Again to The Lake

It is good to be back. This was the view from our living room window this morning. If you look closely on the water, you can see the rings and dimples of salmon parr feeding on emerging midges.

May 22, Chignik Lake: After a day of glorious sunshine – which prompted us to go for a hike (a crane, two snipe, our first-of-the-year Savannah Sparrows, several other birds, wild violets) I woke this morning to drizzle with more in the forecast for the next few days. We’ll still get out. There’ll be sunbreaks, and we have rainwear. 

This rainbow arcing over the village featured in the view out our front door this morning. Our home is part of the school campus, to which these buildings also belong – additional housing (mostly vacant) to the right, the school itself to the left. Situated between the far house and the school is the diesel generator building, indicated by the two small smoke stacks. The mountains in the background received fresh snow just yesterday.

The department of Fish & Game will begin counting salmon on the first of June, just 10 days from this writing. A spate of small planes flying in personnel and supplies to the facility at the weir will occur any time now. Two friends set nets yesterday, but I haven’t yet had an opportunity to talk with them to see if they caught any early salmon. 

The landscape goes from brown to green with amazing rapidity this time of year. The lawn will be permitted to grow wild until after the dandelions have gone to down. Our finch population – Pine Grosbeaks, Pine Siskins and Common Redpolls – feast on the seeds. (See “Finches of the Dandelion Jungle.”)

The landscape is beginning to really green up. At 56.25° north (about the same as Edinburgh, Scotland), the climate here is perennially cool. First light, announced daily by a Golden-crowned Sparrow singing in earnest from the alders outside our bedroom window, came at 5:09 this morning. Last light won’t depart till 11:51 PM, so we’re already getting more than 19½ hours of daylight. Sunrise and Sunset times occurred at 6:04 AM and 10:56 PM – nearly 17 hours. Even obscured by clouds, that’s a lot of solar energy for plants rooted in rich volcanic soil and receiving abundant rainfall. During summer, the peninsula coast is as stunningly verdant (and the seaside cliffs, waterfalls sheeting from the tops, nearly as spectacular) as any imagination you might have of the Hawaiian Islands. Inland at The Lake, the summer’s deep and varied hues of green rival that of any emerald land. Already, the beginnings of Chocolate Lilies, Lupine, Wild Geranium, Iris, Horsetail, Cow Parsnip, ferns and more are pushing up… willows decorated with soft, fuzzy catkins, leaf buds on alders and salmonberry bushes near bursting.

I keep meaning to test my guitar against the Golden-crowned’s song – three notes, four if he begins with a slide on the first note. Coltrane, Davis and Armstrong had greater range, but for sheer clarity of tone these birds are masters. Blow, little sparrow! Blow!

We’ve been working each day to bring our home into shape. Having gathered in a couple of new interior decorating ideas while putting our place in Newhalen together and having had a year away to reimagine a few things in this house, we’ve got it looking better than ever. Yesterday, with Barbra’s help I hung 10 acrylic photographs I took in far flung places from Hokkaido to Mongolia to Alaska’s Kenai Fjords to here in the Chigniks. There’s even a favorite shot from a trout lake in Oregon. 

“Barbra!” a small boy cried out upon seeing us from a Covid-safe distance the other day. “Where did you go? Your whole class missed you!” Both of us were, in the words of Bob Dylan, “born a long way from home.” Amidst a peripatetic life, we finally found that place here at The Lake. Leaving when the school closed last year was difficult. The return has been stirring… at times overwhelming. 

Although the school district provides these rentals as “fully furnished,” at the modest prices they charge one would be correct in assuming that overall the furniture is pretty so-so. The beds are the exception; the mattresses are terrific!

Thinking that we’d be in Newhalen for several years, we acquired a few items – decent bookshelves, coffee and end tables, a small but elegant writing station that adjusts for working while either standing or sitting… even details such as nice throw pillows for the sofa… all of which have added up to make an appreciably more congenial living space. Perhaps our favorite item is a pub-style dining table – a high table with tall chairs. ”Up high” is more comfortable than “down low,” especially for us longer-legged types, and the additional six inches in height is just enough to enhance the vantage and view out the windows. 

A group of Greater Scaup has been showing up to dive for aquatic vegetation in a cove visible from our dining window and it was from that window that this photograph was taken. Into the breeding season now, most ducks have paired up and dispersed, but along with the scaup, we regularly see both White-winged and Black Scoters on the lake.

