Birds of Chignik: Kittlitz’s Murrelet – North America’s Rarest Seabird

This Kittlitz’s Murrelet was caught in Kachemak Bay, Alaska (near Homer). Note the very small bill compared to the similar Marbled Murrelet. (Photo U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service on Wikipedia)

Kittlitz’s Murrelets are an uncommon, poorly studied species. Only a few nests have been located. They indicate solitary pairs (as opposed to colonial nesters) choosing sites above the tree line on the southern slopes of rugged mountains. Often the nests are located on scree fields associated with past or present glacial activity. The pair lays just one egg. The Kittlitz’s’ diet is not well known, but as bill size and shape generally indicate feeding preferences, it might be surmised that they pursue somewhat different prey than the closely related Marbled Murrelet, which has a larger, slightly curved bill.

Although the specimen in the above photo doesn’t show it, in addition to a small bill Kittlitz’s Murrelets show golden-brown in their plumage during breeding season. Non-breeding birds tend toward mottled white and black much like their Marbled cousins, but in the Kittlitz’s the eye is surrounded by white whereas in the Marbled a black cap extends downward to cover the eye and the upper cheek. (See the photos in Marbled Murrelet – Seabird of Moss Nests and Old Growth Forests.)

This Kittlitz’s Murrelet shows a bit of golden-brown in its breeding plumage. Again, note the very small bill. Diving birds, they are known to prey on fish such as sand lances and herring as well as on crustaceans. (Photo U. S. Fish and Wildlife Services)

These are small birds, only about 9.5 inches from bill to tail. We will continue carefully checking the murrelets we encounter in Chignik Bay and Chignik Lagoon in hopes of getting a clear photograph. This is one of the rarest seabirds in North America. There aren’t many good photos of this species, and none at all that I could find of a Chignik bird. On the upside, our local coastal waters support abundant populations of both sand lances and herring which appear to be among the Kittlitz’s preferred dietary items, particularly during the nesting season. It is believed that about 14% of the Kittlitz’s population breeds on the Alaska Peninsula.

Due to this this species’ association with glaciers during breeding season, Kittlitz’s Murrelets appear to be particularly vulnerable to the impact of global warming trends.

Kittlitz’s Murrelet Range Map: Alaska Department of Fish and Game

Kittlitz’s Murrelet Brachyramphus brevirostris
Order: Charadriiformes
Family: Alcidae
Genus: Brachyramphus – from Ancient Greek brakhús = short + rhámphos = beak
Species: brevirostris – Latin: short-beaked

Status in Marine Waters near Chignik: Uncommon

David Narver, Birds of the Chignik River Drainage, summers 1960-63: Not observed as this is a marine species

Alaska Peninsula and Becharof National Wildlife Refuge Bird List, 2010: Uncommon in all Seasons

Aniakchak National Monument and Preserve Bird List: Present

Table of Contents and Complete List of Birds of Chignik Lake

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

For a list of reference materials used in this project, see: Birds of Chignik Lake

Birds of Chignik: Marbled Murrelet – Seabird of Moss Nests and Old-Growth Forests

Chignik Marbled Murrelet

Although rarely present in great numbers, Marbled and Kittzlet’s Murrelets can often be observed in the estuarial waters of Chignik Lagoon and along the rocky coast of Chignik Bay. (Chignik Bay, July 28, 2020)

Before I began this project, it never occurred to me that forest habitat might be critical to a seabird. Yet such is the case with the Marbled Murrelet. Although Russian explorers first identified this species in 1789, it’s nesting habits remained a mystery until 1974. Hoyt Foster, a tree-trimmer working high up on a Douglas Fir in California’s Big Basin Redwoods State Park noticed a ball of fluffy down in a mossy tree branch. He carefully wrapped the bird and took it to a biologist who identified it as a Marbled Murrelet chick.* Thus, a great mystery in avian biology was solved, and yet another very good reason was added to the growing list of reasons to preserve the remaining remnants of the West Coast’s old growth forests. Of particular importance to murrelets are those coastal forests growing within about 45 miles of rocky coastlines from northern California through southeastern Alaska.

