A few posts back we published a photo-essay, The Very Cold Swim, in which one of our wild village foxes took an impromptu dunk when the shore ice between her and a salmon head gave way. The other day she posed for a series of portraits in lovely lighting. What a beauty!
“Of all the wild creatures which still persist in the land, despite settlement and civilization, the Loon seems best to typify the untamed savagery of the wilderness.”
So wrote Edward Howe Forbush in Game Birds, Wild-Fowl and Shore Birds, 1912. Click below to hear the loon’s haunting tremolo call. (courtesy Wikipedia)
Four common loons, Gavia immer, occupied our lake this summer. Normally laying but two large eggs ranging in color from deep amber to brown to greenish-gray, our loons may have comprised two mated pairs or a mated pair and their adult offspring. Common Loons are reported mainly as a spring and summer bird in the Chignik system. On his list compiled during summers from 1960 – 1963, David Narver reported this species as “uncommon.”
With huge, webbed feet positioned far back on bulky bodies, loons are excellent swimmers but struggle on land. Therefore, they select nesting sites close to the water’s edge, preferably where an abrupt bank allows them to swim undetected below the surface right up to the nest. At reservoirs, where fluctuating water levels may leave nests either inundated with water or too far from it, loons will sometimes take advantage of artificial nesting islands. Their precocious chicks are able to dive just a couple of days after hatching, though the downy balls of animated fluff quickly bob back to the surface where they might hitch a ride on their mother’s back.
Loons are generally quite shy, as was generally the case with this foursome. Perhaps the caution common to this species was always so, or perhaps it is a vestige of the days when the millinery trade prompted hunters to wipe out any loon that wasn’t sufficiently wary. Mostly staying well off shore, on one particularly calm, clear morning as we hiked a few miles up the lake, the group swam toward us from a good distance out. The event made having lugged along several pounds of camera equipment worth the effort.
Loons are frequently seen, though less frequently identified, while in flight. Characterized by as many as 250 wingbeats per minute or more, their flight pattern is much like that of a duck or goose. A stiletto-shaped bill and large feet hanging astern like a rudder – along with the fact that they are most often encountered alone or in pairs rather than in flocks – distinguish them.
While the loons of summer left Chignik Lake back in mid-September, beginning toward the end of that month on nearly a daily basis we have been seeing one and sometimes two of the birds in the photo above. Usually sticking to the safety of open water, this one came close enough to shore for a passible photograph during the flood that hit Chignik Lake in mid-October.
Loons are dedicated fish-eaters and exceptional at their work. It’s reported that a family of four can take as much as a thousand pounds of fish out of a lake in a 15-week period. The above bird came up from dives swallowing its catch (probably sockeye salmon parr) time after time. Although Red-throated Loons are reported to be more common than Common Loons on the lake, based on the above bird’s jagged neck markings, thick bill and the tell-tale white ring around it’s eye, I believe it to be a juvenile Common Loon.
In Walden, Thoreau described the loon’s evocative cry as “…perhaps the wildest sound that is ever heard…” in his native Massachusetts of the mid-1800s. Celebrated in literature, art, popular culture and even on Canadian currency, Common Loons aren’t as common as they used to be. Acid rain, mercury toxicity from coal-burning plants and other sources, lead poisoning from fishing sinkers and hunting ammunition, and increasing scarcity of the isolated, quiet nesting sites they prefer has resulted in their disappearance from some lakes. If you have loons in a lake near you, count yourself fortunate: it likely that the water quality is clean.
The Canadian one-dollar “loonie.” (Wikipedia)
Know as Divers in Europe, the origination of the North American term “Loon” is uncertain. Speculation is that it derives from the bird’s awkward movements on land. These are large birds. With wingspans of up to five feet and a bill-to-tail-feather length of about three feet, they’re roughly the size of a Canada Goose. Except during winters, when they may show up on almost any of North America’s coastal waters, Common Loons are birds of the North. Their breeding range begins just south of the U.S.-Canadian boarder and extends to all but the most northerly parts of Alaska and Canada. Their habitat overlaps with Pacific, Red-throated and, in the west and far north, Yellow-billed loons.
A slender bill, light gray nape and distinctive white lines tracing down the neck mark this as a Pacific Loon (Gavia pacifica). Thisphoto was taken a few years in August on a tundra pond near Point Hope, Alaska.
The royalty of the lake. Hopefully our loons have had a safe fall migration and are enjoying an abundance of fish on their winter waters. With luck, they’ll be back on Chignik Lake this spring, ready to raise a new pair of chicks. A common loon tagged in Wisconsin was reported to have reached the ripe old age of at least 25 years, so the loons of Chignik Lake and their offspring could be around for many summers to come.