Upon returning to The Lake, we were asked to agree to self-quarantine for a period of 14 days. Thus far there have been no cases of Coronavirus in The Chigniks and everyone wants to keep it that way. The Lake is a village of 50 people, many of them elders. Right now, we don’t have a permanent health aid, so our tiny clinic isn’t regularly open. There are two positions available… 

Even by Alaska standards, Chignik Lake is truly tiny and remote. No restaurants. One small store that would just about fit inside an average living room. A short, bumpy, dirt airstrip. A shed with a pair of diesel-fueled generators that supply the village’s electricity and that can pretty much be counted on to cut out or to be shut down for maintenance periodically – (you’re well advised to frequently save any work you’re doing on the computer).

A stunningly plumaged Male Tree Swallow stands watch near a nesting box occupied by his mate. Each time I think I’ve counted all the boxes put up for swallows in this village, I notice a couple more tucked away under the eaves of a house or mounted on a utility pole. Suffice it to say there are dozens. Native Americans’ happy association with these birds goes back beyond recorded history. Having lived in communities that don’t extend such welcoming to these insectivores, we can testify that their presence makes a huge difference in the number of flying bugs. 

Just about anything we need – screws, batteries, wood for birdhouses, baking powder, clothing… everything, really – has to be planned for ahead of time, shopped for online, ordered, and its arrival patiently awaited. Though it’s not common, there have been times when even groceries have taken weeks to make it out here. (The record has been three weeks.) One learns to think about it before ordering anything perishable, and it pays to advise people shipping goods out here to package them with special care to accommodate multiple plane changes and the bumpy landing. A dentist and an eye doctor fly out once a year to spend a day doing examinations. I suppose I’ll take student portraits for the school this year…

You simply can’t be of a frame of mind of “needing” anything “right now.” This is a wonderful place to hone the arts of planning ahead, a mindful approach to living, taking joy in the moment, and patience.

And here’s a male Violet-green Swallow. With midges hatching on the lake on and off throughout the day, the village is frequently filled with the chattering and aerial displays of these beautifully accomplished pilots that seem to redefine air.

There are, of course, difficulties associated with all this. While we do manage to usually have on hand fresh fruit and vegetables (potatoes, cabbage, carrots, parsnips, rutabaga, apples, avocados, grapefruit and Brussels sprouts ship well and can survive the typical two or three-day journey out; cauliflower, sweet corn, snap peas and pears are riskier. But forget about lettuce and most other fruits – those are city-visit foods unless a friend comes out and hand-carries them). Dried mushrooms take the place of fresh, and we go through canned diced tomatoes (and salsa!) like they’re goin’ out of style. 

Of course, we usually have some sort of wild berries on hand – fresh or fresh-frozen blueberries, lingonberries and salmonberries, and from time to time we make a salad of Fireweed shoots or Dandelion greens. We’re lucky in that we love salmon – which we take on flies we’ve tied – and are frequently gifted with moose meat, which we find superior to beef in most dishes. Every once in awhile we luck into some locally-gathered seafood: Tanner (Snow) Crab, clams, urchins, halibut, sea lettuce.

Getting other meat out here is expensive. If we go into town (into Anchorage), we bring back a tote filled with chicken, pork, beef and sometimes seafood such as scallops, shrimp and crab from Costco. Otherwise, we pay one of the bush airline employees to shop for us. She makes the purchases in the morning, gets our meat and and perhaps a few other delicate perishables on the plane that same day and with luck we have it by afternoon. We buy meat once or twice a year, repackage it into serving-sized portions, vacuum seal it and freeze it. 

We bake all our own bread – the best way of assuring fresh, quality loaves.

I took this photo, one of many tributaries in the Chignik drainage, as we flew into The Lake on May 12. One of these tributaries has a small run of Steelhead… and we finally figured out which one it is. So… If we can get up there…

There are other inconveniences. We’ve been waiting eagerly for our Hondas (ATV’s/quads) to ship out. Getting our boat out here is proving to be quite a logistical puzzle. Shopping online can be challenging. Often you’d just like to hold an item you’re thinking about purchasing in your hands – leaf through a few pages of a book, try on a pair of jeans, feel the grip of a kitchen utensil, evaluate fly-tying materials with your fingertips or see for yourself just how large or small a certain item is. But you can’t, so you make your best guess and hope whatever it is fits well enough or suits the purpose you have in mind.

You learn to look past some things. A shirt with slightly frayed cuffs still has “some good wear in it.” Something that could use a fresh coat of paint “can go awhile longer without one.” A window pane that has a bit of a problem is lived with, because getting the materials out here and figuring out how to make the repair… isn’t going to happen anytime soon.

There are benefits of making a mental contract to live with these inconveniences. (Many benefits, actually.) One of which is that none of the three Chignik villages have had cases of Coronavirus. A health team recently flew in and tested all three villages.