Marbled Murrelet, Kenai Fjords, Alaska. The light-colored bill makes me think this is a recently-fledged specimen. Fully grown, this species measures just under 10 inches on average – small as seabirds go. (July 22, 2012)

In addition to moss covered tree branches, a smaller number of Marbled Murrelets lay their solitary egg amidst rocks on talus slopes and among boulders. Either way, the nests are unadorned and inconspicuous. Both parents feed the chick, generally returning in twilight or darkness to avoid leading predators to the nest. Like other diving seabirds, their diet consists of fish and other small animals they might catch in nearshore ocean waters.

Cascade Mountains, Oregon: photo by Matt Betts, April 12, 2016

When you think of nesting Marbled Murrelets, think of ancient trees, early morning fog sifting through fir and redwood limbs covered in thick moss and a small, vulnerable seabird nestled into that moss, her body warming one tiny, downy being

Marbled Murrelet Range Map

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

Marbled Murrelet Brachyramphus marmoratus
Order: Charadriiformes
Family: Alcidae
Genus: Brachyramphus – from Ancient Greek brakhús = short + rhámphos = beak
Species: marmoratus – Latin: overlain with marble

Status in Marine Waters near Chignik: Not abundant but frequently encountered in Chignik Bay and Chignik Lagoon; Infrequently encountered on Chignik Lake, particularly in Clarks River Bay

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

Alaska Peninsula and Becharof National Wildlife Refuge Bird List, 2010:Uncommon in all Seasons

Aniakchak National Monument and Preserve Bird List: Present

*See: Frost, Garrison, A Seabird in the Big Trees, Audubon Audublog, June 3, 2013

Table of Contents and Complete List of Birds of Chignik Lake

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

For a list of reference materials used in this project, see: Birds of Chignik Lake

Birds of Chignik: Common Murre – “The Flying Penguin”

Common Murre Alaska Gulf

The barring on this murre’s flank indicates a Common Murre. Thick-billed Murres, a close relative, have unmarked flanks. Standing about 15 to 18 inches tall, these somewhat penguin-like birds are close relatives of the Great Auk, a bird that stood 30 to 33 inches tall and went extinct in the mid-1800s. (Photo Resurrection Bay, Alaska, July 2012)

I haven’t yet managed to get a good photo of Chignik Bay’s murres, though we see them from spring through fall on excursions out onto salt water. Chowiet Island, located about 68 miles from Chignik Bay, is a known breeding site for this species.

When not nesting, murres are birds of the open sea. In fact, one of the most astonishing wildlife scenes we’ve ever witnessed was on a day in late summer when we hiked out to the tip of the peninsula at Point Hope. Apparently our hike coincided with the end of the breeding season. We stood on the beach and watched in awe as thousands upon thousands of murres and other seabirds poured from nearby sea cliffs and streamed passed us toward the open sea where they would spend the coming winter months. Having brought along no cameras, we drank in the moment, doing our best to commit the image to memory.

murres and puffins, Tikigaq Point Hope

At the tip of the Point Hope Peninsula 200 miles above the Arctic Circle, a birder can stand on the pebbled shoreline of the Chukchi Sea and watch murres, puffins, loons, ducks and other seabirds fly back and forth from nesting sites to feeding grounds throughout the nearly endless Arctic day. Flying from right to left, the birds in the photo are returning to nests, as evidenced by sand lances hanging from the bill of one of the puffins and one of the murres. You can bet that the rest of the flock have stomachs and gullets crammed full for waiting mates and youngsters! (August 20, 2012)

Unfortunately, the combination of a warming earth (and warming seas), oceans filling up with plastic and overfishing are taking their toll on murres. Although they remain abundant in most regions, numbers appear to be declining almost everywhere. The concern with any species that thrives as part of a crowd is that a threshold might be crossed after which numbers plummet drastically. We’ve seen this with avian species such as Eskimo Curlews and Passenger Pigeons as well as (I suspect) populations of salmon. Some species simply do better when there are lots of them.

