The Chigniks – Avian Diversity and Change in a Remote, Unique Environment

The village of Chignik Lake is situated approximately halfway down the Alaska Peninsula. The Bering Sea lies to the northwest, the Alaska Gulf to the southeast, and the Aleutian Islands to the west. The main draw for birders are seabirds, but in this ever-changing landscape, you never know what will show up. Yellow-billed Loons and Tufted Ducks are among uncommon species occasionally seen here and passerines that have strayed well beyond their normal range show up every year.

The Chigniks

By any standards, the three tiny villages that comprise The Chigniks are remote. None of these communities have more than a few miles of road, almost all of which is unpaved. Where the roads end, a vast wilderness begins. From Lake Clark, located at what might be thought of as the peninsula’s hip, all the way to the big toe of Cold Bay, the entire area is comprised of 32,922 square miles, a size just slightly larger than South Carolina. Yet it is inhabited by fewer than 2,000 full-time residents. Humans are significantly outnumbered by the region’s Brown Bears, the latter some of the world’s largest specimens. In any given season, the population of each of the Chignik’s three villages ranges from about 50 to 70 residents, a bit more during summers of strong salmon returns as commercial fishermen swell the ranks. But even within these sister villages, there is a hierarchy of remoteness.

The three Chigniks – Chignik, Chignik Lagoon and Chignik Lake are situated halfway down the Alaska Peninsula on the Alaska Gulf side. On the peninsula’s northern side is famed Bristol Bay where tens of millions of wild Sockeye salmon are commercially netted each summer, making it the world’s most productive wild salmon fishery. Black Lake is the headwater lake of the Chignik system. Twenty-five miles to the west of Chignik Lake is Mount Veniaminof, an active volcano.

The Chignik Drainage begins with the headwater streams flowing into Black Lake, a relatively shallow, weedy body of water vital both as a Sockeye Salmon nursery and for the waterfowl habitat it provides. While some of the smaller streams are fed by the water soaked tundra surrounding the lake, the larger ones, including Black Lake’s main source, The Alec River, originate in mountain glaciers. The area is geologically active, with Mount Veniaminof 25 miles to the west occasionally belching smoke and ash – activity that is occasionally audible at Chignik Lake. The upper Chignik River, sometimes referred to as Black River, drains Black Lake and flows for approximately 13 miles before emptying into Chignik Lake. From its outlet at the eastern end  of the Chignik Lake, the Chignik River flows roughly six miles east into the brackish estuary called Chignik Lagoon.

The rugged, geologically young Chignik Mountains as viewed on the flight from Perryville. The most common way to reach Chignik Lake is by small plane; the local airstrip accommodates aircraft up to the size of a de Havilland Otter, a plane with a 10-seat capacity. The other way to reach the lake is to take a fishing boat or the ferry from Homer to Chignik (The Bay) and then transfer to a skiff for the run to Chignik Lagoon and up the Chignik River. (October 20, 2016)

The village of Chignik, often called Chignik Bay but locally referred to simply as The Bay, is an important commercial fishing hub. As a port of call on the Alaska Ferry system, it is the most cosmopolitan of the three communities. The village is home to a sport fishing lodge, a small general store and a boat harbor. Occasionally birders looking to add ocean species to their life lists and biologists conducting inventories visit The Bay. Thus the avian fauna in and near Chignik Bay is fairly well documented, though digging up an accurate checklist may prove challenging.

Tucked along a strip of beach and cradled by mountains, as a regular stop on the Ferry System Chignik Bay offers wildlife watchers an opportunity to check off a variety of seabirds and ducks as well as sea otters, seals, orcas, and whales. On shore, thick stands of alders and willow tangles provide cover and nesting sites for summer migrants including thrushes, warblers, and sparrows. Indian Creek, which flows through the village, can be a good place to watch spawning salmon and to perhaps get a look at American Dippers and Belted Kingfishers. (May 6, 2018)

This is the view approaching Chignik Lagoon from the sea, looking toward the Chignik River. Chignik Bay lies a few miles around a small cape to the east. (August 14, 2018)

Chignik Lagoon is sprinkled along the shores of the estuary into which the Chignik River debouches. The tidally influenced mix of fresh and salt water is nutrient rich and a variety of species gather here to feed including Harlequins and Long-Tailed Ducks, cormorants, scoters, puffins and Marbled Murrelets. This is an important wintering area for Emperor Geese as well as a vital staging area for Pink, Sockeye, Chum, Chinook and Coho salmon preparing to ascend the Chignik River. From The Lagoon, the village of Chignik Lake is about a six mile skiff ride up the river. Along the way it’s common to see Brown Bears, Red Foxes, an occasional moose, and, less frequently, wolves, lynx, river otters, mink and possibly wolverine. Whenever salmon are in the system, Bald Eagles are abundant.