Of all the places I’ve lived, it is in this house that the rain falls on the roof like music and sometimes reminds me of similar music that lulled me to sleep in the Philippines and a small house where I lived in a quiet part of Japan. 

I’ve never lived any place where each morning begins with birdsong as it does here. In that regard, it’s like a permanent vacation on a favorite childhood lake – three far-too-short days in a tent or rented cabin supplanted by a life in a tidy, cozy lakeside home.

And there’s this… which only recently (upon moving back here) came to me. Imagine a sort of stock “beautiful view” from a window. An apartment high up in a skyscraper overlooking a city; a house commanding a view of a beach or a rocky coastline; or a window framing a vista of mountains – the Rockies, the Alps. 

All of these images are lovely.

Yet they are somewhat static. 

Except for the effect the relatively slow progression of seasonal change may bring to the view, or the changing light from day to day and hour to hour… to take in these views once is to take them in for the next several weeks or even months without much anticipation of change.

The view outside our windows is dynamic. The weather moving from sea to sea across this narrow peninsula is dramatic, the moods set by changing light sometimes stunning. There is wildlife – birds, bears, shoaling and leaping salmon, insect hatches, hungry seals, otters, foxes, an occasional wolf, eagles, owls… and there’s the comings and goings of friends (and everyone in this village is a friend) as they launch their boats or come in with the day’s catch, a freshly taken moose, or a shipment that was delivered to The Bay. 

Male Common Redpoll outside our kitchen window.

This morning, as I was proofreading this piece of writing, I saw the season’s very first school of salmon heading up the lake. Between now and October, hundreds of thousands more will follow, mostly Reds but also Pinks, Silvers, Kings, a very few Steelhead, lots of sea run char and close to the ocean, Chums.

Pine Siskins (above), redpolls, Golden-crowned Sparrows, Pine Grosbeaks and magpies have been daily visitors to our yard to take advantage of the seeds I put out for them. Watching them as we wash dishes makes the chore go faster.

Quiet. The entire time I have been writing this morning, (both yesterday and  today) the only sounds have been the off and on hum of the refrigerator (sometimes at night, I unplug it for awhile… real, blessed quiet), the gentle whistle of water coming to boil in our coffee kettle, the songs and cries of birds – thrushes, swallows, warblers, sparrows, redpolls, siskins, magpies, ravens, ducks, gulls -, and the steady music of rain on the roof. 

Today we will tackle the organization of the fishing & photography room.

I’ve been striving to practice three hours a day on the guitar. 

          O snail,
          Climb Mount Fuji
          But slowly, slowly!


Birds of Chignik Lake: Merlin – Lady of the Lake

Male Merlin, Chignik Lake. In medieval times in Europe, Merlins were knows as “Lady Hawks” as it was noble women who most often used them in falconry. They are powerful fliers and deft hunters, adapted to chase down passerines, small shorebirds and occasional quail. (August 22, 2018)

Although I’m not certain as to the precise whereabouts, somewhere along the Chignik River there is a magpie nest or similar assemblage of sticks no longer used by its original inhabitants that a pair of Merlins move into each year and make their own. Merlins like nests; they just don’t like building them.

Hunting at White Spruce Grove. (Chignik Lake, August 19, 2016)

It takes a sharp eye to spot these little falcons – they zip by in a blur. My first encounter with Chignik Lake’s Merlins came shortly after I arrived that first year and decided to take on this project. On a dewy morning in mid-August, I hiked the half-mile to the grove of White Spruce where I planned to look for birds. Along the way, I noticed a phenomenon I’d never before seen: a slug was descending from a spruce bough by means of a very fine strand of… mucous? That’s what the filament appeared to be. Our slugs are tiny (and our snails are even tinier – I’ll show you when I write up the article on Pacific Wrens), but even so, I found it surprising that whatever this slug was discharging would be strong enough to support its weight. Perhaps this behavior is old hat to macalogists, but I couldn’t find much information about it.

A new one for me – slug thread. (Chignik Lake, August 19, 2016)

I’d set up my camera tripod on the falling-in porch of a tumbling down house atop a bluff that gave me a view overlooking a patch of red-ripe currants and the river in one direction, a hillside salmonberry brake in another, and a vantage right into the tops of the trees at White Spruce Grove in another. At the time, I was shooting with a Nikon D4 and a Nikkor 200-400 lens with a 1.4 teleconverter, giving me an effective range of 550 mm – albeit with a bit of a focusing challenge.

