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: Glaucous-winged Gull – So… What’s Up with the Red Dot?

One of Chignik Lake’s Glaucous-winged Gulls, in non-breeding plumage, surveys the shoreline for salmon scraps. (Chignik Lake, November 2, 2016)

Rubbery-looking pink legs and feet, splotchy-brown neck and head (in non-breeding plumage), thick bill and overall large size quickly narrow the choices when trying to determine the identity of this gull. If you’re in the Pacific Northwest, possibilities are further whittled down. Check for a dark brown iris. Finally, if the gull you’re looking at has wingtips of gray rather than black, it’s a Glaucous-winged.

Perched on an abandoned lakeshore house on a rainy day. Note the toenails. (Chignik Lake, November 12, 2016)

Although there are even more Glaucous-wingeds at Chignik Lagoon and along the nearshore ocean, as long as there is open water there are bound to be a few of these omnivores cruising the lake and river. When it comes to food, virtually anything is on the menu – including the eggs and chicks of other birds and even of their own species. These birds have no qualms about hanging out at the local dump.

This is a second winter Glaucous-winged. Note the overall more brownish-gray plumage and the dark bill tip. Glaucous-wingeds don’t begin breeding until at least their fourth year. (Chignik River, October 9, 2017)

In breeding plumage, the Glaucous-wing Gull’s crimson bill spot contrasts distinctively with its amber-yellow bill. (Chignik Lake, August 19,  2016)

During summertime visits to a seashore or lake, you’ve no doubt noticed the bright red dot on the lower bill of some gulls. Well, we can thank Dutch scientist Niko Tinbergen for figuring out its purpose.

He noticed that adults returning to the nest didn’t feed the chicks until the chicks pecked at the dot. He devised experiments in which he changed or covered the dot. The result was that the chicks didn’t get fed. So this dot – which is particularly obvious during nesting season – is a vital marker in triggering a response from chicks to tap the adult’s bill, and for the adults to then regurgitate a meal.

As the behavior of the chicks appeared to be instinctive, Tinbergen’s observations became important in debates regarding animal behavior: how much is learned verses how much is innate. For his contributions to the science of ethology, in 1973 he was awarded a Nobel Prize.

Glaucous-Winged Gull. (Chignik Lake, August 19, 2017)

Glaucous-winged Gull Range Map: with permission from The Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Birds of the World

Glaucous-winged Gull Larus glaucescens
Order: Charadriiformes
Family: Laridae
Larus: from Latin for (large) sea bird
glaucescens: New Latin glaucous from Greek glaukos. In English – dull grayish green or blue in color

Status at Chignik Lake, 2016-19: Common mid-Spring through fall; Uncommon or Absent in Winter

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

Alaska Peninsula and Becharof National Wildlife Refuge Bird List, 2010: Common Spring through fall; Uncommon in Winter

Aniakchak National Monument and Preserve Bird ListPresent

loon silhouette

Previous: Mew Gull – The Gull of The Lake

Next Article: Great Horned Owl

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

Birds of Chignik Lake: Mew Gull – The Gull of The Lake

In breeding season, the Mew Gull’s eye ring becomes brilliantly erubescent. (Denali National Park, July 7, 2017)

Approximately 10,000 Mew Gulls populate Alaska during the summertime nesting season, making it one of the gulls you’re most likely to encounter – particularly if you are around a large inland lake or river. They begin showing up at Chignik Lake in mid-spring and hang around well into fall, their ongoing crying and calling a welcome sign of warmer days.