Teuri Island Murres Flowerbed

As recently as 1963, there were an estimated 8,000 Common Murres nesting on Teuri Island off the coast of Hokkaido, Japan. When we visited the island in 2018, there were only eight. For certain species, when numbers become too low predation overwhelms the individuals that remain. This appears to be the case with Teuri’s murres. The few remaining birds are no match for the island’s Slatey-backed Gulls and aggressive Large-billed Crows. At some point, restoration efforts become nearly futile. Teuri’s murres are celebrated in art and literature and in decorative memorials such as this skiff converted into a flower garden. 

murres on sea stack near Homer Alaska

It truly is a joy to encounter a large colony of seabirds. These murres have crowded onto a sea stack near Homer, Alaska. (July 2009)

Common Murres on Sea Cliffs Kenai Fjords Alaska

Although they remind one of penguins, murres are actually members of the auk family. Capable of diving to depths of 150 feet or slightly more, they pursue fish, squid and krill as they “fly” through the water. (Kenai Fjords, Alaska, July 2013)

I’m looking out the window at an icy Chignik Lake as I write this on a blustery day in January, but I’m anticipating a calm morning at sea this coming summer when Barbra and I might be able to get a halibut for the cooler along with some good photos of our local murres.

Range Map Common Murre

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

Common Murre Uria aalge
Order: Charadriiformes
Family: Alcidae
Genus: Uria – from Greek ouriaa for a waterbird
Species: aalge – Danish aalge from Old Norse alka = auk

Status in Marine Waters near Chignik: Common

David Narver, Birds of the Chignik River Drainage, summers 1960-63: Not observed, as this is a marine species

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

Aniakchak National Monument and Preserve Bird List: Present

Table of Contents and Complete List of Birds of Chignik Lake

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

For a list of reference materials used in this project, see: Birds of Chignik Lake

Birds of Chignik: Black-Legged Kittiwake

Black-legged Kittiwake nesting

You can imagine the high-pitched clamor as a boat draws near a colony of nesting kittiwakes. The gregarious gulls cram into every available ledge, adding their own beds of mud, grass and seaweed. There the females will lay one to three eggs in hues that might range from blue to olive to brown. (Resurrection Bay, Alaska, June 22, 2013)

Fancifully named for a cry that resembles kit-ti-wake, Black-legged Kittiwakes are generally the most common gull – and at times the most common seabird – along the Chignik Coast. At an average size of 17 inches, the relatively slender kittiwake is a graceful master of the salt air, soaring and coasting effortlessly until it spies a herring or other small fish at which point it dives tern-like into the water. Because they snatch fish from near the surface, kittiwakes are the friends of fishermen and whale watchers alike; flocks of these smallish gulls crashing the ocean surface for baitfish are reliable indicators that cod, salmon, halibut or other gamefish – or whales – are pushing the small fish to the surface. Kittiwakes have an uncanny capacity for somehow knowing when whales are about to surface – cueing photographers as to where to focus.

Black-legged Kittiwake with herring

Some have described the kittiwake as a “dainty” gull, but there’s nothing dainty about that bill. Note the bright red mouth of this bird in breeding plumage. It will cram as many of these herring as it reasonably is able to into its stomach and regurgitate a good portion of them to feed its young. (Chignik Bay, Alaska, June 28, 2020)

With the exception of breeding season, these are birds of the ocean, seldom venturing inland. While they may follow fishing boats and other vessels in search of fish that might be disoriented in the wake, kittiwakes will not be found at garbage dumps as are some other gulls. In addition to diving from the air to catch fish, kittiwakes sometimes sit on the surface and catch prey.

Black-legged Kittiwakes Chignik Bay

Following a morning of feeding, a flock of kittiwakes rests on Eagle Rock in Chignik Bay. (July 28, 2020).

Black-legged Kittiwake flight

Look for distinctive black wingtips, a dark eye, an all yellow bill, angular, somewhat tern-like wings, and a more slender profile than that of most other gulls.

Black-legged Kittiwake nonbreeding plumage Kenai Fjords

The dark splotch on the back of the head is indicative of a nonbreeding kittiwake. Juveniles will also have this splotch as well as a dark collar, a distinctive dark pattern on their wings, and a dark bill. (Kenai Fjords National Park, Alaska, August 2, 2009)

As the climate continues to warm and overfishing throughout the world persists, kittiwakes are a species to keep a a concerned eye on. Although their populations worldwide are in the millions, steep declines have been observed in recent years.

