Chignik Lake in 29 Photos: Triplets

Chignik Lake Brown Bear Cubs

The hundreds of thousands of salmon ascending the Chignik River each year nourish everything from bears to birds to berries. Each gleaming Pink, Red, Silver, Chum and King returning to its natal spawning grounds might be thought of as a nutritional brick – keystones to the fecundity and biodiversity of the Chignik drainage. All of us can support healthy salmon ecosystems – and the bears, eagles, orcas and other wildlife that depend on wild salmon – by making a commitment to not consume farmed salmon and to instead purchase wild-caught salmon. While it is true that wild-caught salmon generally costs more than farmed salmon, by purchasing wild fish value is accorded to the clean, free-flowing rivers they need in order to thrive. Think of the extra money spent as a contribution to these triplets and similar wildlife. And remember: If it doesn’t say “wild” on the market label or restaurant menu, the salmon is farmed. Almost all Atlantic Salmon in the marketplace – certainly all that is sold in the U. S. – is farmed.

The living room, dining room and bedroom windows of our home sit just 30 yards from a sandy beach on Chignik Lake. From June through September, Brown Bear sightings are virtually daily events. Even on the few days when we don’t actually see any Brownies on this bear thoroughfare, we find evidence of them in the form of freshly cast footprints. With so many bears in such close proximity to our house, Barbra and I can often get good photographic captures from our windows – safe for us and safe for the bears. Such was the case on June 22, 2020 when we noticed a familiar sow with her triplets on the beach. (Nikon D850, 600mm f/4, 1/250 at f/6.3, ISO 500)

Birds of Chignik: Kittlitz’s Murrelet – North America’s Rarest Seabird

This Kittlitz’s Murrelet was caught in Kachemak Bay, Alaska (near Homer). Note the very small bill compared to the similar Marbled Murrelet. (Photo U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service on Wikipedia)

Kittlitz’s Murrelets are an uncommon, poorly studied species. Only a few nests have been located. They indicate solitary pairs (as opposed to colonial nesters) choosing sites above the tree line on the southern slopes of rugged mountains. Often the nests are located on scree fields associated with past or present glacial activity. The pair lays just one egg. The Kittlitz’s’ diet is not well known, but as bill size and shape generally indicate feeding preferences, it might be surmised that they pursue somewhat different prey than the closely related Marbled Murrelet, which has a larger, slightly curved bill.

Although the specimen in the above photo doesn’t show it, in addition to a small bill Kittlitz’s Murrelets show golden-brown in their plumage during breeding season. Non-breeding birds tend toward mottled white and black much like their Marbled cousins, but in the Kittlitz’s the eye is surrounded by white whereas in the Marbled a black cap extends downward to cover the eye and the upper cheek. (See the photos in Marbled Murrelet – Seabird of Moss Nests and Old Growth Forests.)

This Kittlitz’s Murrelet shows a bit of golden-brown in its breeding plumage. Again, note the very small bill. Diving birds, they are known to prey on fish such as sand lances and herring as well as on crustaceans. (Photo U. S. Fish and Wildlife Services)

These are small birds, only about 9.5 inches from bill to tail. We will continue carefully checking the murrelets we encounter in Chignik Bay and Chignik Lagoon in hopes of getting a clear photograph. This is one of the rarest seabirds in North America. There aren’t many good photos of this species, and none at all that I could find of a Chignik bird. On the upside, our local coastal waters support abundant populations of both sand lances and herring which appear to be among the Kittlitz’s preferred dietary items, particularly during the nesting season. It is believed that about 14% of the Kittlitz’s population breeds on the Alaska Peninsula.

Due to this this species’ association with glaciers during breeding season, Kittlitz’s Murrelets appear to be particularly vulnerable to the impact of global warming trends.