Birds, berries, and salmon, the bluff overlooking The Bend on the Chignik River is one of my favorite places to shoot. (Chignik Lake, August 16, 2016)

That morning, I’d already documented Sandhill Cranes, Wilson’s, Yellow and Orange-crowned Warblers, Fox Sparrows, Hermit Thrushes, a Pacific Wren, Black-capped Chickadees, Glaucous-winged Gulls, Mew Gulls, Bald Eagles, magpies, Common Ravens and a Wilson’s Snipe that exploded from a tangle of Alders right in front of me and practically flew into my head. The Lake’s swallows – Violet-greens, Tree and Bank – had departed by the beginning of August. Most of the Fireweed had gone to seed, but Yarrow and Wild Geranium were still in bloom.  Out on the river, early Silvers – Coho Salmon – were announcing their arrival with leaps and resounding splashes. Further down, I could hear a kingfisher’s rattle.

At about 10 inches in length and weighing less than half a pound, these falcons are tiny dynamos. Unlike Peregrine Falcons, they don’t dive from above at their prey, but instead either chase down the passerines they feed on or attack them from below. (Chignik Lake, August 17, 2018)

Feral Currants (Chignik Lake, August 17, 2016)

By the first week in August, the salmonberry season is over and the swallows are gone. Down at The Bend, raspberries begin to ripen. Fireweed starts to go to seed as the raspberries pass their peak. Then the currants ripen – cascades of red jewels. Up at the berry bog, the blueberries are ready. The Silvers are in, but the warblers will soon be leaving and when they’re gone, so to will be the Merlins. With so many choices tugging in different directions, life at The Lake can be rather hectic.

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

Merlin Falco columbarius
Order: Falconiformes
Family: Falconidae
Falco: from Latin falcis = sickle
columbarius: from Latin columba = dove

Status at Chignik Lake, 2016-19: Regular inhabitants during summer. Absent in other Seasons

David Narver, Birds of the Chignik River Drainage, summers 1960-63: Rare on Chignik River (Listed as Pigeon Hawk)

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

Aniakchak National Monument and Preserve Bird List: Not Reported

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Previous: Bald Eagle – the Song of Summer

Next Article: Peregrine Falcon

*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.

Nature Watching & Nest Finding: An Exercise in Mindfulness

Male Common Merganser, Chignik Lake, March 23, 2017

I have a particular photograph that, when I got it, I was quite stoked. It’s beautiful. Everyone who has seen it says it’s a great picture. But I look at it now…

It’s a shot of a Common Merganser taking wing. Click. Capture. The camera settings were correct. The light was wonderful. The moment is frozen in time.

He was feeding. Diving. Occasionally coming up with a small fish of some kind. Stocking  calories on a cold winter day.

I moved closer. And closer. And I flushed him.

See the nest? Spring through summer, anytime you flush a bird – and especially if a bird is behaving as though it is injured, tread carefully; there’s probably a nest nearby.

The speckling, which breaks up their silhouette, makes these Semipalmated Plover eggs especially difficult to see from a distance – unless you’re looking for them. (Interior Alaska, June 2017)

It’s a dilemma. Ongoing. As a naturalist, a photographer, a student of wildlife, I want to get close. I am drawn toward invading a being’s space. I want to see them in detail. I want to find their nest or den. I want to see what they are eating. I want to learn where they roost or rest.

But I really don’t want to disturb them. Most of my favorite photographs of animals are those in which they aren’t looking at me – photos in which they are going about their business hunting, eating, digesting, loafing, soaking up sunshine or huddling against a storm.

This is how I hope to capture birds – going about their business, oblivious to me. (Pileated Woodpecker, Oregon, June 2012)

As sportsmen and naturalists, we disturb animals all the time. We flush birds. We invade habitat. If my fishing season was limited to catching only what I need to stock my freezer, it would be a mighty short season. But I love to fish. So I fish for charr and trout that I have no intention of keeping, and I cast flies for salmon long after I’ve got plenty of fillets to get me through another year, letting go the additional Silvers that come to hand after I’ve got my quota.

This is not a dilemma to be solved, I think. Rather it is one to keep in mind.

As soon as we step foot in nature, we’re going to have an impact. Plants and invertebrates will be crushed underfoot. Birds will be flushed. A friend of mine walking on a river island once heard a crunch underfoot. He lifted his shoe to find a dripping smear of yolk and albumen from the crushed remains of a Killdeer’s nest. He felt really bad about that. If the world was populated only by bird-loving naturalists, I suppose evolution would have arranged for eggs in shades of neon and florescence.