Black-legged Kittiwake Range Map: with permission from The Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Birds of the World

Black-legged Kittiwake Rissa tridactyla
Order: Charadriiformes
Rissa: From Rita, the Icelandic name for this bird
tridactyla: Ancient Greek tridaktulos – three-toed. The kittiwake’s rear toe is reduced in size, giving the appearance of just three toes.

Status at Chignik Lake: Abundant in Chignik Lagoon and Chignik Bay, particularly in summer

David Narver, Birds of the Chignik River Drainage, summers 1960-63: Occasional in Chignik Lagoon

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

Aniakchak National Monument and Preserve Bird List: Present

Table of Contents and Complete List of Birds of Chignik Lake

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

For a list of reference materials used in this project, see: Birds of Chignik Lake

Birds of Chignik Lake: Willow Ptarmigan – Once Abundant at The Lake; Now Nearly a Cryptid

Willow Ptarmigan male

Hmm… I wore white slacks something like these to my high school senior prom. I think they are better suited to this dapper male Willow Ptarmigan. While on a backcountry backpacking excursion in Denali National Park a few years ago, we had an opportunity to observe and photograph Willows in frame-filling portraits like this. The male’s “potato! potato! potato!” call woke us each morning in a breathtaking landscape we shared with carpets of wildflowers, rushing glacial rivers, Grizzlies, Dall’s Sheep, Caribou, Moose, Wolves and Wolverines. (Denali National Park, June 9, 2017)

In choosing photographs for this project, I try to use pictures taken of local birds and, to the extent possible, to use my own captures. At the same time, I strive to select at least one photo for the article that clearly depicts characteristic markings and coloration of that species. Sometimes that’s not possible. I have yet to get any photograph at all of the Gyrfalcons that occasionally cruise through our valley. Clear captures of a few other species I’ve positively ID’d have eluded me as well – Northern Harriers gliding in an unphotographable distance, a Saw-whet Owl who evaded being photographed through high winds and rainstorms and his own secretive habits during a brief visit to our village being among examples.

Willow Ptarmigan nest eggs

We startled ptarmigan from their nests several times while hiking through willow thickets in Denali. The best procedure is to give the nest a respectable berth and continue hiking, but on this occasion I took the opportunity to snap a quick photo – with a telephoto lens and not disturbing the vegetation surrounding the well-concealed eggs. The hen soon returned. Willows may lay as few as four or as many as 14 inch-and-a-half to two-inch eggs. (Denali National Park, June 7, 2017)

The Willow Ptarmigan presents a somewhat different challenge.

We’ve never seen one here at The Lake. Or anywhere near The Lake.

Nor heard one, though we are familiar with their calls.

Nor found their scat, though we know what that looks like and have searched likely places for it.

willow ptarmigan scat

Willow Ptarmigan scat… in case you were wondering… (Denali National Park, June 14, 2017)

No one else has seen a clue of this species around here in recent years either, though everyone agrees that they were once abundant. “We used to sometimes find them in the swamp (marsh) right in the center of the village,” a guy my age told me. “Yeah, they used to be everywhere,” another friend observed. “Especially around Black River and Upper Lake.”

Not anymore. Whether they were locally shot out (they are famously unwary), overcome by  disease or simply no longer find the habitat here suitable is uncertain. In recent years they have been absent, and there are enough eyes looking out for them that if any were around, it would be known.

Willow Ptarmigan unwary

They’re not guarding nests. They’re not tame. They haven’t been baited. They’re just Willow Ptarmigan being Willow Ptarmigan, and as Barbra could as easily be approaching with a 20 gauge shotgun as with a camera, they’re illustrating a susceptibility to being locally extirpated by hunters. They aren’t merely “dumb.” Ptarmigan have been known to exhibit playful behavior with each other and they’re well adapted to the harsh environments they thrive in. But perhaps they trust the camouflaging qualities of their plumage – which becomes white during wintertime – a little too much. (Point Hope, Alaska, September 2, 2013)

