Birds of Chignik Lake: Greater Scaup

There seem to always be scaup somewhere in the Chignik System. Flocks regularly show up on the lake from fall through spring, particularly during colder winters. (Chignik Lake, January 3, 2017)

Many a winter’s day at The Lake was made more cheerful by an arriving flock of scaup. Although as few as one or two might show up, the more usual case from late fall through spring was that if there was one on the lake, there were at least a dozen or more, sometimes quite a few more. Early in the day they could sometimes be found cruising the shoreline near our home in the village. But as boats were launched and returned, they moved to the other side of the lake, a distance of approximately half-a-mile and well out of photography range. There they’d remain, day in and day out, their numbers growing as weather became increasingly inclement, usually joined by Common Goldeneyes and other ducks.

Although the male’s head often appears black, in the right light it has a distinctive green sheen which takes on a purple hue during breeding. Females sport a white mask at the base of the bill. Note the blue bill with its splotch of black lipstick and the yellow eyes. ( Chignik Lake, January 18, 2017)

I have carefully glassed individual scaup on the lake, pored over my photographs to compare images with those in field guides and can say with some confidence that there were no Lesser Scaup among the birds that visited our river and lake. I don’t know why this should be so, as both species are common in Alaska. Nonetheless, a variety of range maps are consistent in agreement that only the Greater Scaup is to be found on the peninsula. Let’s see… head a little larger, more round – but also more sloped…, slightly whiter body, a little more white in the wing stripe in flight, somewhat larger dark splotch on bill, a bit larger overall… One vexingly relative comparison after another… I give up. What does the range map indicate again?

The scaup we observed appeared to feed mainly on aquatic vegetation with an occasional freshwater clam mixed in. This female has found a mollusk of some kind. It is believed that the word scaup is a Scottish variant of the northern English term “scalp,” which means “mussel bed.” (Chignik River, January 27, 2017)

Greaters? Lessers? (Denali Highway, Interior Alaska, June 2, 2017)

The text Birds of North America1, which despite having been written over 100 years ago continues to gain my appreciation, states that the two species vary “principally…in size.” Which seems to be as useful and honest a thing as one might say about making a field identification of scaup. That’s not to say the difference isn’t important. The extent to which any two species – or even strains of species – differ in habitat requirements and preferences makes each a bell-weather for the ecosystem it depends on. But as field observers, whether the being we are considering is a redpoll, a scaup, a steelhead or a char, it may not always be possible to know, in the field, precisely what variety of redpoll, scaup, steelhead or char we have before us.

As to the mated pair in the preceding photograph… my guess is Lesser Scaup. The female’s head appears to have a peak or corner at the rear, the male is showing a fair amount of purple in its head and only a small splotch of black on the end of its bill. The barring on his back is fairly coarse… but in the end, I can identify nothing definitive to say with certainty one way or the other. Perhaps some kind reader with greater experience than mine will come to the rescue.

Two hens, two drakes skim above Chignik Lake in silvery early morning light. (January 26, 2017)

1Birds of North America, T. Gilbert Pearson, ed., Garden City Books, Garden City, New York, 1917

Greater Scaup Range Map: with permission from The Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Birds of the World

Greater Scaup Aythya marila
Order: Anseriformes
Family: Anatidae
Aythya: from Ancient Greek, a term used by Aristotle believed to describe a duck or seabird
marila: from Greek for coal dust

Status at Chignik Lake, 2016-19: Common and generally Abundant

David Narver, Birds of the Chignik River Drainage, summers 1960-63: Abundant on Black Lake; Common on Chignik Lake

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

Aniakchak National Monument and Preserve Bird List:

loon silhouette

Previous Article: Life on the Frozen Chignik

Next Article: Ring-necked Duck

*For a clickable list of bird species and additional information about this project, click here: Birds of Chignik Lake

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

Ice Changes Everything – Wintertime Life on the Frozen Chignik

While River Otters are generally gregarious, playful sorts that get along beautifully, it’s hard not to project a twinge of envy on the otter to the left. Starry Flounder travel from the saltwater lagoon miles up The Chignik. Winter ice provides a lucky fisherman with a dining table. (Chignik Lake, February 2, 2017)