If you’re lucky enough to encounter loons, observe them from a respectful distance. A bird disrupted from feeding is a hungry bird, an effect multiplied if they have young, are migrating, or trying to fend off the cold. As with so many species around the world, the chief threat to loons is human encroachment and development of the wild habitat which they need in order to successfully nest and thrive. Many states and provinces have loon conservation programs where you can learn more. See for example the Biodiversity Research Institute’s Center for Loon Conservation page or Google “Loon Conservation” in your region.
A shaft of sunlight illuminates a secret pool on a no-name stream. There appear to be four species of salmon in this photo along with a couple dozen Dolly Varden char, and this is several weeks after the main spawning run. Fly-fishing post to follow.
Years ago when this house was built, precipitation in mid-October fell in the form of snow, at least in the higher elevations around Chignik Lake, Alaska. But this year, warm weather and consecutive days of rain have pushed the lake close to record levels and the water is still rising. This house, incidentally, was previously abandoned.
The alders surrounding this abandoned, flooded house, too, are a new feature around Chignik Lake which until a few years ago was largely bereft of trees. Now there’s a new thermal dynamic in effect: The trees themselves are darker than the berry plants, sedges and grasses they’re replacing. These darker alders draw in more solar heat, further warming the land, creating a better growing environment for more alders in a cycle that is rapidly changing the landscape. Note the flooded jungle gym on the right. When I asked local residents if this kind of flooding is normal for this time of year, the answer was an emphatic “No.”
While the village’s 50 or so inhabitants are remaining high and dry, the lake’s banks are now perilously close to our neighbor’s duplex and the spring I noticed gushing from beneath the foundation can’t be good. By the way, the blue spruce trees visible in the background were planted decades ago when the Aleut and Alutiiq Natives who had long utilized this area as hunting and fishing grounds decided to build a permanent village here.
Fortunately our own home – the right side of this duplex- is on a little rise overlooking the lake and should be fine. These same-looking buildings are part of the school and the teacher housing complex and, in an appropriate twist on history, are built on land temporarily ceded back to the the government from the Native Alaskans who own it.
The village post office is located on the ground floor of the house in the center of this photo. Normally it’s about a two-and-a-half minute walk from our home, but after four days of rain and with more coming (it’s raining even as I write this) we may need to borrow a skiff to get our mail. The real story in this photo is the small, cold, crystal clear stream that normally flows under this road through a large culvert. Just four weeks ago, the stream filled with Dolly Varden char (a species closely related to brook trout) making their way up from the lake on their annual fall spawning run. With high water blowing out the stream, I can only assume that most of the char’s redds (spawning beds) have become silted in with sand and mud, suffocating the eggs. Thus, an entire year class of char may be lost.
A similar concern exists for the tens of thousands of salmon redds in the river below Chignik Lake as well as thousands of Sockeye salmon reds along the shore of the lake itself. Flooding water is particle-laden water, and these nests are in danger of being silted in. Again, in past years when October precipitation fell as snow, this would not have been a problem.
Barbra doing her best “on the scene weather watch report” impersonation in front of Chignik Lake’s rising water yesterday evening. As far as I can determine, we don’t have an official meteorological station here in the village, and reports from the next closest station can be wildly inaccurate due to mountains and a marine effect. Up to this point, winds – some of them gusting to gale force – have been coming out of the south. There’s a lull at the moment. The concern is that when those winds switch around and start coming out of the Northeast – which they invariably seem to do here – additional water will be pushed out of the upper lake, Black Lake, down the Black River and into Chignik Lake. So even as the rain appears to be subsiding somewhat, we may continue to see rising water levels.
The village of Chignik Lake lies midway down the Alaska Peninsula, southwest of Kodiak Island and about 500 miles southwest of Anchorage. With no roads connecting the village to other communities, it is accessible primarily by small plane or by a combination of large boat and small boat. Screenshot courtesy of Google.com/maps.
A diminutive four inches from the tip of its beak to the tip of its tail (not much larger than most hummingbirds) but with a lyric song that captures the spirit of nature, the Pacific Wren (Troglodytes pacificus) is Alaska’s only wren.*
Pushed up against a steep bank grown thick with salmonberry bushes and partly draping over the water where I fish for salmon is a certain alder tree that several species of birds find attractive. Golden-crowned Sparrows, Black-capped Chickadees, Yellow Warblers and Wilson’s Warblers are among the regular visitors bringing an added measure of cheer to a morning’s angling.
Not long ago while wading and casting, I heard a new song, complex up and down tinkling as though the sound of a brook had been transposed to birdsong. “That sounds like a wren,” I thought with surprise. I didn’t know that any sort of wren existed in Alaska. I gave my attention to the source of the melody and eventually a furtive, flitting whir of motion came into view as a tiny, mouse-sized bird bounced along the river bank from reed to reed to vine to grass blade, inspecting each for insects I suppose. Dressed in mottled brown, with short wings, a long, slender down-curved bill and stubby tail held high, there was no mistaking the bird for anything but a wren.