This is an act of courtship rathe than aggression. Potter Marsh, near Anchorage, is an excellent place to observe Mew Gulls nesting. Unlike our Chignik Birds, the Potter Marsh birds are habituated to humans and are reasonably tolerant of photographers. (June 24, 2017)

When it comes to gull identification – often a vexing matter – in one way Alaskans are fortunate. The gull most likely to be confused with Mews, the Ring-billed, doesn’t make it this far north. So if you see a gull that looks like a Mew – smallish, rounded white head, relatively thin bill, light gray back, dark wingtips with a splotch of white – it’s probably a Mew. When not in breeding plumage, the red orbital ring disappears. So, as with the color of the Mew’s iris (lighter in breeding birds, very dark in non-breeding birds) it can’t always be relied on as a field marker. However, there are two other characteristics worth noting. In Alaska, other than kittiwakes, as adults Mews are the only yellow-billed gull that lacks a red or black marking near the tip of the bill; (Young birds do typically have a dark bill tip.) The other feature is the adult Mew’s greenish-yellow legs. This shows up well in good light.

Behavior is often an excellent clue as to a species’ identity. Mew gulls have a penchant for perching in trees. In fact, they are the only white-headed gull to sometimes nest in trees – though in most locales they more commonly make their nests on the ground. Note the green cast to the legs of this specimen. (Denali National Park, July 7, 2017)

In past years, we haven’t been able to arrive at The Lake until August. By then, the nesting season is over. But we’ve seen enough very young Mews to conclude that they breed locally. As the fall salmon runs dissipate, most of Chignik Lake’s gulls leave. But throughout winter, from time to time a gull or two might show up . They’re opportunistic feeders – small fish, aquatic invertebrates, berries and carrion – particularly dead salmon – all figure in their diet. They can even catch insects on the wing.

Adult Mew Gull and chick, Savage River, Denali National Park. (July 7, 2017)

A first-year Mew Gull glides above the Chignik River in early winter, perhaps searching for salmon scraps. Note the dark bill tip. Even at this late date, there are still salmon in the Chignik system. (Chignik Lake, January 4, 2017)

Wingtips on Water – Chignik Lake, August 17, 2018

As is likely the case with many birders, when I first took on this project not only did I not know much about gulls, I wasn’t sure I wanted to know much about them. Blasé white and gray ice-cream cone thieves, parking lot patrollers, I just couldn’t make myself care very much about which species I was observing.

But I’ve come to care. These are beautiful birds, adapted to all kinds of environments. Far from garbage dump parasites, Mews generally avoid human traffic, preferring instead pristine lake, river, woodland and tundra environments where they assiduously rear their chicks. Chignik Lake is a more vibrant place with them.

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

Mew Gull Larus canus
Order: Charadriiformes
Family: Laridae
Larus: from Latin for (large) sea bird
canus: Latin – gray

Status at Chignik Lake, 2016-19: Common mid-Spring through fall; Uncommon in Winter

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

Alaska Peninsula and Becharof National Wildlife Refuge Bird List, 2010: Common Spring through fall; Uncommon in Winter

Aniakchak National Monument and Preserve Bird List: Present

loon silhouette

Previous: Wilson’s Snipe – Ghostly Sound of Spring

Next Article: Glaucus-winged Gull – So… What’s Up with the Red Dot?

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

Birds of Chignik Lake: Greater Yellowlegs – the Treetop Shorebird

Fattening up for the fall migration, this Greater Yellowlegs took advantage of high water on the lake to snag a few Nine-spine Sticklebacks tucked up in grass beds. (Chignik Lake, August 20, 2018)

The Greater Yellowleg’s piercing call can sound something like a car alarm going off, plenty loud enough to have stirred us from sleep during their spring and fall migration through The Chigniks. If you happen near their nest, you’ll know it. These are fairly large as shorebirds go, averaging about 14 inches in length, and they fiercely defend their territory with ear-piercingly shrill cries.

A treetop is generally not the place to look for shorebirds, but rules have exceptions and so it is with Greater Yellowlegs. While most of the year marshes, mudflats and other wetlands are a good place to look for this species. when they’re on their breeding grounds, check the trees. Yellowlegs use the vantage to keep watch over nests. (Chignik Lake, June 4, 2019)

Their nests are often located near small trees or other features in boggy terrain, which makes the landscape around Chignik Lake ideal breeding ground. While nesting, their diet consists mainly of insects. But during migration, they typically switch to meatier fare such as small fish. Active hunters, watching one high-step along a shoreline as it deftly uses its bill like chopsticks to capture whatever two-inch species might be available is to study a true master. The ones I’ve seen need work at at it only briefly before getting a full belly and treating themselves to a nap.