Clad in a 600-fill down parka, camouflage snow pants, insulated Muck Boots, a warm hat and heavy-duty mittens stuffed with hand warmers, I continue bellying forward on slick, solid ice toward a patch of open water near the lake’s outflow. With nearly effortless nudges from me, the tripod where my camera with its great, big wildlife lens is mounted slides before me. I’ve been at this since first light, moving slow and low. As careful as I’ve been, the otters have already taken notice. An assemblage of Greater Scaup, Common Goldeneyes, two species of mergansers, Canvasbacks and other waterfowl are either hauled out and resting on the edge of the ice or diving the frigid water for fish, clams and aquatic weeds. A pair of Bald Eagles perched on utility poles are taking in the scene, and I’m sure there are foxes – and maybe even a wolf or two – on patrol somewhere in the vicinity. Now I’m close enough to hear the otters snorting, breathing and crunching the bones of the fish they’ve caught. A pair of harbor seals pop their heads above water, survey the goings on, and quietly resubmerge.

Ice creates both new opportunities and new perils for the various species of the Chignik System. Here Skit, one of several Red Foxes we saw frequently enough to name, barely misses out on a sumptuous repast of Common Goldeneye. (Chignik Lake, February 3, 2017)

In early January of 2017, something happened to Chignik Lake that by local accounts used to happen nearly every winter but hadn’t happened in the past five years: save for a a couple of surface acres near the outflow, it froze solid. Over the ensuing days and weeks, while upwelling subsurface springs continued to keep the water near the outflow open, the lake ice grew thicker and the river itself froze in most places. For humans, foxes and wolves, the effect was to create an ice highway. The impact on waterfowl was to concentrate whatever birds remained in the system into the few patches of open water.

The more or less official book on the Chignik System is that Red-breasted Mergansers are common, and that Common Mergansers are uncommon or rare. While that tends to be true during summertime, we found that during wintertime, particularly during icy winters, Commons (above photo) greatly outnumber Red-breasteds and were in fact, common. Aside from research pertaining to salmon (and to a certain extent, Dolly Varden Char), the Chignik Drainage has been only lightly studied. Each new puzzle piece adds to a fuller picture of this complex ecosystem. (Chignik Lake, March 14, 2017)

As wintery conditions set in, scaup begin to show up on the lake, at times in flocks counted in the dozens. In the 2016-2017 winter, when the lake froze, scaup were fairly abundant. During the relatively mild 2018-2019 winter, scaup occurred less frequently and in smaller numbers. (Chignik Lake, January 3, 2017)

Icy conditions tend to concentrate any remaining waterfowl, making it a good time to look for less common or even rare birds. In a pocket of open water on the Chignik River, three female scaup (facing away from the camera), mill about with a fairly uncommon drake Ring-necked Duck (right) and, in the lower left, a somewhat rare visitor from Asia, a female Tufted Duck. 

Ice changes relationships among animals and creates new theater. I watched for several minutes as this River Otter used his catch (a flounder) to taunt a pair of eagles. The drama ended when one of the eagles took wing and made a half-hearted attempt to catch the otter, a maneuver the sleek fellow easily avoided by slipping back into the water. Resigned, the eagles flew off and the otter gnawed away at his catch. (Chignik Lake, January 25, 2017)

There always seem to be at least a few Harbor Seals somewhere in the freshwater lakes and river of the Chignik System. Here, a group haul out on ice to catch some rays. Events such as this are no doubt of great interest to the area’s wolves, as occasionally the pinnipeds get trapped on solid ice with no escape route. The foreground birds are male Common Goldeneyes – menaces in their own right to local sculpin and stickleback populations. (February 3, 2017)

Some of the preceding photos might give one a less than accurate picture of wintertime at The Lake. Chignik is an Alutiiq word meaning “Big Winds,” a suiting epithet. Weather bullying its way from one side of the Alaska Peninsula to the other can be formidable. Here a group of female Common Mergansers hunker down on an ice point to wait out fierce winds and snow. (January 6, 2016)

A Pacific Loon shakes of snow out on The Lake. (January 13, 2018)

As wintertime conditions change in coming years, those of us interested in wildlife of all kinds will want to keep our eyes sharp for commensurate changes in flora and fauna. In this global study, the role of citizen scientist has never been more important. Every well-documented backyard feeder, walk along local trails, and note of what is – and isn’t – nesting in hedgerows and elsewhere is a unique, vital data point.

