Birds of Chignik Lake: Water Dancer – the Fork-tailed Storm-Petrel

Truly akin to avian ballet dancers, Fork-tailed Storm Petrels patter across the water’s surface gleaning zooplankton and small fish as well as the oil from carcasses they might encounter.

The last of the huge winds that had been buffeting the peninsula were still putting heavy chop on the river as we surveyed the pool below the boat landing. These kinds of storms, often packing winds that would make the national news if they occurred elsewhere, can occur any time of year in the Chigniks. The very place name is, in fact, Alutiiq for “big winds.” Downriver towards the islands, shrill squawks drew our attention to a flock of small, grayish birds hovering, wheeling and diving. Some of them appeared to be running across the water’s surface.

Terns? I said to Barbra. Yeah. They must be some kind of tern. 

Even as I spoke, I knew what I was saying didn’t make sense. The Chignik’s Arctic Terns had long since fledged their young and migrated out. Besides, these birds didn’t really look like terns. Not like any I’d ever seen, anyway.

They’re not terns, Barbra replied. They can’t be terns. They’re cool. Look at them dance!

In that instant, it hit me. Petrels!

I’ve gotta get home and get my camera like, right now! I exclaimed. I’ve read about these! This might be my only chance to get them on the river! We hopped on our honda and sped the three-miles home over the hilly dirt and gravel road. I gathered up my tripod and the camera with the big lens attached, hurried into a pair of waders, and made haste back to the landing.

Fortunately the birds were still there. Better yet, they took little notice of me as I scurried down the shoreline and waded out into the river toward where they were foraging. There were perhaps 20 of these small, Purple-Martin-sized seabirds. The blue-gray cast of their plumage at times made them difficult to pick out against the blue-gray sky and river. These are going to be difficult, I thought to myself.

The birds would hover, descend, and then dance across the water. It very much put in mind a production of Swan Lake. Certainly it was one of the most beautiful foraging displays I’d ever witnessed. What little light was left in the cloud-covered late afternoon sky was going fast. But I stayed with it and eventually began making some decent photographs.

fork-tailed storm petrel

The foraging birds didn’t rest for but a blink. Storm-Petrels belong to a group of pelagic seabirds called Procellariiformes – tubenoses. The hollow atop the petrel’s beak aids in expelling excess salt.

I was lucky to encounter this species on the river. David Narver reported seeing this bird on the open seas just once on the Chignik, then too after a heavy storm.

Fork-tailed Storm-Petrel Range Map: with permission from The Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Birds of the World

Fork-tailed Storm Petrel Oceanodroma furcata
Order: Procellariiformes
Oceanodroma: from ancient Greek okeanos = ocean + dromos = runner
furcata: Latin meaning forked

Status at Chignik Lake: Rare in the freshwater drainage, but probably common in or near Alaska Gulf offshore ocean waters

David Narver, Birds of the Chignik River Drainage, summers 1960-63: One observation on Chignik Lake after a severe storm

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

Aniakchak National Monument and Preserve Bird List: Presence Documented

Table of Contents for the Complete List of Birds of Chignik Lake

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