A little over a month ago with darkness still falling early and Chignik Lake yet locked in ice, we were engaged in a familiar evening time routine. Standing at the dining room windows with binoculars pressed to her eyes, Barbra was scanning a patch of open water for ducks, seals and otters as well as the frozen lake and shoreline for foxes, moose and whatever else might happen along. Meanwhile, I was in the kitchen preparing the evening meal. In fact I already had the broiling griddle preheating in the oven for the marinated pork which would become the night’s pulled pork sandwiches. Deep into my own thoughts, I only half heard Barbra’s musing as she glassed the lake, words along the lines of…
Exceptionally attentive, caring mothers, while diving for food such as crabs, sea urchins and clams, a Sea Otter mother will often wrap her pup in kelp so it won’t float away.
It seems clear beyond the possibility of argument that any given generation… can have only a lease, not ownership, of the earth; and one essential term of the lease is that the earth be handed on down to the next generation with unimpaired potentialities.
Roderick Haig-Brown, Author of A River Never Sleeps, 1946
Roderick Haig-Brown (1908-1976) was a tireless conservationist in his native Canada. His book A River Never Sleeps is highly regarded in angling circles and beyond.
Determining the population status of birds in the Chignik area can be challenging. Common Redpolls (Acanthis flammea) are a case in point. Overall, there are estimated to be about 13,000,000 of these crimson-splashed passerines in Alaska – a number which surely fluctuates considerably from year to year. At home in a range of habitats including Arctic tundra, scrub alder and boreal conifer forests, their call, an electric zapping buzz, is frequently heard from high in the sky even when the birds themselves can’t be located.
*Click to listen to redpolls calling.
But how common are redpolls on the Alaska Peninsula? They aren’t included among the over 200 species of birds listed on the Alaska Peninsula and Becharof National Wildlife Refuge Bird List. Conversely, a checklist for the peninsula’s Aniakchak National Monument and Preserve denotes them as “common.” And finally, according to a Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s eBird reporting list, it is “rare” to encounter more than a couple of redpolls on a given outing in this area.
In recent months, redpolls have been a part of most daily walks, and while often I get only a fleeting glimpse of a few birds, there have been times when as many as 80 redpolls have swept through the village, lingering to feast on the seeds of White Spruce cones.
It is those trees that seem to hold the key, as they provide both an abundant source of food as well as shelter from winter winds and snow.
Although redpolls occasionally descend to lower latitudes, they are typically birds of the far north, common in suitable habitat the world over. In fact, we encountered redpolls in Mongolia along Ulaanbaatar’s Tuul River. Unsurprisingly, the species has evolved to survive in conditions that are often harsh.
One of their most interesting adaptations is an expanded esophagus which they can rapidly cram full of alder, birch or conifer seeds. Once their esophagus is filled, they’re able to retreat to the safety and and relative warmth of dense conifer boughs to digest their meal in leisure. Thus, redpolls can sometimes be heard softly vocalizing from deep inside the spruce trees even when they can’t be seen.
Look for their nests of four or five light green eggs with purplish to reddish spots in thick brush fairly close to the ground. Redpoll chicks are ready to leave the nest in about 10 to 12 days.
*Audio clip courtesy of The Cornell Lab of Ornithology, published in 2000 by Alan Knox and Peter Lowther
When we moved to Chignik Lake in August, 2016, we were interested amateur birders. Neither of us foresaw this minor side-hobby going further than that. But it soon became apparent that we have found ourselves in a truly unique situation to add to the comparatively limited data base and knowledge of the avian fauna of this remote part of the world.
Remote? The Lake and Peninsula Borough covers 32,922 square miles (85,270 square km) – roughly the size of West Virginia or South Carolina. Yet fewer than 2,000 people inhabit this rugged landscape, which has no roads connecting it to the world beyond. It is a place where wolves regularly show up on the edges of isolated villages and where Japanese glass fishing floats from a bygone era are found washed up on beaches in abundance.
Although concerted birding efforts are regularly conducted at the area’s several National Parks and Wildlife Reserves, it has been over 50 years since anyone specifically studied the birds of the Chignik area. While some things remain the same (the Great Horned Owls are still here), a lot else has changed. Among other things, several decades ago White Spruce trees were introduced to the Chignik Lake area from Kodiak Island. These conifers provide shelter, nesting sites and an abundance of food. This in turn sometimes results in uncommon, rare or previously unrecorded species showing up here and in some cases staying awhile.
