, the population of each of the Chignik’s three villages ranges from about 50 to 70 residents, a bit more during summers of strong salmon returns as commercial fishermen swell the ranks. But even within these sister villages, there is a hierarchy of remoteness.

The three Chigniks – Chignik, Chignik Lagoon and Chignik Lake are situated halfway down the Alaska Peninsula on the Alaska Gulf side. On the peninsula’s northern side is famed Bristol Bay where tens of millions of wild Sockeye salmon are commercially netted each summer, making it the world’s most productive wild salmon fishery. Black Lake is the headwater lake of the Chignik system. Twenty-five miles to the west of Chignik Lake is Mount Veniaminof, an active volcano.

The Chignik Drainage begins with the headwater streams flowing into Black Lake, a relatively shallow, weedy body of water vital both as a Sockeye Salmon nursery and for the waterfowl habitat it provides. While some of the smaller streams are fed by the water soaked tundra surrounding the lake, the larger ones, including Black Lake’s main source, The Alec River, originate in mountain glaciers. The area is geologically active, with Mount Veniaminof 25 miles to the west occasionally belching smoke and ash – activity that is occasionally audible at Chignik Lake. The upper Chignik River, sometimes referred to as Black River, drains Black Lake and flows for approximately 13 miles before emptying into Chignik Lake. From its outlet at the eastern end  of the Chignik Lake, the Chignik River flows roughly six miles east into the brackish estuary called Chignik Lagoon.

The rugged, geologically young Chignik Mountains as viewed on the flight from Perryville. The most common way to reach Chignik Lake is by small plane; the local airstrip accommodates aircraft up to the size of a de Havilland Otter, a plane with a 10-seat capacity. The other way to reach the lake is to take a fishing boat or the ferry from Homer to Chignik (The Bay) and then transfer to a skiff for the run to Chignik Lagoon and up the Chignik River. (October 20, 2016)

The village of Chignik, often called Chignik Bay but locally referred to simply as The Bay, is an important commercial fishing hub. As a port of call on the Alaska Ferry system, it is the most cosmopolitan of the three communities. The village is home to a sport fishing lodge, a small general store and a boat harbor. Occasionally birders looking to add ocean species to their life lists and biologists conducting inventories visit The Bay. Thus the avian fauna in and near Chignik Bay is fairly well documented, though digging up an accurate checklist may prove challenging.

Tucked along a strip of beach and cradled by mountains, as a regular stop on the Ferry System Chignik Bay offers wildlife watchers an opportunity to check off a variety of seabirds and ducks as well as sea otters, seals, orcas, and whales. On shore, thick stands of alders and willow tangles provide cover and nesting sites for summer migrants including thrushes, warblers, and sparrows. Indian Creek, which flows through the village, can be a good place to watch spawning salmon and to perhaps get a look at American Dippers and Belted Kingfishers. (May 6, 2018)

This is the view approaching Chignik Lagoon from the sea, looking toward the Chignik River. Chignik Bay lies a few miles around a small cape to the east. (August 14, 2018)

Chignik Lagoon is sprinkled along the shores of the estuary into which the Chignik River debouches. The tidally influenced mix of fresh and salt water is nutrient rich and a variety of species gather here to feed including Harlequins and Long-Tailed Ducks, cormorants, scoters, puffins and Marbled Murrelets. This is an important wintering area for Emperor Geese as well as a vital staging area for Pink, Sockeye, Chum, Chinook and Coho salmon preparing to ascend the Chignik River. From The Lagoon, the village of Chignik Lake is about a six mile skiff ride up the river. Along the way it’s common to see Brown Bears, Red Foxes, an occasional moose, and, less frequently, wolves, lynx, river otters, mink and possibly wolverine. Whenever salmon are in the system, Bald Eagles are abundant.

Hugging the shores of Chignik Lake just above its outlet into the Chignik River, the village of Chignik Lake (center) is comprised of a few houses and buildings and a sum total of about three miles of dirt road running from a short dirt airstrip (highlighted light blue, center-right) and terminating at a small boat landing on the river just below the bottom edge of this photo. Note the weir spanning the river, lower right. This guides migrating salmon toward an opening on the right-side bank where Alaska Department of Fish and Game personnel count them. All five species of Pacific Salmon found in North America enter the Chignik: Sockeyes, Pinks, Chum, Coho and Chinook, the numbers for all but Pinks have been depressed in recent years. A few Steelhead – the anadromous form of Rainbow Trout – also enter the Chignik. Dolly Varden char are abundant. (August 14, 2018)

Several factors contribute toward making the Chigniks in general and Chignik Lake in particular of interest to birders.

