After the Fog Burned off – Eagles

As swallows swooped and soared, this pair of Bald Eagles began a chorus of their characteristic high-pitched piping. The sunshine must’ve felt as good to them as it did to us.

Two days in a row we’ve woken to heavy fog here at The Lake. It wasn’t forecast either day. Yesterday by mid-morning, the mist had burned off. When it did, the birds came out in force. From our vantage point on the deck outside my “office,” Barbra and I saw or heard Pine Grosbeaks, Pine Siskins, Redpolls, Wilson’s Warblers, Ravens, Magpies, Golden-crowned Sparrows, American Robins, Fox Sparrows, Violet-green Swallows, Tree Swallows and out on the lake a small group of Black Scoters and a few passing Glaucus-winged Gulls. But the stars of the morning were a pair of mature Bald Eagles that took up perches on a favorite utility pole near the lakeshore.

This was the view from our dining room window yesterday morning just after dawn. The village of Chignik Lake lies only a few miles upriver from a bay on the Alaska Gulf, so we get our share of wet weather. 

As the sun began peeking through the fog, the first eagle to arrive did its best to dry its soggy wings. Either that, or this is one of those rare Peacock Eagles.

His (her?) mate hadn’t yet arrived and I moved a little closer to capture a portrait. Once the fog lifted, we had a day of blue skies. Temperatures climbed into the 60’s so we took the opportunity to work on our “Alaska Tans” – defined as tans that cover the backs of one’s hands, face and neck down to the level of a shirt or coat collar. But by early afternoon, it was warm enough (mid-60’s) to sit outside in a just a shirt, shorts and bare feet and read (Barbra) and play guitar (me).

While I worked on photos, Barbra scanned for birds from the deck outside her former classroom. Off in the distance to the right, along the far edge of the lake, the second eagle can be seen soaring low. (You might have to enlarge this photo.) The duplex in front of Barbra is where we live – on the righthand side. 

There are at least 50 nesting boxes in this bird-loving village of only about 50 to 70 residents. The boxes are occupied almost exclusively by either Violet-green or Tree Swallows. Both species seem inclined to investigate anything out of the ordinary in their neighborhood – us, eagles, other birds. The real threats to swallows are Chignik Lake’s abundant Magpies – notorious nest robbers. In years past, Merlins, Northern Shrikes and occasional Sharp-shinned Hawks have also posed a threat, but none of these species appear to be present this year – at least so far.

A mated pair? Siblings? Friends? (Do eagles have friends?) It was interesting to watch these two repeatedly mirror each other’s behavior. We’ve read about these dreaded Dracula Eagles – another rare sighting.

As I mentioned, we’ve had two consecutive mornings of heavy fog. Inspired by the way the morning cleared up yesterday, last evening we prepared our pack raft in anticipation of doing a three-mile river float today. Unfortunately, the weatherman got it completely wrong. The fog only grudgingly lifted late in the morning and instead of the calm that had been forecast, winds – the bane of rafting – kicked up. So I spent the morning working on photos. Yet hope springs eternal. The prediction for tomorrow morning is for partial sunshine and calm, so perhaps we can get in one last river float before we have to pack up the gear and mail it to Newhalen. Every hour of these final days at The Lake is a time to savor.

If you enjoyed this post and would like to see some of the birds mentioned and more of the landscape around Chignik Lake, check out the link below:

Morning Nature Walk, the Chigniks

Hope your day is going well!

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.

Looking for Love

His colors will never be brighter than they are right now, nor his call more cheerful. Pine Grosbeaks tend to be irregular in their presence, but for the past two years in Chignik Lake they’ve been regular residents. For a look at a nearby female, which is very differently colored, see below. (Note the midges flying around to the right in the above photo. With big insect hatches coming off the lake and river, our swallows should be here any day!) 

Most days in the village the optimistic Peee-Peeet! of Pine Grosbeaks can be heard as they fly overhead or perch atop the tallest spruce trees. Always striking, the males are particularly colorful during springtime. Like their crossbill cousins, Pine Grosbeaks can be remarkably unwary. Move slowly around them, sit quietly, and they may forage on the ground practically at your feet. I’ve even had one perch on my head!

Female Pine Grosbeaks feature a rich olive-gold on their head, upper back, rump and often on their upper breast. This time of year, the leaf buds of deciduous trees figure heavily in Pine Grosbeaks’ diets. During wintertime they can be attracted to feeders featuring black oil sunflower seeds, suet or (I’m guessing) peanuts. They also love small fruit and during warmer months will include insects in their diet.

The “gros” of grosbeak is from the French gros, which means large. This is a species we’ll be looking for this summer in Hokkaido, Japan – part of their ranged across the Northern Hemisphere.

Two Thumbs Up – Meet the Alula

Hovering as she hunted for flying insects at a Montana pond, this female Red-winged Blackbird was able to keep from “stalling out” by redirecting air flow over her wings with her alulae, the tufts sticking up on the fore edge of her wings.

It’s easy to find oneself marveling at the ease and grace with which a raptor or songbird flies – the seamless changes of direction, the steep climbs, the ability to hover, the smooth landings. Aiding in these intricate maneuvers is a small tuft of tiny feathers that the bird can manipulate to create a pocket of whirling air – a vortex – which helps it finesse some of its most amazing moves.

It appears that the alula evolved approximately 130 million years ago during the Cretaceous Period, first in genus Protopteryx and a few million years later in Eoalulavis, or Dawn Bird. Earlier species such as the bird-like dinosaur Archaeopteryx, Old Wing, lacked alulae, indicating that while they probably were capable of gliding, they most likely did not fly in the sense that modern birds fly.

 

Bearing 3 to 5 small, asymmetrical flight feathers, the alula is found on modern bird species as well as on some pre-avian dinosaurs that were capable of flight. It’s the bird’s first digit, analogous to the human thumb. Illustrations courtesy of: Muriel Gottrop – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:BirdWingFeatherSketch.png

Ink and Light: Snow Birds and Basho

Snow Birds: House Sparrows, Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia

Come!
Let’s go snow-viewing
till we’re buried!
Matsuo Basho, 1644 – 1694

House Sparrow males and females are dimorphic: a female is center in this photo, accompanied by three males. This species has adapted so well to life with people, they’ve become nearly ubiquitous in places of human habitation throughout the world – and nearly absent in more natural environments.

Basho suffered from severe bouts of depression, occasionally becoming recluse for long periods of time. A solitary nature took him on a number of journeys, alone, along routes that were often well off the beaten path. The Edo Five Routes which he followed on one of his earliest journeys were considered to be among Japan’s most dangerous roads; When he first embarked on this trek, he expected to be killed by thieves or to simply die along the way. Widely regarded as the world’s finest master of hokku (haiku), his poetic travel log Oku no Hosomichi (The Narrow Road to the Interior) is considered to be his finest work. 

Ink & Light: “At First Sight” – Love and Lines from Richard Brautigan

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At First Sight: Sandhill Cranes, Northern British Columbia

Sandhill Cranes choose partners based on graceful mating dances and remain together for life.

…and our graves will be like two lovers washing
their clothes together
In a laundromat
If you will bring the soap
I will bring the bleach.
Richard Brautigan (from Romeo and Juliet, 1970)

– Raised in abject poverty, Richard Brautigan (1935-1984) was struggling to gain a foothold in San Francisco’s literary scene when, in 1967, he published Trout Fishing in America. The counter-culture novel catapulted him to international fame. A year later he solidified his reputation with In Watermelon Sugar.