One such species is the lone White-throated Sparrow (Zonotrichia albicollis) which has taken up residence in a grove of White Spruces this past winter. He or she seems to have gotten mixed in with a small flock of other young sparrows – 10 or 11 Golden-crowneds, an American Tree Sparrow and a first-winter White-crowned Sparrow. Between the feeders we’ve put up at The Grove and the abundance of conifer seeds and other forage, these sparrows, along with a few juncos, have hung in over the course of the harshest winter Chignik Lake has experienced in recent years.
Given that this young White-throated was first observed in late fall, it seems likely that it was a late-fledged bird migrating south. This suggests that it was Alaska-bred. If so, this is certainly an unusual occurrence for this species.
A mother Orca and her young offspring push through the cold, rich Gulf of Alaska waters just offshore from Kenai Fjords National Park.
Established in 1980, the park is home to the vast Harding Ice Field, the headwaters, so to speak, of 38 separate glaciers. Covering just over 1,000 square miles, the park and adjacent seas are home to a dazzling array of wildlife. Land animals include Mountain Goats, Grizzly and Black Bears, Wolves, Wolverines, Alaska Moose, Lynx and River Otters. Marine life includes a variety of cetaceans – Orcas, whales and porpoises – as well vast shoals of herring and salmon, seals and sea lions, sea otters nearly 200 species of birds.
Sea lion rookeries and haul-out areas can be raucous, with lots of bellowing and barking (and by the scars on some of these hides, some real fighting) as individuals vie for the top turf.
The best jumping off point for exploring the park is Seward, a coastal community of about 2,500 full-time residents, a number that grows considerably during the heart of the tourist season from June through August. If you’ve got the stamina, a hike up the nearby Exit Glacier trail to the Harding Ice Field is worth every step of the journey. Go early, and you’ve got a good chance of spotting Mountain Goats and Black Bears. Wildflowers seem to grow everywhere, and colorful warblers, sparrows and finches are abundant.
Once you’ve checked a trip to Exit Glacier off your list, go down to the Seward Harbor and sign up for a boat excursion out to the fjords. Check around. In many cases, wildlife biologists are hired on these boats to provide insight into what you can see as well as to answer your questions.
A grizzly bear, perhaps timing its journey to intercept a salmon run, ambles across the Harding Ice Field toward Exit Glacier.
As the name Kenai Fjords implies, this is a land sculpted by ice. And while all of the park’s glaciers are receding, the Harding Ice Field alone still covers 300 square miles (777 km2). Many of the glaciers it spawns are tidewater glaciers which produce dramatic calving events.
Tidewater glaciers slough off ice almost continuously, creating coves filled with icebergs of all sizes. The massive cracks and groans emitted by these moving rivers of ice are awe-inspiring. Above, a cormorant flaps past a relatively small shower of ice.
Harbor seals are fairly abundant throughout the park.
Of course, the park’s animals are adapted to the cold. Seals, Sea Otters, Bald Eagles and kittiwakes (a type of gull) utilize the floating ice as resting places. Herring and salmon thrive in the frigid water and in turn a host of predators (including the Orcas in the lead photo) thrive on these fish.
The park is a terrific place to combine wildlife viewing with wildlife catching. Drop a jig and hang on – there are lingcod a lot bigger than this one hugging the rocky undersea pinnacles of the Alaska Gulf. Salmon, halibut and a variety of rockfish are also popular quarry.
Black-legged Kittiwakes nest among hanging gardens.
The entire area is a birding wonderland. Tens of thousands of murres, puffins, auklets, cormorants and other sea birds nest and feed in the nearshore sea.
Horned Puffins (above) as well as Tufted Puffins are abundant.
Of course there are lots and lots of sea otters.
Oil spills, warming seas, a changing climate and overfishing are all potential threats to the park’s wildlife. The effects of the Exxon Valdez oil spill which occurred in 1989 are still being felt – particularly in the long-term suppression of crab populations. Sea bird die-offs are being reported with alarming frequency all along the Northwest Coast and biologists tell us the reason for these die-offs appears to be starvation. Sea Lions, too, have experienced population declines in recent years and again, the problem seems to be rooted in a depletion of the fish they rely upon. Warming seas very likely play a role in this, but it is, in our view, equally likely that overfishing is taking a toll as well. And so, as is the case with so many areas where nature exists in a relatively pristine state, the future is uncertain.