Kittlitz’s Murrelet Range Map: Alaska Department of Fish and Game

Kittlitz’s Murrelet Brachyramphus brevirostris
Order: Charadriiformes
Family: Alcidae
Genus: Brachyramphus – from Ancient Greek brakhús = short + rhámphos = beak
Species: brevirostris – Latin: short-beaked

Status in Marine Waters near Chignik: Uncommon

David Narver, Birds of the Chignik River Drainage, summers 1960-63: Not observed as this is a marine species

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

Aniakchak National Monument and Preserve Bird List: Present

Table of Contents and Complete List of Birds of Chignik Lake

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

For a list of reference materials used in this project, see: Birds of Chignik Lake

Birds of Chignik: Common Murre – “The Flying Penguin”

Common Murre Alaska Gulf

The barring on this murre’s flank indicates a Common Murre. Thick-billed Murres, a close relative, have unmarked flanks. Standing about 15 to 18 inches tall, these somewhat penguin-like birds are close relatives of the Great Auk, a bird that stood 30 to 33 inches tall and went extinct in the mid-1800s. (Photo Resurrection Bay, Alaska, July 2012)

I haven’t yet managed to get a good photo of Chignik Bay’s murres, though we see them from spring through fall on excursions out onto salt water. Chowiet Island, located about 68 miles from Chignik Bay, is a known breeding site for this species.

When not nesting, murres are birds of the open sea. In fact, one of the most astonishing wildlife scenes we’ve ever witnessed was on a day in late summer when we hiked out to the tip of the peninsula at Point Hope. Apparently our hike coincided with the end of the breeding season. We stood on the beach and watched in awe as thousands upon thousands of murres and other seabirds poured from nearby sea cliffs and streamed passed us toward the open sea where they would spend the coming winter months. Having brought along no cameras, we drank in the moment, doing our best to commit the image to memory.

murres and puffins, Tikigaq Point Hope

At the tip of the Point Hope Peninsula 200 miles above the Arctic Circle, a birder can stand on the pebbled shoreline of the Chukchi Sea and watch murres, puffins, loons, ducks and other seabirds fly back and forth from nesting sites to feeding grounds throughout the nearly endless Arctic day. Flying from right to left, the birds in the photo are returning to nests, as evidenced by sand lances hanging from the bill of one of the puffins and one of the murres. You can bet that the rest of the flock have stomachs and gullets crammed full for waiting mates and youngsters! (August 20, 2012)

Unfortunately, the combination of a warming earth (and warming seas), oceans filling up with plastic and overfishing are taking their toll on murres. Although they remain abundant in most regions, numbers appear to be declining almost everywhere. The concern with any species that thrives as part of a crowd is that a threshold might be crossed after which numbers plummet drastically. We’ve seen this with avian species such as Eskimo Curlews and Passenger Pigeons as well as (I suspect) populations of salmon. Some species simply do better when there are lots of them.

Teuri Island Murres Flowerbed

As recently as 1963, there were an estimated 8,000 Common Murres nesting on Teuri Island off the coast of Hokkaido, Japan. When we visited the island in 2018, there were only eight. For certain species, when numbers become too low predation overwhelms the individuals that remain. This appears to be the case with Teuri’s murres. The few remaining birds are no match for the island’s Slatey-backed Gulls and aggressive Large-billed Crows. At some point, restoration efforts become nearly futile. Teuri’s murres are celebrated in art and literature and in decorative memorials such as this skiff converted into a flower garden. 

murres on sea stack near Homer Alaska

It truly is a joy to encounter a large colony of seabirds. These murres have crowded onto a sea stack near Homer, Alaska. (July 2009)

Common Murres on Sea Cliffs Kenai Fjords Alaska

Although they remind one of penguins, murres are actually members of the auk family. Capable of diving to depths of 150 feet or slightly more, they pursue fish, squid and krill as they “fly” through the water. (Kenai Fjords, Alaska, July 2013)

I’m looking out the window at an icy Chignik Lake as I write this on a blustery day in January, but I’m anticipating a calm morning at sea this coming summer when Barbra and I might be able to get a halibut for the cooler along with some good photos of our local murres.