loon silhouette

Previous Article: Birds of Chignik: Green-winged Teal – Bantam-weight Duck

Next Article: Greater Scaup

Birds of Chignik Lake: American Wigeon – America’s Most Vegetarian Duck

American Wigeons are a typical part of the the spring duck mix on The Chignik. This pair, along with another male, were hanging tight with a pair of Tundra Swans as they fed at an eddy favored by waterfowl. (May 4, 2019)

The first wigeons I ever encountered were of the Eurasian variety – back when I lived in Japan. On my way fishing, I’d often stop my bike on a bridge above Hiratsuka’s Hanamizu River. I wasn’t much of a birder back then, but the teal, wigeons, shovelers, mallards, pintails, egrets, and herons that gathered in the pools and riffles below the bridge fascinated me. At times, a shrike would put in an appearance as well. But sea bass, fluke and other species swimming the nearby coastal waters beckoned, and so I seldom lingered long. These days my priorities have shifted and I carry with me the small regret that I neglected to photograph the river’s kawasemi – glimmering aqua-and-orange plumaged Eurasian Kingfishers.

American Wigeon drake, Chignik River, Alaska. Wigeons are well-known food thieves, mixing in with other ducks and stealing food right from their bills. (May 4, 2019)

I don’t recall seeing American Wigeons until I lived at The Lake, but during breeding the male’s white crown-stripe framed in iridescent green makes this species unlikely to be mistaken for anything else. “Baldpate,” they are named in my copy of Birds of America1an unfortunate epithet for this handsome fellow. The same text gives an alternative common name as “American Widgeon” (with the added d) and the genus name Mareca which later became Anas and has since reverted back to Mareca, so nomenclature for this species has changed since that book’s 1917 publication.

Female wigeon, Chignik River. The most vegetarian duck, wigeons’ blue-gray bills are short compared with other ducks – an adaptation for pulling and breaking off tough vegetation. However, particularly during the breeding season, females take in more insects and other invertebrates. (May 12, 2019)

We generally encountered wigeons in pairs on the lake, on the river and on nearby ponds. As with other dabbling ducks, it is likely that breeding occurs at remote places in the drainage. It pays to listen for the male’s soft, whistling call when approaching likely habitat.

On the one hand, this drake in profile nicely shows the male wigeon’s cinnamon-brown flanks. On the other hand, he illustrates a point common to bird plumage: In this light, although photographed from several angles, his head showed none of the green wigeons in breeding plumage are known for. In different light, the shimmering green likely would have been obvious. In still different light, the stripe might take on a coppery-bronze iridescence. (May 12, 2019)

1Birds of North America, T. Gilbert Pearson, ed., Garden City Books, Garden City, New York, 1917

American Wigeon Range Map: with permission from The Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Birds of the World

American Wigeon Mareca americana
Order: Anseriformes
Family: Anatidae
Mareca: from Brazilian-Portuguese marréco = small duck
americana: of America

Status at Chignik Lake, 2016-19: Occurs regularly in Spring

David Narver, Birds of the Chignik River Drainage, summers 1960-63: Not Reported

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

Aniakchak National Monument and Preserve Bird List: Presence Documented

loon silhouette

Previous Article: Northern Pintail – The Dapper Dabbler

Next Article: Green-winged Teal – Bantam-weight Duck

*For a clickable list of bird species and additional information about this project, click here: Birds of Chignik Lake

Birds of Chignik Lake: Northern Pintail – the Dapper Dabbler

With glossy hints of purple and green highlighting a chocolate-brown neck and head, male pintails are downright regal. (Chignik River, May 2, 2019)

From the first time I encountered Northern Pintails, they became my favorite among the duck tribe. Perhaps it is that their slender, elongated features somewhat resemble my own. Or maybe I’m just plain envious of the drake’s handsome jacket and eye-catching head plumage. In any regard, while there certainly are more brightly-colored birds, it is hard to argue that any are more handsome.