Nonetheless, given half a chance and the benefit of wise stewardship, wildlife can adapt and endure. Kenai Fjords National Park is one of our favorite places. Although it gets fewer than one tenth the visitors Yellowstone, Yosemite or Rocky Mountain National Parks receive individually, it is surely one of North America’s Crown Jewels.
Summer is the perfect time to find Humpback Whales on their Alaskan feeding grounds. What, other than a belly full of herring and a desire to communicate joy, prompts a whale to breach like this and crash back to the sea…
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.
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.
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.
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!
For the first time in several years, Chignik Lake froze. The few patches of water that remain open have become a magnet for wildlife.
“It used to freeze solid every year,” one of my neighbors was telling me as he referred to the lake our village is named for. “We used to ice fish for trout, wolves sometimes came down the lake – it was our wintertime highway. The last time it froze over like that was, I don’t know, maybe five years ago. Maybe longer.”
The gang of four. In all, a family of six freshwater otters regularly work their way from a den up a feeder creek down to the lake to feed. The otter on the left in the above photo has scored a Starry Flounder. The third flounder is working on a Three-spined Stickleback and the mouthful of aquatic vegetation that often comes with them. The otter between those two appears to be enjoying a sculpin.
An icy November drizzle fell from a lead sky as we talked. Cold, but not cold enough. Over the next couple of months we went through several cycles of snow turning to rain turning to snow turning to rain. The footing on paths, roads, steps and boardwalks was often treacherously slick – I hardly know of anyone who didn’t slip and fall at least once. Meanwhile, now and then out on the lake a little skim ice would form along the shore… and disappear.
Starry Flounders are among the members of the Pleuronectidae family known to travel many miles into freshwater. Several miles from the sea, Chignik Lake experiences subtle tidal influences, but the water is fresh and provides an important nursery for wild Sockeye Salmon.
In the first week of January, consecutive days of winds out of the north drove temperatures down into the teens. Ice again formed along the shoreline and in areas protected from the wind. All we needed was a period of windless calm and continued cold.
After crawling on ice the length of a football field or more to get into position (and not spook the quarry), often the best strategy is to just sit quietly and wait. In this case, the otters swam along the edge of the ice where I was set up.
On January 6th, magic happened. The wind died, the lake’s surface turned glassy calm, and for once the winds didn’t flip around and start bringing warm air from the South. “If it stays like this through the night, the lake will freeze solid,” I predicted to Barbra. Upon waking the next morning we rushed to our dining area windows and strained our eyes to see into the predawn light. Were we looking at ice? Or merely calm water? As dawn broke, we could see snowcapped mountains reflected across the lake on a sheet of hard, shimmering ice.
Although the otters occasionally show interest in each other’s catch, I’ve seen neither quarreling nor attempts at theft. They seem to genuinely enjoy one another’s company, often communicating with snorts, chirps, body language and physical contact.
Two days later the ice was sufficiently thick and safe for travel; and so I became the first person in perhaps five years to walk across Chignik Lake. Later that day, Barbra became the second. Shortly thereafter, riders on ATVs and snow mobiles began making the trek.
Torn between caution and curiosity, otters can barely help themselves from investigating anything out of the ordinary – such as a fellow creature of some sort sitting out on the ice day after day watching them. With several small open areas on the ice, there was an element of whack-a-mole in photographing these active fellows as I never knew where one would pop up next – including right in front of me.
I’ve been out on the ice every day since. Each day has been a gift, a rare event that may not be repeated in future winters. Each day is a reminder that I am living in an amazing place in a unique time.
Perhaps one of the older members of the clan, indicated by wear on the incisors.
Highly skilled predators related to weasels, North American River Otters, Lontra canadensis, can weigh as much as 30 pounds (14 kg.) and may reach over a yard (1 meter) in length. Although in most populations fish comprise the bulk of their diet, insects, small mammals, mollusks and even waterfowl are taken opportunistically. In fact, on waters where fish are scarce, otters may key on birds. Litter sizes range from one to three kits, but may be as many as five.
Down the hatch – one less stickleback in the Chignik system. Although otters might prefer salmonids or other gamefish, they tend to target whatever is easiest to catch, thus providing a net benefit to Chignik Lake’s salmon and char which, as fry, compete with sticklebacks for food.
Habitat loss and pollution are the main threats facing River Otters, and they are now absent or rare in parts of their historical range. Reintroduction efforts have been successful, but only in places were people are committed to keeping the environment healthy. Happily, here in Chignik Lake, otters remain and abundant and important part of the ecosystem.