Range Map Common Murre

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

Common Murre Uria aalge
Order: Charadriiformes
Family: Alcidae
Genus: Uria – from Greek ouriaa for a waterbird
Species: aalge – Danish aalge from Old Norse alka = auk

Status in Marine Waters near Chignik: Common

David Narver, Birds of the Chignik River Drainage, summers 1960-63: Not observed, as this is a marine species

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

Aniakchak National Monument and Preserve Bird List: Present

Table of Contents and Complete List of Birds of Chignik Lake

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

For a list of reference materials used in this project, see: Birds of Chignik Lake

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

Previous: Long-tailed Duck – Political Correctness or Respect… When is a Name Change Merited? 

Next Article: Black Scoter – Springtime Courtship on a Wilderness 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: Ring-necked Duck – a Species Moving Northward?

A female Ring-necked Duck stretches her wings on Chignik Lake. (January 8, 2016)

This is a species that may well be expanding its range north. According the several range maps I consulted, including the Birds of the World map below, Ring-neckeds shouldn’t be here with any regularity. It is true that they’re fairly rare on the Alaska Peninsula, but they’re definitely here, and the appearance of pairs in resplendent plumage in late winter and early spring suggests that they’re breeding on the peninsula – or perhaps at points even further north.

The “ringed neck” of the Ring-necked is generally not visible in the field. Apparently it shows better on dead specimens, which were the referents early scientists used when naming this species. Look instead for a distinctively black-tipped bill, a tall head (often showing purple) and a neck that appears rather long compared with most other ducks. In a bit different light, the white ring at the base of this drake’s bill would show plainly, hence one of the alternate local names for this duck, “Ring-billed.” (Chignik Lake, January 7, 2016)

The overall appearance of both male and female Ring-neckeds is similar to male and female scaup. We found that it often paid to carefully glass flocks of scaup when looking for this species. Their bills give them away.

Mousy-gray winter light generally isn’t what I’m hoping for, but here it helps show the distinctive ring at the base of this drake’s bill. Note the peaked head and the scaup-like side.

Although we sometimes saw Ring-neckeds come up from a dive with a billful of aquatic vegetation, it was difficult to determine what they were eating. The weeds, certainly, but very likely whatever invertebrates and small fish that might be mixed in with those weeds as well. Opportunistic feeders, it is reported that Ring-billeds gather in the hundreds of thousands to feed on wild rice in certain Minnesota lakes.

You’ve got to tip your hat to ducks for their hardiness. From front to back: A female Ring-billed, male Ring-billed, and a male Greater Scaup dive for aquatic weeds while ice accumulates on their feathers. (Chignik Lake, January 8, 2016)

This photo offers size comparisons among various ducks: male and female Mallards, male and female Buffleheads, male and female Ring-billeds and a female scaup. (Chignik River, March 14, 2017)

This is a species to watch in terms of range. Maps may look different in the not-too-distant future as conditions on our planet continue to change.

Ring-billed Duck Range Map: with permission from The Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Birds of the World

Ring-necked Duck Aythya collaris
Order: Anseriformes
Family: Anatidae
Aythya: from Ancient Greek, a term used by Aristotle believed to describe a duck or seabird
collaris: from Latin for neck or collar

Status at Chignik Lake, 2016-19: Occasional to Regular late Fall, Wintertime and Spring Visitor, but rarely more than two at any one time. Often in flocks of Scaup.

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, Summer and Fall; Absent in Winter

Aniakchak National Monument and Preserve Bird List: Not Reported

loon silhouette

Previous Article: Greater Scaup

Next Article: Tufted Duck – Rare Eurasian 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.

Morning Nature Walk, the Chigniks, Alaska: Landscapes, New Birds & the Season’s First Bear Photos

A Sandhill Crane fluffs his feathers on a patch of tundra and scrub a short hike from Chignik Lake. The photos accompanying this article were all taken on May 23, 2019 within 2½ miles of this village of about 50 residents.

We got an early start and this chubby fellow or gal appears to be barely awake. Wonderful singers, Sooty Fox Sparrows might be the most abundant bird in and around the village right now. Their only rival in that regard are Wilson’s Warblers.