This female and male arrived on The Chignik in late April and hung around for a few days. They appeared intent on nesting. Alas, it seemed that daily boat traffic eventually prompted them to look elsewhere. (May 2, 2019)

The case of the mated pair of pintails in the above photo gives one pause to wonder: In addition to deforestation, draining wetlands, depleting food sources, hunting, poaching, light pollution, pollution in general, and the various hazards presented by windowed buildings,  windmills and other structures, how much negative impact does human traffic in all its forms have on bird populations? The Chignik is relatively lightly traveled, and yet the impact motorized boats have on bird populations (and most likely, on Chinook Salmon populations as well) is readily apparent. The noise and commotion interrupts feeding, mating, nesting, and brood rearing as cruising boats set nervous birds to wing. Every burst into flight constitutes wasted calories. A nest left unguarded for even moments leaves eggs and chicks vulnerable to predation. Waves created by boats contribute to the siltation of weed beds and salmon redds and might even inundate nests along shorelines or situated on small islands. It has long puzzled me that in many locales, wildlife managers seem to take little to no account of this type of traffic.

Portrait of a Lady: With scalloped patterns in shades of gray and brown, female pintails are a beautiful bird in their own right. (May 2, 2019.)

The Chignik’s pintails can be observed in more or less the same seasons as other migrant dabbling ducks – from late spring through early fall. Anytime you see ducks standing or walking along the shore in these seasons it’s worth glassing for pintails as they often come off the water to rest or to look for insects, seeds and land plants.

In profile, the drake pintail’s long, almost gun-metal blue bill only further accentuates his sharp plumage. (May 2, 2019)

Although the upper river and Black Lake are beyond the scope of this study, we’ve seen pintails at those locations. It is almost certain that they nest along the shores of those quieter waters.

The long bill and eponymous tail make pintails one of the easiest birds to identify in flight – even in silhouette at considerable distance. (Shishmaref, Alaska, May 15, 2011)

Northern Pintail Range Map: with permission from The Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Birds of the World

Northern Pintail Anas acuta
Order: Anseriformes
Family: Anatidae
Anas: Latin for duck
acuta: from Latin for “to sharpen” – a reference to the Pintail’s tail

Status at Chignik Lake, 2016-19: Common Spring and Fall migrant; Occasional on Chignik Lake. Occasional throughout the system in Summer.

David Narver, Birds of the Chignik River Drainage, summers 1960-63: Common in early and late Summer throughout the watershed; occasional in midsummer

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

Aniakchak National Monument and Preserve Bird List: Presence Documented

Previous Article: Mallard – “Wary, Wise, Handsome”

Next Article: American Wigeon – America’s Most Vegetarian Duck

*For a clickable list of bird species and additional information about this project, click here: Birds of Chignik Lake

Birds of Chignik Lake: Brant – the Goose that Was Once a Fish (sort of)

No white patch on cheek, white necklace, short bill, a constant, chatty murmur as opposed to the more distinctive honking associated with Canada and Cackling Geese… Brant!. For awhile during spring, wave upon wave of these migrants can be heard passing over The Lake. (May 5, 2018)

At The Lake, we slept with our bedroom window cracked open in all but most inclement weather. Nighttime sounds included Harbor Seals chasing down Silver Salmon, Brown Bears scavenging the beach, waves lapping the shore, hooting owls and – for a few nights in spring and fall – flocks of migrating geese.

To get a look at Chignik Lake’s migrating Brant, you need a bit of luck with timing (late April through mid May are best), clear skies or high cloud cover, and a good pair of binoculars or a long camera lens. With few exceptions, they’re up there, though David Narver reported them as “occasional” on the river. Birders seriously intent on getting a good look at this species would do well to check out Izembek National Wildlife Reserve way down at the big toe of the Alaska Peninsula. More than 90 percent of the Brant population that utilizes the Pacific flyway – along with half the world’s Emperor Geese – stop here each fall. That’s about 150,000 Brant and tens of thousands of Emperor Geese. (Note to self: go to Izembek!)

Here’s a little better look at Brant in flight. They’re fairly abundant near Point Hope, Alaska, which is situated within their breeding range. (Point Hope, Alaska, September 1, 2013)

Among Brants’ favorite forage is Eel Grass. As Chignik Lagoon continues to grow more silted-in and Eel Grass beds there expand, it will be interesting to see if in the future Brant begin to utilize this area. So why, as Brant feed extensively on Eel Grass, is their specific name “bernicla” (barnacle)? It was formerly believed that certain geese were spontaneously generated from barnacles. In fact, until fairly recently the Catholic Church permitted Catholics to eat these geese on Fridays as they counted as fish. See: Wikipedia.