Hugging the shores of Chignik Lake just above its outlet into the Chignik River, the village of Chignik Lake (center) is comprised of a few houses and buildings and a sum total of about three miles of dirt road running from a short dirt airstrip (highlighted light blue, center-right) and terminating at a small boat landing on the river just below the bottom edge of this photo. Note the weir spanning the river, lower right. This guides migrating salmon toward an opening on the right-side bank where Alaska Department of Fish and Game personnel count them. All five species of Pacific Salmon found in North America enter the Chignik: Sockeyes, Pinks, Chum, Coho and Chinook, the numbers for all but Pinks have been depressed in recent years. A few Steelhead – the anadromous form of Rainbow Trout – also enter the Chignik. Dolly Varden char are abundant. (August 14, 2018)

Several factors contribute toward making the Chigniks in general and Chignik Lake in particular of interest to birders.

  • Varied habitat: From the headwaters to the Alaska Gulf, environmental features include marsh, bogs, tundra, kettle ponds, mountains, alder and willow thickets, grasslands, lakes, rivers, feeder streams, a few mature spruce trees, an estuary and the ocean.
  • Abundant and varied sources of food
  • The Chignik Drainage serves as a migratory passageway complete with sheltered, food-rich fallout areas.
  • Because this area is comparatively lightly studied and because the topography and therefore habitat are changing relatively rapidly, the possibility of recording a species new to the area is ever present.

Chignik Lake, August 14, 2016: Note the skiffs beached along the lakeshore. As the river is the only highway connecting Chignik Lake with other villages, eighteen foot aluminum Lund V-hauls are the region’s equivalent of economy-class pickup trucks. The relatively massive buildings in the center are the school and associated housing for teachers. Not long ago, when Sockeye runs were strong, as many as 60 students filled the classrooms. In recent years against a backdrop of declining salmon runs and a depressed economy, student enrollment has hovered around a dozen. A drop below 10 would result in a lack of funding from the state and would necessitate the school closing – a hard blow to a community already holding on by its nails. (August 14, 2016)

For a variety of reasons, I decided to confine this three-year study to a three-mile radius encompassing the village of Chignik Lake. With the threat of the school closing ever imminent, and thus Barbra’s teaching position at The Lake annually in doubt, investing in the skiff that would have been necessary to explore the upper and lower reaches of the Chignik system wasn’t practical. And in fact the reason we departed Chignik Lake at the end of three years was due to student enrollment falling below the state-mandated minimum of 10 and the school board consequently reassigning Barbra to Newhalen School further up the peninsula.

That being said, it should be noted that the entire Chignik Drainage ecosystem, from the headwaters at Black Lake to the estuary, is rapidly changing.

  • Jungle-thick alder growth is taking over much of the landscape, crowding out salmonberry brakes, swallowing tundra, and marching ever higher up mountain shoulders.
  • Winters are becoming milder. This has meant more rain, less snowfall, lighter snowpack, and possibly (this has been difficult to document with certainty), greater fluctuations in river and lake levels.
  • The lakes and river remain ice free for longer periods of time. In some recent years, neither Chignik Lake nor Chignik River have completely frozen.
  • Black Lake is showing signs of eutrophication marked by gradual shallowing, accelerated weed growth and warming.   
  • The estuary is accumulating greater loads of volcanic ash and other silt. This is spurring the growth of eel grass and other vegetation. In turn, these grass beds capture silt, thus contributing to a process of salt marsh expansion.
  • Chignik Lake and the main river also appear to be growing siltier and weedier.
  • White Spruce and other non-native evergreens which were introduced shortly after Chignik Lake became a permanent settlement in the 1950’s are now mature, providing shelter, nesting habitat and food for a variety of bird species.

A Brown Bear with a fresh salmon follows a trail up a Chignik River bank leading into a tunnel of vegetation. Every elder I’ve spoken with in the Chigniks tells the same story: the water is weedier and the trees are thicker than in the past. (September 22, 2018)

While a paucity of quality photographs or other documentation makes it impossible to quantify changes in terrestrial vegetation, there seems to be little doubt that tundra is disappearing, that alders have become dominant, and that these changes are impacting bird populations. As an example, Narver made no observation of woodpeckers during his four summers studying the drainage back in the early 1960’s and elders maintain that they are a relatively new bird to the area. Though they still aren’t abundant, in recent years virtually every resident has noticed Downy Woodpeckers in and near the village.