While I focused on a warbler singing near the creek, Barbra turned around and got this elegant frame looking back at one of the village’s abandoned houses and the wooden jungle gym at the old playground.

The weather doesn’t always cooperate. All last night it rained hard and blew a gale, the winds whistling around our snug little home on The Lake. I listened and listened for the little Saw Whet Owl that has been coming around to wake me the past few nights. I could hear waves slapping the sandy beach, the wind… but no owl. There’s light in the sky over the mountains across the lake to the east as I begin this piece of writing in the pre-dawn. Maybe it’ll clear up. After a winter of day after day of spot-on weather forecasts, Spring has returned such prognostication to its usual hit and miss spin of the roulette wheel. It’s supposed to be raining right now, but the sky is clearing. If it does I’ll go out and look for birds. With just four weeks remaining in our life at The Lake, we’re making every day count.

It’s spring and everyone is singing. One of the morning’s objectives was to photograph the Hermit Thrushes that came in with Wilson’s Warblers about a week ago. I’m still looking for a great shot, one with catchlight in the subject’s eye and the bird near enough to crop in portrait close, but this is a start.

Two days ago we woke to a sky that was broken but clearing. The faintest of breezes barely rippled the lake’s surface. We hurried through breakfast, got our camera gear in order, packed a small bag of trail mix and a water bottle, grabbed our binoculars and headed out. Bird song was everywhere and our recently-arrived Tree and Violet-green Swallows had already taken command of the skies. Three elements make for a good birding walk: little or no wind, nice light and birds. We had all three.

We weren’t sure if these Black-capped Chickadees were gleaning insects or gathering nesting material from the last of the catkins in this willow. Either way they didn’t sit still for a moment.

Before we even came to the edge of the village, about a quarter mile walk from our door, we identified 10 species of birds. (There’s a list of what we encountered at the end of this article.) With copses of White Spruce, thickets of alder and willow, salmonberry brakes, open patches of grasses and flowers, rolling terrain, a creek filled with small char and salmon parr and a large lake and river where midges and other insects are constantly hatching, the local landscape features diverse habitat and varied food sources. The dozens of nesting boxes established throughout the village further add to Chignik Lake as a bird paradise.

He’s up there! A tiny speck at the top of the tree on the right, you’d think this Wilson’s Warbler would feel safe from the gentle photographer far below. But I know from experience that as I’m not shooting from a blind, I’m already pushing the bird’s comfort zone. A step or two closer and he’ll disappear. 

Thus far in my ongoing project to document birds within a three-mile radius of The Lake, I’ve identified 76 species, the recent appearance of the Saw Whet Owl being the 76th. Because until recently Barbra’s school district didn’t allow teachers to remain in the district’s housing beyond the school year, this is the first summer we’ve been able to stay for summertime birding. Already this has allowed us to more thoroughly document the two species of swallows that visit The Lake each year, and we’re told that a short way down the river is a colony of Bank Swallows as well. We’re keenly interested to see what else might turn up over the next four weeks.

And there he is, all 4¾ inches of male Wilson’s Warbler, dapper in his jaunty black cap, king of his world overlooking Post Office Creek. In previous years we’ve had quite a few Yellow Warblers and a very few Orange-crowned Warblers as well, but no sign of either of those yet. 

Wilson’s Snipe nest right here in the village. Their vocalizations and winnowing can be heard throughout the day, but I can count on three fingers the times I’ve been close enough to a sitting snipe to get a decent photograph; I’m still looking for my first Chignik Lake shots.

At times, Golden-crowned Sparrows can be cooperative subjects. We have one that visits the lawn just outside our door multiple times a day and no longer pays much attention to our comings and goings. But the bird in this photo is less accustomed to human traffic and chose to eye us warily from inside a thicket of branches while I composed this shot. 