Let’s hope all four of these greenish, brown-speckled eggs made it into fully fledged Siberian Rubythroats. (Hokkaido, Japan, June 2017)

In recent years, I’ve become pretty good at finding birds’ nests – a skill I’m reluctant to put into practice unless circumstances make it necessary. Hiking through an overgrown field in Hokkaido, Japan, a Siberian Rubythroat burst into flight practically beneath my feet. I knew from experience that there was undoubtedly a nest nearby, and that I’d better take great care with each footstep until I either located the nest and avoided trampling it or had gingerly stepped altogether clear of the area.  

Singing his heart out not far from the above nest, this male Siberian Rubythroat has staked out his small piece of Hokkaido. (June 2017)

I once flushed a mallard off her nest. Didn’t know she had a nest until I walked closer to where she had been. I quickly backed away, but it was too late. Before I could get completely out of the area, a pair of crows were happily going to town on eggs that would not become ducklings. Initially, I was mad at the duck for choosing such an open place to build a nest. But the fault was mine; I didn’t know enough about duck behavior to understand that she was brooding.

Those crows knew, though. Smart birds.

Birds are amazingly aware of their surroundings, and so I have little doubt that this merganser and her brood were aware of my presence. But I was tucked away behind vegetation photographing terns. She passed by with a circumspect eye directed my way, but not in panic. Good. A short distance upriver, they resumed feeding. (Tuul River, Mongolia, July 2015)

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Previous: Red-breasted Merganser – Not just Flashy. Fast!

Next Article: Northern Harrier – Rare but There

Birds of Chignik Lake: Common Merganser – She Wears the Crown

Another stickleback bites the dust. Along with sculpins, the Chignik’s Three-spine and Nine-spine Sticklebacks frequently feature in the Common Merganser’s diet. (Female Common Merganser, Chignik Lake, March 14, 2017)

Often called Saw-bills for their serrated, fish-grabbing bills, Common Mergansers are one of the Chignik’s more common wintertime ducks. And happily for naturalists photographers, they’re one of the more approachable species. This is probably due to the fact that they aren’t much sought by gunners.

In typical duck fashion, the drakes are indeed strikingly handsome. Here a breeze out of the north is pushing the feathers on his crown up a bit, but they’re considerably shorter and never so dramatically displayed as the hen’s, making Common Mergansers the only species of duck in which the hen shows more of a crown than does the drake. (Chignik Lake, March 14, 2017)

The reason mergansers aren’t much hunted was nicely summed up by Edward Howe Forbush in Birds of America when he wrote: Its flesh as ordinarily cooked is so rank and strong that its flavor is not much superior to that of an old kerosene lamp-wick… As a result, their numbers are stable in North America and appear to be expanding in Europe, where they are known as the Goosander.

Dawn hadn’t yet broken over the lake’s southern mountains when I looked out my window to see a group of a dozen or so mergansers working together to herd Dolly Varden Char against the shoreline. I snuck down to the lake, positioned myself behind a spruce tree and made a few photographs. During my youth back in Pennsylvania, we’d have called a char of that size a “nice keeper.” This merganser is probably a first-year bird and could be either a male or a female. The ducks in the background are Greater Scaup with a drake Common Goldeneye (second from left) mixed in. (December 12, 2016)

Common Mergansers primarily nest in tree cavities, and as they are large ducks (a little over two feet long on average), they require large trees. This would appear to be a key limiting factor in their range and distribution, and the main reason they are not commonly found in The Chigniks during the mid-spring through summer breeding season. As such, this is a species that would benefit from the installation of nesting boxes.

Deadly efficient piscivores, mergansers disappear in an arcing dive in a flash. Once they locate a school of fish, virtually every dive is successful, leaving them plenty of time to sleep or loaf on the water surface, shoreline, rocks or ice. (Chignik Lake, January 31, 2017)

Bellies filled with fresh fish, it’s time to loaf and catch some rays. The longer the ice remains, the longer the mergansers hang around in spring. As soon as forested ponds and lakes in the interior become ice free, these mergansers will be gone. But I have to wonder if nesting boxes of the right size might induce a pair to stay at the lake. (Chignik Lake, March 23, 2017)

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

Common Merganser Mergus merganser
Order: Anseriformes
Family: Anatidae
Mergus: from Latin for an unspecified waterbird
mergansercompound word from the Latin “mergus” as per genus name + “anser” = goose

Status at Chignik Lake, 2016-19: Common from late summer through early Spring

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

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

Aniakchak National Monument and Preserve Bird List: Present

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Previous: Bufflehead – Our Smallest Diving Duck

Next Article: Red-breasted Merganser – Not just Flashy. Fast!

*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.

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:

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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

*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.

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

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


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

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