And then, just a few weeks ago one morning while Barbra and I were out exploring after a fresh carpet of snow had been lain down, there they were. Not the birds themselves, but tracks. Unmistakable. Miniature three-toed snowshoes gently pressed into the powdery snow. Ptarmigan. No cryptozoologist on the trail of Bigfoot could have felt their heart soar higher than did ours at the finding. We stood rock still and listened. We watched, our eyes peering as far up the trail as we could see and into every little pocket and open space along the way searching for movement, a dark eyeball, anything. We quietly followed the tracks, not even daring to whisper till they abruptly disappeared. We continued our hunt in ever broadening circles, eyes sharp for a bird we knew would be as white as the snow itself this time of year.

No birds.

Yet.

But maybe they’re coming back. Oh, happy day!*

Willow Ptarmigan hen on nest

The portent of good things to come – and a scene we’d like to find near The Lake: a Willow hen brooding her eggs. Members of the grouse family, Willows are the only grouse species in which the males regularly assist in raising the young. (Denali National Park, June 8, 2017)

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

Willow Ptarmigan Lagopus lagopus
Order: Galliformes
Lagopus: Ancient Greek Lagos = hare + pous = foot: hare foot, for its heavily feathered feet which, as with hares, allows the ptarmigan to more easily walk on snow
lagopus: as per genus definition above

Status at Chignik Lake: Now rare, but as Willow Ptarmigan are seen elsewhere on the Alaska Peninsula, could repopulate in the future

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

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

Aniakchak National Monument and Preserve Bird List: Present

*From Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Part 2. Bardolph: “Oh Happy Day! I wouldn’t even trade a knighthood for my new, good fortune.”

Table of Contents and Complete List of Birds of Chignik Lake

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

For a list of reference materials used in this project, see: Birds of Chignik Lake

Birds of Chignik: Western Sandpiper – Elegance in a Tiny Being

Rufous scapulars and golden-brown highlights make the Western Sandpiper among our prettiest little shorebirds. Check out the tiny spoon at the tip of this little sandpiper’s down-curved bill. Such elegant detail in a tiny being. (Chignik River, July 24, 2020)

We had irregularly been encountering flocks of anywhere from dozens to perhaps a couple hundred small shorebirds on fishing trips to Devil’s Flats. Obsessed with putting flies in front of salmon and char, I had difficulty breaking away to attempt photographs of the little peeps. But as days passed and July headed toward August, I knew I’d better get with it before the visitors migrated out.

Chignik River Western Sandpiper

I am occasionally taken aback with photographic evidence of just how modest some of my field estimations of numbers in flocks can be. I’d been saying “dozens” when we encountered these sandpipers, but there are well over 100 birds spilling out of this frame and there are still more birds in a separate flock nearby. If you’ve got a screen large enough to not result in eyestrain, it might be interesting to see how many birds you come up with in the above picture. (Photo by Barbra Donachy, Chignik River, July 24, 2020)

Yet, even equipped with the right photographic equipment and good intentions, it wasn’t until the evening of a day late in July that Barbra and I finally got our shots. The fishing had been good, but the birds had been no-shows. We’d called it a day and were heading back to the skiff when the peeps finally arrived. Suddenly 200 or so birds were winging their way up the river, heading straight for the gravel shores of the island where we’d beached Buster. We immediately dropped our fishing gear into a loose pile and began setting up to shoot as the birds lit down along the rocky shoreline.

western sandpipers chignik river

At an average length of just 6½ inches – only a quarter of an inch larger than a junco – these birds presented us with the usual challenges in photographing, wary, tiny, ever-moving wild birds. We found that by crawling slowly and keeping vegetation between ourselves and the feeding sandpipers – tufts of tall grass, burdock, willows – we could approach fairly close without disturbing them. For a short while, they scurried through the river shallows and rocks bobbing their heads and feeding frenetically. At times they appeared to be using their bills to pick something minute from the water’s surface; at other times they jabbed and probed between rocks; and at still other times they seemed to use their bills as a small plows, pushing them forward to stir up the silty bottom, chirping and cheeping with enthusiasm at the smorgasbord they were finding. For a little while, there was quite a lot of busy activity.