A lightly-traveled ATV trail begins at the Northwest edge of the village and winds its way over varied terrain through patches of crowberry and cranberry, stands of fireweed, willow and alder thickets, bog and tundra all the way to the mouth of Clarks River. We’ve hiked this path often, seldom encountering anyone along the way. Muddy places along the trail often have imprinted evidence of foxes, wolves, bears and moose. We pause often to listen and to look and even to use our noses.

It is a landscape that invites a hike, and on a day like this… who can say “No?”

Every hike is different. The landscape changes from day to day, and with the shifting play of light sometimes the changes are from moment to moment. In the depths of winter, it is possible to hike this trail and encounter nothing save for perhaps a handful of chickadees – a species we’ve come to greatly admire for their intelligence and tenacity. The Native American wisdom that “Every animal knows more than you know,” sinks home when you’re out on a cold, blustery day and these little guys are going about their business, thriving. On this morning we took note of the receding snow line, budding alders, willows leafing out and new flowers, fresh shoots of all kinds of plants popping up everywhere – geranium, yarrow, fireweed, lupine, iris, cow parsnip, star gentian… Each of these plants is like a calendar of the summer, marking the days in different stages of growth.

Is there any plant more graceful than a springtime fern unfurling?

The more you walk, the more you learn, until eventually the generalized mix of bird song is differentiated into individual voices – the chattering of a certain type of warbler, the melancholy Here I am… of a sparrow. What was once a wash of varicolored green becomes an intricate web of individual plants, each kind with its own name, lifecycle and place in this complex ecosystem. Over time you come to know where the owls roost, how to find the nests of ground-nesting sparrows, what kind of tracks have been left in the sand and perhaps how long ago they were placed there. A bird lets you have a glimpse of its form as it flits across the path and where many miles of walking ago you might have thought to yourself “a bird,” you now know precisely what kind of bird and where it might nest and what it likes to eat and you know all this without thinking much about it. It just is.

We have been coming across tracks for close to two weeks – tracks left by large bears, tracks left by sows and their cubs, tracks left by young adults perhaps embarking on their first full season alone. But these were the first two bears we’ve seen this year. Skinny from a dormant winter and quite likely from not having gotten as many salmon as they would have liked given the low return of salmon to the Chignik River last year, these spring bears will manage to begin to put on weight on a diet of grass and tubers. They’ll even eat insects this time of year.

Two miles up the trail a steep bluff provides a vantage point overlooking the lake and an adjacent savannah-like area. We always stop here to glass for wildlife – bears on the beaches, ducks on the water and anything that might happen to be out in the flat where we’ve seen foxes, cranes and signs of wolves, bears and moose. It’s a good place to look for Savannah Sparrows, another species that just recently arrived.

We’ve come to call this view of the lake The Infinity Pool.

Far out on the lake, a few Black Scoters were milling around, occasionally quacking. A young Harbor Seal, barely more than a pup, popped up to have give us a curious look. Three or four Bald Eagles and half a dozen Mew Gulls were resting on a sand spit at the mouth of Clarks. While Wilson’s Warblers and Fox and Golden-crowned Sparrows seemed to be everywhere, the Savannah Sparrows we’d hoped to photograph proved to be more elusive. Here and there we’d hear their distinctive, almost blackbird-like call, but aside from a couple of distant views through binoculars, we didn’t have much luck. We left the grassy area to follow the lake shore. As our boots crunched along the sandy beach, little schools of shore-hugging salmon parr skittering for deeper water.

This stickleback was so ripe with eggs she could barely swim. I cupped her in my hands for a quick photo and released her into a patch of filamentous algae where she tucked in. The Chignik watershed has two types of stickleback – Three-spined and Nine-spined. Slow swimmers, they are preyed upon by everything from River Otters to Mergansers. Most of the time when I see a duck with a fish, it’s a stickleback. 