The shifting forms flocks of geese glide in and out of invite a wandering imagination. With Sockeye Salmon soon to ascent the river, these Brant seem to be pointing the way. (May 3, 2018)

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

Brant Branta bernicla
Order: Anseriformes
Family: Anatidae
Branta: Latinized Old Norse Brandgás = burnt-black goose
bernicla: from the Latin for barnacle

Status at Chignik Lake, 2016-19: Spring & Fall migrant seen and heard flying in flocks

David Narver, Birds of the Chignik River Drainage, summers 1960-63: Rare on Chignik River

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

Aniakchak National Monument and Preserve Bird List: Presence Documented

Previous Article: Cackling Goose (Aleutian Form) – Picture a Canada Goose with a White Necklace

Next Article: Mallard

*For a clickable list of bird species and additional information about this project, click here: Birds of Chignik Lake

Birds of Chignik Lake: Red-necked Grebe

What a beauty. The face striping marks this specimen as a juvenile. The Bend on the upper Chignik (just below the lake) proved to be a consistently reliable place to get close enough to waterfowl to score good photographs. (October 23, 2017)

Red-necked Grebes are another among the Chignik’s several fish-hunting birds. We didn’t see them often, but when they were on the lake or river we always grabbed our binoculars for a closer look. It’s a good bet that they breed on Black Lake or nearby tundra ponds.

Buffleheads, goldeneyes, mergansers… and center stage an adult Red-necked Grebe in nonbreeding plumage. (Chignik Lake, January 24, 2017)

These were two of three juveniles that visited the lake in the fall of 2017. (Chignik Lake, October 20, 2017)

Example of a Red-necked Grebe in breeding plumage. (Potter’s Marsh, Anchorage, Alaska. June 24, 2017)

Red-necked Grebe Range Map: with permission from The Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Birds of the World

Red-necked Grebe Podiceps grisegena
Order: Podicipediformes
Podiceps: from the Greek
podicis = rump – refers to the posterior positioning of the grebe’s feet
grisegena: from the Latin
griseus = gray & gena = cheek 

Status at Chignik Lake 2016-19: Occasional in Fall & Winter

David Narver, Birds of the Chignik River Drainage, summers 1960-63: Common on Black Lake; Rare on Chignik Lake

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

Aniakchak National Monument and Preserve Bird List: Presence Documented

Previous Article: Yellow-billed Loon

Next Article: Pied-billed Grebe – An Alaska Peninsula First

*For a clickable list of bird species and additional information about this project, click here: Birds of Chignik Lake

Birds of Chignik Lake: Common Loon

Common Loon – Chignik Lake, August 17, 2018

Words such as “common,” “uncommon” and “rare” can be vexingly imprecise. So, what are the chances of seeing a Common Loon on Chignik Lake? Generally pretty good, which prompts the question: Have Common Loons – which David Narver recorded us “uncommon” back in the early ’60’s – become more common on The Lake in recent years? And if so, does that explain the relative absence of the smaller Red-throated Loon – which Narver reported as “common?” I love questions like this, even if the answers are tough to know.

These Commons appeared to be cooperatively feeding as they worked their way along the shoreline. (Chignik Lake, January 14, 2018)

We encountered Common Loons with some frequency – as individuals, in pairs, and at times in what appeared to be family groups of four or five. Commons’ diets are comprised mainly of small fish – lots and lots of them. According the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, a pair with two chicks can consume about half a ton over a 15-week period. Unlike River Otters, mergansers and goldeneyes, Commons usually swallow their prey underwater. I was therefore unable to observe what species of fish they might be targeting. Sticklebacks, small char and juvenile salmon are all likely candidates. The system also holds populations of smelt and sculpins.

Right down to it’s gem-like eye and armed with a serious bill, Common Loons surely rank as one of North America’s most striking birds. (Chignik Lake, August 17, 2018)

Even in silhouette, there’s no mistaking a loon. (Common Loon, Chignik Lake, August 20, 2016)

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

Common Loon Gavia Immer
Order: Gaviiformes
Gavia: sea mew
immer: perhaps from the Latin immergo – to immerse; or from the Swedish immer – which refers to the ashes of a fire and suggesting the loon’s coloration

Status at Chignik Lake 2016-19: Common to Uncommon

David Narver, Birds of the Chignik River Drainage, summers 1960-63Uncommon

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

Aniakchak National Monument and Preserve Bird List: Presence Documented

Previous Article: Pacific Loon

Next Article: Yellow-billed Loon

*For a clickable list of bird species and additional information about this project, click here: Birds of Chignik Lake