Stepping along the shoreline. (Chignik Lake, August 20, 2018)

With a salmon parr (probably Sockeye). (Chignik Lake, August 20, 2018)

Nap time. (Chignik Lake, August 20, 2018)

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

Greater Yellowlegs Tringa melanoleuca
Order: Charadriiformes
Family: Scolopacidae
Tringa: New Latin, from Ancient Greek trungus = white-tailed, bobbing shorebird mentioned by Aristotle.
melanoleuca: from Ancient Greek melas = black + leukos = white

Status at Chignik Lake, 2016-19: Common Spring through early Fall

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

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

Aniakchak National Monument and Preserve Bird List: Present

loon silhouette

Previous: Sandhill Crane – Wild, Resounding Tremolo (Check out the video/audio clip!)

Next Article: Wandering Tattler – Sojourner from Far North Mountain Streams to Tropical Pacific Islands

*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: Sandhill Cranes – Wild, Resounding Tremolo (Check out the video/audio clip!)

Gingerly lifting a muddy foot as he displays his stunning plumage, a Sandhill Crane steps through the Berry Bog and wild Iris leaves. Birders who observe Sandhills only in their wintering range may think of their plumage as gray. But on breeding grounds, cranes’ feathers take on a rich, rusty hue. (Chignik Lake, May 22, 2019)

One of the aspects of rural life we most enjoy is the changing of the seasons and the wild music that accompanies those changes. Springtime in The Chigniks ushers in a concerto of rainfall drumming on roofs, wind-driven waves lapping the shore, the crunching tread of bear paws on wet sand, owls hooting in the night, and all manner of songs from birds returning to their familiar breeding grounds: the eerie reverberations of winnowing snipe, the Golden-crowned Sparrow’s plaintive melody, geese cackling high over head, and myriad soli performed by robins, warblers, sparrows, thrushes, wrens, ducks and gulls. But without a doubt, the most iconic of all these vocalizations is the trumpeting tremolo of the Sandhill Crane. We were lucky enough to record a mated pair, heads thrown back, singing in full throat at a very close distance. If you’ve never heard such a performance, you’ve got to click on the video below.

We found this male feeding in a small, winter-browned field with his mate on a rainy day in Spring. (Chignik Lake, May 7, 2019)

These are huge birds. Fully grown they can measure over four feet in height (120 cm+), and if you are lucky enough to be near one, you might swear they go a foot beyond that. The Chigniks abound in the kind of wet, boggy habitat these birds are drawn to both for nesting and for feeding. They’ll eat just about anything – insects, small animals, berries and other plant material all figure into their diet.

Sandhills begin breeding as early as the age of two or as late as the age of seven, and once they have found each other they will remain bonded for a lifespan that might reach into the mid-thirties. They lay one or two eggs. A day after hatching, chicks are ready to follow the parents. Both feed their offspring. ((Chignik Lake, May 4, 2019)

Cranes generally arrive at Chignik Lake in late April, their brassy calls resonating across the lake. At the end of summer, after the chicks have been reared, they depart for wintering grounds to the south. Although they are hunted in some areas, Sandhill Crane numbers are stable. In fact, they appear to be expanding their wintering range to include locations further north.

With an especially long, curling esophagus designed for volume, the music these birds produce is astonishing. Note that toward the end of this clip, it appears that the larger bird, which I presume to be the male, is taking subtle cues from the smaller bird. I kept this video low resolution for faster downloads. (Chignik Lake, May 4, 2019) 

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

Sandhill Crane Antigone canadensis
Order: Gruiformes
Family: Gruidae
Antigone: Etymology apparently is confused. Carlos Linnaeus chose this genus name after a Greek tragedy in which a character, Antigone, was first cursed when the goddess Hera turned her hair to snakes, but was later redeemed when other gods transformed her into a stork, which, Linnaeus’s either mistranslated or took as sufficiently close enough to crane as to merit the use of this appellation in identifying this genus. (The Antigone herein described is not to be confused with the daughter of Oedipus from the tragic play titled Antigone.)
canadensis: Latinized for Canada