And then they did something that astonished us. Almost as one, the feeding stopped, the chattering quieted, and the little birds seemed to disappear. Before we knew it, most of them had nestled into comfortable places among the rocks, tucked their bills beneath a wing, and closed their eyes. I’d never considered shorebirds roosting after a meal as do other birds, but of course they must. Had we not known the birds were there, I doubt we’d have noticed them. Suddenly, the many times I’d been walking along a shoreline and was startled by a flock of peeps exploding into flight practically under my feet came into focus. Even a falcon passing overhead might miss these birds at rest. It is their movement that gives them away.

western sandpiper sleeping Chignik River

Of course, not all of the birds slept at once. Always a few remained vigilant, continuing to feed and looking about them as they did. However, we’d learned something that day, and on subsequent outings we tested ourselves by carefully looking over the ground near any actively feeding birds. At times we were able to find additional birds that were roosting, birds that in the past we would have missed.

Western Sandpipers flight Chignik River

We stayed with the shoot as long as we could, but by the end the sunlight had gone from this part of the river and a chill was seeping into the air. Who knows what prompts avian decisions? At some point the sandpipers lifted into the air and flew back downriver. I read a short essay on how it is that they manage to fly together, banking and turning in unison without colliding into each other. But I still don’t really understand it, which is well enough.

All things come to an end, and so it was with this day. Our Sockeyes for the year had already been caught, cleaned, filleted and freezer-packed, so on this day we had successfully cast to the river’s Dolly Varden Char and Pink Salmon, and whether foul-hooked or fair, a few Reds had found our flies as well. It was early still for Silvers, but we searched anyway and in so doing took note of a few King Salmon which we failed to entice. Jacob’s Ladder, Yellow Monkeyflower and River Beauty were near their peak, signs of active bears were everywhere, and on the way home I got nice photos of our fledgling Rough-legged Hawks.

The range map indicates that these sandpipers are migrants, on their way south after nesting further north. As we’ll be able to begin skiffing the river as early as we want to this coming year, an objective will be to keep a keen eye out for when these birds arrive on The Chignik.

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

Western Sandpiper Calidris mauri
Order: Charadriiformes
Calidris: from Ancient Greek kalidris or skalidris, a term Aristotle used for some gray-colored shorebirds1
mauri: for the Italian botanist Ernesto Mauri

Status at Chignik Lake: Common on Chignik River gravel shorelines and bars for a few weeks in summer

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 & Fall; Uncommon in Summer; Not reported in Winter

Aniakchak National Monument and Preserve Bird List: Present

Click here for the: Table of Contents and Complete List of Birds of Chignik Lake

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

1From the article “Calidris” in Wikipedia, which sites Jobling, James A (2010). The Helm Dictionary of Scientific Bird Names. London: Christopher Helm. p. 84. ISBN 978-1-4081-2501-4.

For a list of reference materials used in this project, see: Birds of Chignik Lake

Birds of Chignik: Black Oystercatcher – the Bill that Fits the Bill

black oystercatcher chignik bay

A Black Oystercatcher works an intertidal mussel shoal at the base of Eagle Rock in Chignik Bay. 

A sharp eye is likely to pick out the crimson of a Black Oystercatcher’s bill before the entire bird can be made out. Although, as can be seen in the above photo, their plumage has more brown that black in it, they tend to blend in well with the rocky, mussel-strewn habitat they prefer. There seldom seem to be many of these birds in any one place, but from the Aleutian Islands to Baja Mexico they are frequently seen in pairs, as single birds or as small family groups.  I’ve read that at times flocks of these striking birds can number in the dozens or even hundreds – no doubt an amazing sight. Look for oystercatchers especially on small rocky islands or sloping shorelines, especially at low tide when barnacle and shellfish colonies are exposed.

black oystercatcher with kittiwakes

At 17.5 inches from bill to toe, the oystercatcher’s overall size compares with that of these Black-legged Kittiwakes, which measure about 17 inches.