Seeing young salmon along the lake shore and in the several small creeks feeding in the lake always puts a lightness in our hearts. Sockeyes and Coho and lots of them. When a midge hatch is on, the surface of the lake becomes dimpled as though rain is falling as these fish rise to intercept the insects. When I turned over a few rocks in one of the streams, to my surprise I found the undersides to be thick with mayfly nymphs. There were also a few stoneflies, which equally surprised me. In late summer we’ve been here for the heaviest midge hatches we’ve ever witnessed, but other than sporadic hatches of caddisflies we haven’t noticed much else, a very occasional stonefly and a few small mayflies notwithstanding. The undersides of lake rocks can be thick with caddis cases, so there must be significant hatches of those at some point. And if the feeder streams are home to mayflies, maybe we’ll be around for a hatch of those. There’s always something new to look forward to.

We call this stretch of the trail The Tunnel – a fitting name when it’s crowded in with leafed out alders. We’re usually quiet hikers, but in places such as this where you can’t see more than a few feet ahead, we make a little noise, not wishing to surprise or be surprised by any four-legged beings.

Well, the morning’s half gone. A big patch of blue has pushed its way through the clouds and although the best light is past, it might still be worth it to go out for a look around. Yellow Warblers should be showing up any time now, and I’m still looking for a photograph of a Hermit Thrush with a bit of catchlight in its eye.

Here’s the list of the birds we came across on this walk:

Black Scoter
Common Merganser
Tundra Swan
Greater Yellowlegs
Wilson’s Snipe
Sandhill Crane
Mew Gull
Bald Eagle
Black-billed Magpie
American Robin
Hermit Thrush
Black-capped Chickadee
Tree Swallow
Violet-green Swallow
Wilson’s Warbler
Savannah Sparrow
Golden-crowned Sparrow
Sooty Fox Sparrow
Pine Siskin

Waiting for Salmon

Infinite Patience – Bald Eagle scanning for salmon, Chignik Lake, May 20, 2019

Each year from June 1 when Alaska Department of Fish and Game biologists begin counting at the weir on Chignik River till late summer when they remove it, an average of over 700,000 Reds (Sockeye Salmon) are tallied making their annual spawning run up this watershed on the remote Alaska Peninsula. In 2015, the number was a staggering 1,123,898 and that’s after a million Reds were taken by commercial fisherman in Chignik Lagoon, the saltwater estuary the river debouches into. Because Alaska persists in the foolishness of allowing “intercept” fisheries further out at sea, it can be difficult to determine precisely how many salmon are headed for the Chignik watershed – perhaps two million on average. Nonetheless, over that past nine years an average of 780,000 Sockeye Salmon have been counted at the weir.

Last year that number plummeted to just 540,000, and that was despite a nearly complete closure of the commercial fishery. It was, quite literally, a disaster. The cases of beef stew, generic peanut butter, lentils, canned fruit cocktail and boxed mac and cheese freighted in by government agencies didn’t begin to offset the economic and psychological hole the Sockeye collapse created.

As I write this, eager neighbors are already setting nets. Here and there an early-returning fish is showing up. But “early” is the operative term. Even in good years, the run doesn’t get going until the first week of June. Sometime during the second week of that month, the first counts of 1,000 fish a day might begin. Later in summer, daily counts will top ten thousand. The Chignik’s feeder streams will be carpeted with spawning fish. Brown Bears and Bald Eagles will be everywhere.

In a good year.

For now it’s still early.

Everyone is waiting…

…and hoping.

They enter the river with muscles of steel, bright as new dimes. By the time they’re ready to spawn, they will fill clear tributaries in a carpet of crimson. They are the lifeblood of the Chigniks. Reds…


The Hike to Clarks River: An Alaska-Sized Landscape on the Remote Southwest Peninsula

Like a vast infinity pool, Chignik Lake pulls in the mountains and sky and seems to go on forever. 

We woke before dawn to clear skies, still air and frost. With noon temperatures projected to reach a nearly summer-like high of 50° F, it was the perfect day for the three-mile hike from Chignik Lake up to Clarks River. By the time we downed hot bowls of steel cut oats and slabs of energy-rich, thick-cut bacon, the sun had cleared the snow-capped mountaintops across the lake from our house. Outside the air was still brisk from the nighttime freeze, but American Robins, Golden-crowned Sparrows, Sooty Fox Sparrows, Pine Grosbeaks and Redpolls were already filling the sleepy village with song. We didn’t know it yet, but Violet-green Swallows would arrive later in the day to add to the chorus.