  • Varied habitat: From the headwaters to the Alaska Gulf, environmental features include marsh, bogs, tundra, kettle ponds, mountains, alder and willow thickets, grasslands, lakes, rivers, feeder streams, a few mature spruce trees, an estuary and the ocean.
  • Abundant and varied sources of food
  • The Chignik Drainage serves as a migratory passageway complete with sheltered, food-rich fallout areas.
  • Because this area is comparatively lightly studied and because the topography and therefore habitat are changing relatively rapidly, the possibility of recording a species new to the area is ever present.

Chignik Lake, August 14, 2016: Note the skiffs beached along the lakeshore. As the river is the only highway connecting Chignik Lake with other villages, eighteen foot aluminum Lund V-hauls are the region’s equivalent of economy-class pickup trucks. The relatively massive buildings in the center are the school and associated housing for teachers. Not long ago, when Sockeye runs were strong, as many as 60 students filled the classrooms. In recent years against a backdrop of declining salmon runs and a depressed economy, student enrollment has hovered around a dozen. A drop below 10 would result in a lack of funding from the state and would necessitate the school closing – a hard blow to a community already holding on by its nails. (August 14, 2016)

For a variety of reasons, I decided to confine this three-year study to a three-mile radius encompassing the village of Chignik Lake. With the threat of the school closing ever imminent, and thus Barbra’s teaching position at The Lake annually in doubt, investing in the skiff that would have been necessary to explore the upper and lower reaches of the Chignik system wasn’t practical. And in fact the reason we departed Chignik Lake at the end of three years was due to student enrollment falling below the state-mandated minimum of 10 and the school board consequently reassigning Barbra to Newhalen School further up the peninsula.

That being said, it should be noted that the entire Chignik Drainage ecosystem, from the headwaters at Black Lake to the estuary, is rapidly changing.

  • Jungle-thick alder growth is taking over much of the landscape, crowding out salmonberry brakes, swallowing tundra, and marching ever higher up mountain shoulders.
  • Winters are becoming milder. This has meant more rain, less snowfall, lighter snowpack, and possibly (this has been difficult to document with certainty), greater fluctuations in river and lake levels.
  • The lakes and river remain ice free for longer periods of time. In some recent years, neither Chignik Lake nor Chignik River have completely frozen.
  • Black Lake is showing signs of eutrophication marked by gradual shallowing, accelerated weed growth and warming.   
  • The estuary is accumulating greater loads of volcanic ash and other silt. This is spurring the growth of eel grass and other vegetation. In turn, these grass beds capture silt, thus contributing to a process of salt marsh expansion.
  • Chignik Lake and the main river also appear to be growing siltier and weedier.
  • White Spruce and other non-native evergreens which were introduced shortly after Chignik Lake became a permanent settlement in the 1950’s are now mature, providing shelter, nesting habitat and food for a variety of bird species.

A Brown Bear with a fresh salmon follows a trail up a Chignik River bank leading into a tunnel of vegetation. Every elder I’ve spoken with in the Chigniks tells the same story: the water is weedier and the trees are thicker than in the past. (September 22, 2018)

While a paucity of quality photographs or other documentation makes it impossible to quantify changes in terrestrial vegetation, there seems to be little doubt that tundra is disappearing, that alders have become dominant, and that these changes are impacting bird populations. As an example, Narver made no observation of woodpeckers during his four summers studying the drainage back in the early 1960’s and elders maintain that they are a relatively new bird to the area. Though they still aren’t abundant, in recent years virtually every resident has noticed Downy Woodpeckers in and near the village.

Thick grasses overtake this old-time wood and sod home at Chignik Bay, an area that has been inhabited for approximately 2,200 years. Stone tools found at temporary sites further up the peninsula indicate that humans have been utilizing the Alaska Peninsula’s abundance of natural resources for at least 9,000 years. (Barabara at Chignik, 1909: Alaska State Library – Historical Collections, PO Box 110571, Juneau AK 99811-0571; mailto:ASL.Historical@alaska.gov)

By contrast, Willow Ptarmigan, which Narver reported as “common” in the early ’60’s, are gone; no one saw or heard a sign of them during our three years at The Lake. While it could be that hunters have extirpated them locally, an equally likely explanation for their disappearance is that ptarmigan habitat has disappeared.

At the same time, undocumented observations and recollections can be notoriously inaccurate. Local residents misidentified Northern Shrikes as Camp Robbers (Canada Jays) and believed them to be a new species to the area. However, Narver noted shrikes in his study. During the three years of this study, they were common. It is possible that this species is intermittently present.