Oystercatchers tend to be wary, taking flight with shrill yelps and piping whistles, so it pays to have a long lens or a good pair of binoculars when watching them forage. Contrary to what their name implies, their diet is fairly eclectic and includes a variety of bivalves, chitons, crabs, sea urchins, worms and other invertebrates. At times they may also feed on sandy beaches and mudflats.

black oystercatcher foraging mussel bed

Doubtless there is all manner of deliciousness to be pried from this bed of blue mussels, and the Black Oystercatcher has the bill that fits the bill. Why the bright color? Thees matters usually have to with intraspecies identification and mating, with a nice bright bill and eye signifying health and good genes to a prospective partner.

Oystercatchers appear to mate for life. Females lay two or three eggs in a nest the male has casually scraped out above the tide line, usually on a small, rocky island. Though the young can walk soon after hatching, parents spend considerable time teaching them the ins and outs of foraging.

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

Black Oystercatcher Haematopus bachmani
Order: Charadriiformes
Haematopus: Greek haima = blood + pous = foot
bachmaniNamed by John James Audubon for his friend John Bachman

Status at Chignik Lake: This marine species is occasional along the shorelines of nearby Chignik Lagoon and Chignik Bay

David Narver, Birds of the Chignik River Drainage, summers 1960-63As this is a marine species, not reported

Alaska Peninsula and Becharof National Wildlife Refuge Bird List, 2010:
Uncommon in all seasons

Aniakchak National Monument and Preserve Bird List: Present

Table of Contents and Complete List of Birds of Chignik Lake

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

For a list of reference materials used in this project, see: Birds of Chignik Lake

Birds of Chignik Lake: Semipalmated Plover

semipalmated plover alaska

Semipalmated Plover, male in his striking breeding plumage. The partial webbing between this bird’s toes is visible; it is this partial webbing from which the term “semipalmated” is derived. Denali Highway, Alaska

As I may have mentioned elsewhere, finally obtaining a small boat here on the Chignik opened up new worlds in terms of wildlife viewing in general, birding in particular, fishing and all around exploring. As to the birding, with the greater range the scow provided we immediately began cataloguing species new to us in the drainage, The little Semipalmated Plover, already a favorite from other birding ventures, was among the first of these new-to-us Chignik species.

semipalmated plover juvenile chignik river

Semipalmated Plover juveniles, Chignik River, July 24, 2020. These plovers typically occurred on river gravel bars and shorelines in mixed flocks of Western and Least Sandpipers

As we didn’t acquire our scow until July, there is still documentation to be done. The Semipalmateds we encountered appeared to all be juveniles. According to Herbert K. Job, writing in Birds of America*, this isn’t unusual. He reported flocks of nothing but young birds migrating into the Atlantic seaboard in September, a month or so after adults had arrived from their northern breeding grounds. At any rate, we took lots of photos, searched through them carefully on the large screen of our computer, and found no adults. This coming spring, we will begin early searching the various shorelines, river bars and rocky islands for signs of adult birds and breeding.

semipalmated plover nest denali highway alaska

If you didn’t know they were there, you’d probably miss them, but even when you feel certain a nest may be nearby, the eggs can be quite difficult to locate. The nest itself is a barely discernible depression lined with twigs and leaves. The precocial young will leave the nest upon hatching and although the parents will stay close, the little ones will find their own food. There may be nothing in the avian world quite so cute as the scurrying ping-pong ball of fluff a young shore peep resembles. Approximately four weeks after hatching, they’ll be able to fly. (Denali Highway, Alaska)

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

Semipalmated plover Charadrius semipalmatus
Order: Charadriiformes
CharadriusLatin derived from Greek kharadrios for a bird found in river valleys
semipalmatusLatin – semi = half + palmatus = palm – referring to this species’ partly webbed feet

Status at Chignik Lake: Occasional to Common in Summer; Status in Spring uncertain; Absent in Fall and Winter

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

Alaska Peninsula and Becharof National Wildlife Refuge Bird List, 2010:
Uncommon in Spring, Summer & Fall; Not Reported in Winter

Aniakchak National Monument and Preserve Bird List: Present

able of Contents and Complete List of Birds of Chignik Lake

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

For a list of reference materials used in this project, see: Birds of Chignik Lake

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!
                                   Issa

   

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

loon silhouette

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.