Thick grasses overtake this old-time wood and sod home at Chignik Bay, an area that has been inhabited for approximately 2,200 years. Stone tools found at temporary sites further up the peninsula indicate that humans have been utilizing the Alaska Peninsula’s abundance of natural resources for at least 9,000 years. (Barabara at Chignik, 1909: Alaska State Library – Historical Collections, PO Box 110571, Juneau AK 99811-0571;

By contrast, Willow Ptarmigan, which Narver reported as “common” in the early ’60’s, are gone; no one saw or heard a sign of them during our three years at The Lake. While it could be that hunters have extirpated them locally, an equally likely explanation for their disappearance is that ptarmigan habitat has disappeared.

At the same time, undocumented observations and recollections can be notoriously inaccurate. Local residents misidentified Northern Shrikes as Camp Robbers (Canada Jays) and believed them to be a new species to the area. However, Narver noted shrikes in his study. During the three years of this study, they were common. It is possible that this species is intermittently present.

When the lupine bloom, the bumblebees get busy. Bombus ternarius, I think – an Orange-striped or Tri-colored Bumblebee. As is true of The Chignik’s birds and vegetation, local insect life, too, is no doubt changing. (June 19, 2019)

The wisest course regarding anecdotal accounts is to seek corroboration. However, that can often be challenging. In old photographs the landscape is generally a background blur, defying attempts to determine whether one is looking at alders, salmonberries or other vegetation. When did the lake freeze solid, on average, back in the 1960’s? Were the lake and the river always as turbid by late summer as they now are? What year were the first White Spruce trees planted? At one time, the story goes, there was a resident who knew how to catch the Chignik’s “Rainbow Trout” (most likely Steelhead), but he’s gone and the specific answers to such questions as when, where and how to go after these fish are gone with him. Among the little yellow and green birds that visit the area each summer, are there ever any Arctic Warblers in the mix? Is the absence of Ospreys due to the lack of a suitable nesting site, or are other factors at play?

These and many other questions remain open to inquiry by anyone with the curiosity and time to venture out into the Chigniks and explore. Each discovery and observation is a puzzle piece to be fitted into a larger picture in this fertile, dynamic, and rapidly changing ecosystem.

Next Article: The Loons of Chignik 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.

Finches of the Dandelion Jungle

With just a few days remaining for us in Chignik Lake, we continue to add to our project documenting bird species within a three-mile radius of this tiny, remote village on the Alaska Peninsula. With approximately 75 different types of birds observed – and good photographs of most of those species – much as been accomplished, including getting photographs of birds that, to the best of our knowledge, had never before been recorded out here. But, as with any project of this scope and complexity, much remains undone. We only now are getting into making videos and immediately have been intrigued by the unique possibilities this medium offers. With open invitations to return for future visits, we hope to make it back to this paradise by The Lake.

Aside from brief clips of a Fox Sparrow in song, Pine Siskins coming to Barbra’s hand for seed, and a Red Crossbill going to town on White Spruce cones, this is the only bird video we’ve made. It’s the first video we’ve planned out and edited.

For the past few days, dozens of finches – Pine Grosbeaks, Pine Siskins and Common Redpolls – have been foraging virtually nonstop on dandelion seeds in the unmown lawn outside our front door. We’d been enjoying watching this show (and listening to the constant, cheerful bird chatter) from our kitchen and from the boardwalk leading from our house to the school where Barbra teaches. The Pine Grosbeaks in particular have been quite tolerant of our presence – if not downright curious to the point of approaching us. (I once had a Pine Grosbeak land on my head as I was photographing them.) In fact, individual of all three species have approached so close at one time or another we might have reached out and touched them.

The siskins’ numbers appear to be populated by recently fledged members. Earlier this past spring, we saw a redpoll with nesting material and they, too, appear to have young among them. We’re not sure about the Pine Grosbeaks. At present there are about eight grosbeaks – an even number of male and female birds – and although this species might be seen in any season here in Chignik Lake, we’re not sure if these are individuals that overwintered here and filled the spring air with their beautiful song, or whether this a group that is merely passing through. In any event, although David Narver who, back in the early 1960’s compiled the only other detailed list of birds occurring in we’ve been able to find, reported redpolls as “uncommon” and made no mention at all of Pine Siskins and Pine Grosbeaks, redpolls and grosbeaks have been common during our entire three years here. Siskins showed up for the first time two winters ago and have been common since. At times, we’ve counted upwards of 60 birds in flocks of redpolls and siskins, and at least 40 in a flock of Pine Grosbeaks that spent a week or two in the village stuffing themselves on alder cones.