When the lupine bloom, the bumblebees get busy. Bombus ternarius, I think – an Orange-striped or Tri-colored Bumblebee. As is true of The Chignik’s birds and vegetation, local insect life, too, is no doubt changing. (June 19, 2019)

The wisest course regarding anecdotal accounts is to seek corroboration. However, that can often be challenging. In old photographs the landscape is generally a background blur, defying attempts to determine whether one is looking at alders, salmonberries or other vegetation. When did the lake freeze solid, on average, back in the 1960’s? Were the lake and the river always as turbid by late summer as they now are? What year were the first White Spruce trees planted? At one time, the story goes, there was a resident who knew how to catch the Chignik’s “Rainbow Trout” (most likely Steelhead), but he’s gone and the specific answers to such questions as when, where and how to go after these fish are gone with him. Among the little yellow and green birds that visit the area each summer, are there ever any Arctic Warblers in the mix? Is the absence of Ospreys due to the lack of a suitable nesting site, or are other factors at play?

These and many other questions remain open to inquiry by anyone with the curiosity and time to venture out into the Chigniks and explore. Each discovery and observation is a puzzle piece to be fitted into a larger picture in this fertile, dynamic, and rapidly changing ecosystem.

Coming Next: The Loons of Chignik Lake

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

Have you Heard a Strange Bird Sound at Night? Snipe Returning

Most of the snipe I’ve seen have afforded only fleeting glances, but this Wilson’s Snipe sat still for a few moments in Alberta during a trip up the Alaska-Canada Highway. This is the same species we have here in Alaska.

I stepped outside at about 9:30 PM last night. From the willow and alder thickets near Post Office Creek, just a few dozen yards from my home, I could hear the unmistakable sound of migrating snipe winnowing – Spring’s first returning migrants here in Chignik Lake on the Alaska Peninsula. Made with their wings, it’s such a strange sound that once you’ve heard it you’ll never forget it.

Click the Wiki Commons link below for a listen.

Gallinago_gallinago.ogg ‎(Ogg Vorbis sound file, length 7.2 s, 134 kbps)

All Quiet at The Lake

Dawn, late February, Chignik Lake, Alaska

It has been a winter unlike our previous two at Chignik Lake – quiet, even by the quiet standards we’ve become accustomed to. Pine Siskins, dozens of them, have taken over the White Spruce Grove. A raucous lot, it may be that they’ve driven off most other birds. In any event, the Dark-eyed Juncos and other sparrows of past years have been all but absent, and we’ve not seen a sign of Golden-crowned Kinglets, Redpolls or wrens. There’ve been fewer, far fewer, ducks on the lake this year as well. Perhaps this unusually warm Alaskan winter has given waterfowl other open water to choose from. And while we did spot our first ever winter-white Short-tailed Ermine as well as a pure white Collared Lemming awhile back, otherwise wildlife has been scarce, a very occasional fox, otter or seal notwithstanding.

A friend has been setting a net and catching a few Sockeyes. Mirror bright, free of sea lice and small at just 22 inches or so, they are almost undoubtedly representatives of a resident lacustrine population – kokanees that never migrate out to sea but spend their lifecycle in the lake. One such fish is on the dinner menu for this evening. I will poach it whole in a broth of clam juice, lemon and saffron. The broth in turn will serve as the base for a salmon bisque.

As quiet as it has been, Barbra and I remain as busy as ever. There are unending lists of new recipes and baking, many thousands of photographs from previous adventures to edit, Barbra’s duties as a teacher to attend to, literature to read and study and future adventures to plan for. We’re looking forward to slightly warmer weather when we can more comfortably work on our fly-casting. We’re both on pace to be in shape to run a half-marathon this summer – our first in 10 years. Meanwhile, I’ve been putting in full days and then some between putting together articles for magazines and my new interest, learning to play an acoustic steel string guitar. The quiet provides a pleasant backdrop for these activities.

Only three months till Sockeyes begin returning to the Chignik River. Biologists are forecasting a strong run. It’s raining on the Lake this morning, but there’s new snow on the mountains. A neighbor reports hearing our owls make “strange noises” lately. Spring is coming.

 

 

Migration

Migration

April 18, early morning

The big picture window with a view across the lake was open just enough when the first group came through. Honking, chattering, noisy, at first distant then growing closer and then distant again till a silence was left where they had been. When the next group came through, I scrambled from behind my desk and dashed out the door, searching the morning’s gray sky till their thin, fluid lines came into view, sentences of sorts arcing northwest toward the big bays on the other side of the peninsula – Mud, Henderson, Nelson’s Lagoon – waters far from any town or village, remote even by standards up here.

All morning it was like that, wave upon wave of Canada Geese having decided that this was the day. When Barbra and I went for an evening walk, they were still coming, clamorous, easy to identify in the good light with their clean black heads and necks and bright white chins against the blue sky.

That night I opened the bedroom window a little, lay on my back not wanting to sleep, listening as the geese continued to write their way home even in the dark.