But it was so small! Easily the tiniest wren I’d ever encountered, not to mention the smallest species of bird I’ve seen thus far around the environs of Chignik Lake. Most passerines would fit nicely on the palm of one’s hand, and yet the volume of the songs they produce never ceases to astound. The winter wren’s vocals are no exception.
After the morning’s fishing was done and fillets from a brace of salmon were added to our winter provisions, I returned with my camera in an attempt to photograph this little fellow. A variety of other birds came and went, but there was no sign of the wren until suddenly a blur of brown motion gave him away. Yet no sooner did I spot him than he settled into the V where the alder trunk splits and fanning out his tail and wings remained silent and nearly motionless, obscured by leaves and branches. Was he attempting to hide from me? From the Merlin and Shrikes that frequent the area? Or was this behavior rooted in something else?
In his essay Tuckerman Ravine, Henry Thoreau described the song of a bird he could hear in a thicket but was unable to spot as a:
“…twittering flow…a fine corkscrew stream issuing with incessant lisping tinkle from a cork, flowing rapidly, and I said that he had pulled out the spile and left it running.”
The wren eventually moved to more open territory, but remained quiet…
A “spile” is wooden peg used to open or close a wine cask, and it has been reckoned that the trickling, tinkling song Thoreau described was that of a Winter Wren, a close relative of the Pacific Wren. In fact, the species were only scientifically differentiated – based on song, genetics and breeding habits – in 2010.
Elsewhere, naturalist, conservationist and fly-angler John Burroughs described the winter wren and its voice thus:
“Such a dapper, fidgety, gesticulating, bobbing-up-and-down-and-out-and-in little bird, and yet full of such sweet, wild melody!”
…Until finally it was if he could no longer help himself. He just had to sing. And what a song… The fact that a bird with a chest not much bigger than my thumbnail can produce such vocals is astonishing.
I am indebted to the book, Birds of America, (1917 & 1936), edited in chief by T. Gilbert Pearson along with several other editors whose love of birds shines through in their thorough research and beautiful descriptions. The color plates alone make this a volume well worth owning.
*Marsh Wrens have been reported in Alaska as accidentals – meaning very few records of this species have been confirmed.
From a favorite perch, this Northern Shrike watches patiently for a careless sparrow, warbler or vole to come within striking range. They’re passerines by taxonomical classification, which relates them to the songbirds they prey upon.
My first encounter with shrikes did not include the sighting of this somewhat uncommon bird, but with evidence left at the scene. I was about 14, on an upland hunt in Pennsylvania with Gil Twiest, when I noticed a mouse or shrew tightly wedged in the V of a pair of branches on a small crabapple tree. As it happens, Gil is a biologist and an expert on birds. When I called him over for a look at what I’d found, he immediately surmised, “That’s the work of a shrike.” The remainder of the morning I pretended to hunt while searching in vain for the compellingly macabre bird that had committed this act.
Many years later while letting my mind wander as I stared at my fishing line on the Tama River in Japan, I was jolted back into the present by an unearthly, bird-like shriek. I’d never seen or heard a shrike, but I knew immediately that’s what it had to be. Sure enough, when I turned around and got the source of the screech in my binoculars, there it was – hooked beak, eye stripe, large head – peering down on me from the wire where it was perched. I don’t recall if I caught fish or not; it was a red-letter day.
It’s the shrike’s sharply hooked beak that indicates its intensions. Lanius excubitor, the Northern Shrike’s scientific name, means Butcher Watchman, and while all birds exhibit fascinating behavior of one description or another, the shrike’s habits rank it near the top.
Northern Shrike, Chignik Lake near the mouth of Clark’s River, Alaska
By definition, the feet of passerines feature three toes facing forward and one toe pointing back – a perfect arrangement for perching. Hence passerines are commonly referred to as “perching birds.” Suitably light and ideal for maintaining a grasp on twigs, branches and wires, a shrike’s feet lack the power of the heavy talons of hawks, falcons, eagles and other birds of prey. They’ve evolved a remarkable strategy to compensate for this shortcoming.
Upon capturing a small animal, they carry it in their beak to a suitable dining area. This could be a small tree where a pair of branches form a V in which to wedge the animal, or a cactus, bush or tree with sufficiently long, sharp thorns on which they can impale their meal. On the banks of Japan’s Hanamizu River, year after year Bull-headed Shrikes (Mozu in Japanese),utilized a strand of barbed-wire enclosing a garden and marked their territory with all manner of large earthworms, grasshoppers, dragon flies and other small creatures. Once securely fastened, the shrike can easily tear into it’s meal with it powerful beak.
Note the distinctive eye mask and large head. Like some other birds of prey such as kestrels and harriers, shrikes possess the ability to hover while searching for prey.
Roughly the size of the familiar American robin (albeit with a shorter wingspan), these are tough little birds. Although often solitary, here in the village of Chignik Lake a pair of them – very likely a mated pair – work tirelessly to drive off magpies, kingfishers and other birds that enter their territory. We’ve even watched as two of them harassed a mature bald eagle into giving up a preferred roost.