By the time we hit the trail, soft sunlight was beginning to brush the frost off crowberry plants and other vegetation.

Skim ice covered puddles and everything about the morning felt crisp and full of promise. Savannah Sparrows sang from brushy perches. Somewhere down by the lake a Sandhill Crane trumpeted in brassy notes. On a morning like this, there was no telling what we might see. I tapped the bear spray in my coat pocket. We stopped often to listen and to glass patches of open tundra and hillsides.

Most of the catkins were finished. In places bathed in light during these 18-hour spring days willows were leafed out in brilliant green.

As we approached Lower Pond, a pair of Black-capped Chickadees emerged from a tangle of still bare alders to look us over. A crane soared low over the path and landed somewhere out of sight. Fresh avalanche runs tongued the steep Chignik Mountain slopes, still buried in snow. When we hit the Blueberry Bog, a snipe exploded from an edge that often seems to have one of these wary, secretive birds. Mindful of not bothering a possible nest, we kept moving.

Barbra hikes into a landscape traversed by fewer than 100 living people. Clarks River lies straight ahead. The lake is to the right. 

As we hiked we noted that Fireweed shoots were at the perfect stage for picking. We’d brought along a small bag to gather some on the way back to add to the evening’s teriyaki salmon stir-fry.

Wildlife tracks ran all along the beach, their number and variety increasing the closer we got to the river. Seldom seen, wolves are always around, as this track attests.

One for the books, this is the largest Brown Bear track we’ve ever come across. With males routinely topping 1,000 pounds and sometimes exceeding a standing height of 9 feet, Chignik’s bears are among the world’s largest, rivaling those of Kodiak Island in size. An abundance of salmon makes for a healthy bear population – and a healthy ecosystem in general. Barbra’s sunglasses measure 5¾ inches from temple to temple.

In addition to lots of fox tracks, two sets of wolf tracks and several sets of bear tracks, it was evident that a troupe of River Otters had recently been through the area. Though it was mostly quiet under the mid-morning sun, a Red-throated Grebe rested out on the lake, and along the far shore we could just make out Scaup, a Red-breasted Merganser and a few Common Goldeneyes. Savannah Sparrows sang and flitted from bush to bush and as we approached the mouth of Clarks, a yellowlegs or perhaps a Wandering Tattler took off up the river.

The remains of a feast, this bleached piece of Red Salmon jaw was a reminder of last fall when the banks of Clarks were trampled down into a bear highway and the shores and shallows were carpeted with spawned-out Sockeyes and Silvers.

We paused to let our eyes search a pool below a beaver dam in a small tributary before Clarks, recalling a fall when we’d seen it stacked with maybe a thousand Coho Salmon. The beavers, like those salmon, are long gone. Tiny salmon fry and parr darted through the pool in tight schools, the parr occasionally rising to take a midge off the water’s surface. Around the pool’s edge, the first light pink salmonberry blossoms were opening.

Clarks River forks just before it debauches into the lake. This is the lower, quieter piece of water. In late summer and fall, tens of thousands of salmon ascend this cold, snow-fed river.

We found a warm spot in the sun on the sandy beach, made a makeshift picnic blanket of my coat amidst otter tracks, and had lunch. Magpies chattered from a distance as we scarfed down trail mix and reminisced about the fine fly-fishing we’d had at the mouth of this river for bright Silvers. You never stop scanning for bears when you’re out here, and of course there are the wolves. The salmon will return soon, new birds are steadily filling the landscape and there’s the prospect of getting that gargantuan Brown Bear in the view finder of one of our cameras – so many incentives to get out into this country to look around.

Vacancies at Chignik Lake’s New Nesting Boxes are Filling Fast: Tree Swallows have Arrived!