Burn Barrel Love (Valentine’s Day)

Burn Barrel Love, Chignik Lake, Alaska

Waking to heavy snowfall a few weeks ago, we went out looking for wildlife. At the White Spruce Grove, Pine Siskins, Chickadees, Golden-crowned Sparrows and Dark-eyed Juncos were happily filling up on cone seeds and the food in our feeders. We’d heard there was a lynx in the area, and there are always foxes and wolves just beyond the village. We didn’t see much – just this pair of Ravens hanging out and enjoying a snowy moment at one of their favorite meeting places.

 

Wildlife Wednesday: Black-capped Chickadees!

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Gregarious, full of curiosity and brimming with personality, Black-capped Chickadees are often happy to take seeds right from a friendly hand. Weighing only about 10 grams (less than half an ounce) their little claws are nonetheless quite strong!

Many a hunter sitting quietly in a northern woods while waiting for a White-tailed Deer or Wild Turkey to come by has experienced a chickadee approaching ever nearer before boldly perching right on the rifle barrel – or even on the hunter’s arm or cap. Such an event feels like a stamp of imprimatur from Mother Nature herself.

Last fall, when we hung bird feeders at the White Spruce Grove a little over half-a-mile from our home and began putting out seeds for Chignik Lake’s birds, within just a few days we noticed something uncanny. As soon as we hit the trail to the feeders, chickadees would descend upon us, fluttering and chattering with a familiarity that suggested that they somehow knew us. And each day as we came within view of the spruce trees themselves, a dozen or so chickadees would erupt in excited calls, flitting down from the boughs as though to greet us. There seemed to be no doubt that these little birds recognized us, Barbra in her red hat and scarf, me in my black watch cap, both of us in camouflage jackets. That sent us to the internet to do some research.

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As it turns out, Black-capped chickadees are remarkably intelligent little beings, in possession of 13 different, complex vocalizations as well as memories that allow them to recall the precise location of food they’ve cached for up to several weeks. Regarding their vocalizations, not only do they warn each other with rapid dee-dee-dees, it has been shown that these calls vary according to the danger at hand, with their longest and most insistent alarms reserved for Pygmy Owls, a predator that poses an especial threat to chickadees.

Another, happier call among our local chickadees (it seemed to us) appeared to go something like, “Here come Jack and Barbra with more seeds!” While the various sparrows hung back demurely, deep in the cover of the spruce trees, the chickadees would land on our camera lens and flap around our heads.

“I once had a sparrow alight upon my shoulder for a moment, while I was hoeing in a village garden, and I felt that I was more distinguished by that circumstance than I should have been by any epaulet I could have worn.”
Henry David Thoreau in Walden

We wondered if we could get these bold, inquisitive birds to take seeds from our hands – and whether or not it would be ethical to do so.

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One of the advantages of feeding birds is that it provides opportunities to closely study individuals. Early last fall, we noticed that this chubby-looking fellow had broken off the tip of his upper beak. We wondered if this would adversely affect his ability to make it through the winter. Happily, it hasn’t. We still see him, and he still looks like he’s not missing any meals.

There’s no doubt that some wild animals should not be fed. Most North Americans are familiar with the cautionary proverb, A fed bear is a dead bear. That’s because bears that learn to associate humans with food become dangerous, destructive nuisances. But chickadees? After doing our due diligence in research and considering the welfare of the birds from a variety of perspectives, we felt comfortable taking our bird feeding to the next level.

Getting the birds to come to our hands proved to be fairly easy. One morning, we temporarily took down their favorite feeder, stood near the tree with outstretched arms and seeds in our hands… and waited. After a number of feints and false starts, one particularly brave bird took the plunge and was rewarded with a nice, fat sunflower seed. After that, it was one bird after another.

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For the next few days, hand feeding our feathered friends was the highlight of the day. During those few days, we learned quite a lot. In addition to their many and varied vocalizations, Black-capped Chickadees establish pecking order by silent bill-gaping – an aggressive, open-mouthed gesture that is enough to cow a rival bird into waiting its turn or leaving the immediate feeding area altogether. There also seemed to be quite a range of distinctive personalities, with some birds readily and repeatedly feeding from our hands – and remaining long enough to carefully sort through the offerings for the choicest seeds -, while other birds hung back or landed only briefly.

The National Audubon Society encourages people to feed wild birds. Habitat is shrinking, and with that loss food sources can be scarce. Place your feeders in areas where birds have easy, quick access to the safety of shrubbery and trees, keep cats indoors, and to prevent the spread of disease among birds, occasionally clean the feeders. Once you start, keep the feeders full so that birds that have come to expect a food source aren’t suddenly left high and dry during inclement weather. But be warned: you might discover that the view out your window becomes more interesting than whatever’s on TV!