Status at Chignik Lake, 2016-19: Common throughout drainage from approximately Late April through Early September

David Narver, Birds of the Chignik River Drainage, summers 1960-63: Occasionally observed but Commonly Heard at Black Lake

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

Aniakchak National Monument and Preserve Bird List: Present

loon silhouette

Previous: Peregrine Falcon

Next Article: Greater Yellowlegs – the Treetop Shorebird

*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: Peregrine Falcon

Falco peregrinus, John Gould, English Ornithologist, (1804-1881). Wikipedia

I was driving across the bridge spanning Young’s Bay near Astoria, Oregon on the lower Columbia River when, seemingly from the sky, a single drop of blood spattered on my windshield. It was, of course, too late to look up and gather a clue; I had already passed beneath the overhead girders where that drop had originated. But I had my suspicions.

As soon as I got to the end of the bridge and could turn around, I headed back along the course I had just traveled. Sure enough, perched on a steel beam, a Peregrine Falcon sat, claws buried in the remains of one of the bridge’s  Rock Doves – the latter known colloquially as common pigeon. In an instant I was transported decades back in time to Jean Craighead George’s magical novel My Side of the Mountain and Sam’s Peregrine Falcon, Frightful – boyhood fantasies of running off into the wilderness and living in a hollowed-out tree with my pet falcon and other woodland friends.

Duck Hawks, Louis Agassiz Fuertes, New York Ornithologist (1874-1927), Wikipedia. The original is housed in the New York State Museum. A print is used in Birds of America, Ed. T. Gilbert Pearson, 2017.

I haven’t gotten many good looks at these remarkable birds. Usually I see them as a blur while out fishing along some rocky coast. A duck or shorebird whizzes by in a panic, I look up, and there’s the falcon angling toward its intended prey, the pair gone in a flash, the outcome yet in question.

Formerly known as Duck Hawks, Peregrines are never abundant, but you might catch a glimpse of one or two along just about any rocky coastline in the world. Mudflats where shorebirds gather, too, are a good place to keep a sharp eye out. And don’t be surprised if you see a pair soaring among city skyscrapers. Building ledges make ideal nesting sites, and an abundance of the aforementioned pigeons ensure for a steady supply of food for adults and chicks.

We encountered a couple of them on a recent bicycle tour circumnavigating coastal Hokkaido, Japan’s northernmost island. Very occasionally, in fact rarely, we’ve looked up or down the Chignik Lake or River and caught sight of a specimen speeding one way or the other – southeast toward the Alaska Gulf; north toward the Bering Sea. At about 16 inches long and with a wingspan of 41 inches, Peregrines in flight appear nearly twice as large as the only falcon regularly seen along The Chignik, Merlins.

I’ve never seen a Peregrine perched along the drainage. The habitat isn’t quite right for them. These are birds of rocky cliffs. No doubt a better place to look for them would be on the Gulf side around Chignik Bay or Castle Cape.

Duck Hawks, John J. Audubon, American Ornithologist, 1785-1851. Wikipedia

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

Peregrine Falcon Falco peregrinus
Order: Falconiformes
Family: Falconidae
Falco: from Latin falcis = sickle
peregrinus: from Latin for traveller. The medieval Latin phrase Falco peregrinus originated with German theologian and scholar Albertus Magnus (before 1200 to 1280) who was referring to the manner in which young Peregrines were obtained for falconry. Because the nests were generally inaccessible, young falcons were taken while journeying to their breeding grounds.

Status at Chignik Lake, 2016-19: Rare

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

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

Aniakchak National Monument and Preserve Bird List: Present

loon silhouette

Previous: Merlin – Lady of the Lake

Next Article: Sandhill Crane – Wild, Resounding Tremolo

*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: 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.