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!