We knew that with Violet-greens having returned, Tree Swallows wouldn’t be far behind. This pair didn’t let much daylight burn before checking out a homesite. They may have used this same box last year. That’s the female perched on top of the box while the male, decked out in shimmering shades of blue, assesses the nesting quarters.

Just before leaving The Lake for our epic 65-day bicycle tour of Hokkaido last spring, we installed four new nesting boxes. We left just as the swallows were returning, but when we got back we were informed that our boxes had immediately attracted new tenants. So we’ve been keeping our eye on them, eager for the arrival of Violet-green and Tree Swallows this spring to see who might move in. Violet-greens first showed up on May 14 and headed straight for a set of older boxes at a neighbors’ house. But even with some 40 boxes in the village, we knew every available site would soon have a pair of nesting birds.

This morning when I stepped outside, I lifted my binoculars to scope out silhouettes on a power line near two of our boxes. Tree Swallows – the season’s first! With the early morning sun buried behind gray clouds, there wasn’t much light. But the office where I work on photos and writing has a view of one of our boxes, so I kept my eye on things. Within a couple of hours, new arrivals were checking out the two boxes closest to our home. And then the sun popped out, giving me an opportunity to make a couple of pictures of birds beginning to set up housekeeping at each box.

For awhile, several birds sallied back and forth around this box. Finally a female entered and stayed put for quite awhile. Here the male is checking up on her.

Interested in attracting your own mosquito-eating backyard friends? Check out our previous post on Violet-green swallows where you’ll find tips for putting up nesting boxes as well as the article below that for tips on placing your new boxes. Establishing nesting boxes is way more interesting (and way, way more ethical) than plugging in those nasty electric bug zappers. Click the links below!

Our Violet-greens are Back at The Lake!

New Homes Available! Swallow Nesting Boxes at Chignik Lake

Sandhill Cranes Foraging and Vocalizing – Alaska Peninsula

Barbra’s school year ended on May 1st. With a new home waiting for us in Newhalen, Alaska, we could have left Chignik Lake the following day. But bears are waking, buds are bursting and springtime’s migrant birds have begun to return, so we’ll remain at The Lake till late June. We’ve been loving our decision. In the past few days we’ve scored photo upgrades of several Chignik species including Northern Pintails, American Widgeons and Harlequins. We just missed adding photos of a skittish dark morph Rough-legged Hawk as well, but we got nice American Robin photos (the ones that pass through the Chigniks are considerably more wary than the suburban birds we’ve known) and…

…our first really good photos of Chignik’s Sandhill Cranes.

The more we photograph birds, the more we appreciate how difficult it can be to predict their behavior. Years ago, we had a photo op with a pair of Sandhill Cranes foraging on a lawn in Homer. While Barbra crept around the yard with our “fledgling” camera gear snapping photos, the cranes very casually walked off a few paces to let her know when she got too close. After that, Barbra tucked in and shot away. We left before the birds did. We weren’t birders in those days. The encounter was one of our first with cranes, and so we concluded that cranes must not be particularly wary.

Years later and multiple mind’s eye images of Sandhills that saw us long before we saw them gliding off toward the horizon on six or seven foot wingspans have prompted revisions of our earlier ideas about these magnificent birds. Cranes are hunted, and like most species that are hunted, they can be exceedingly wary. Unless the cranes have located themselves in a refuge of some sort, it seems that your best chance of getting close enough for a decent look at them is to a) stay quiet and b) don’t look like a human.

The other day while birding, we lucked out. Using a truck as a blind, we were able to observe a pair of foraging cranes for about 15 minutes – plenty of time to add quality photographs to our library and to make a short video which, happily, caught them vocalizing. The male in this video stands over four feet tall. From now till September, their brassy, ratchety calls will echo through the Chigniks, carrying as much as two-and-a-half miles. In addition to the full-throated vocalizations, listen for the little croak the male gives early in the video. And incidentally, the songbird in the background is one of our recently-returned Sooty Fox Sparrows. (The chirping is the modified sound of Jack’s camera shutter.)