Birds of Chignik Lake: Mallard – “Wary, Wise, Handsome”**

Newly-arrived migrant ducks gather at preferred locations on the Chignik River before dispersing to breeding grounds. These locations vary according to ice patterns. This pair of Mallards was heading for a shallow riffle where fellow Mallards, several other species of ducks, and Tundra Swans were feeding. (March 14, 2017)

The first word that comes to mind when I think of The Chignik’s Mallards is wary. Well beyond shotgun range, at the first hint of an approaching human they take off in a cacophony of alarmed quacks (females) and rasping calls (males). The second term I think of is strikingly handsome. Mallard drakes are among those birds that, if they were not so common, our jaws would drop upon encountering them.

A few over-wintering and early-arriving migrate ducks gather in an icy riffle on The Chignik. Included in this photo are Mallards, mergansers, Buffleheads, Common Goldeneyes, a pair of Ring-neckeds, a Greater Scaup Drake and a Tufted Duck. Just upriver was a group of Tundra Swans. Pintails and Green-winged Teal will soon join the party. (March 14, 2017)

“Green-heads,” they’re often called. But, as angler-biologist A.J. McClane observed, color is often an unreliable characteristic, and yet it is generally the first thing we look for. He may have been referring to attempts to differentiate among species of salmonids, but he could as easily have been referring to birds. In every on-line and in-hand field guide I have at my disposal, the descriptor for drake Mallards in breeding plumage is universally “green head.” So what are we to make of those males sporting what appear to be purple or even blue heads? Neither the Internet nor the books I have on hand offer much guidance.

While early spring is a good time to see Mallards along with Tundra Swans on The Chignik, fall presents memorable opportunities to catch them with Brown Bears. (September 8, 2018)

However, in Birds of America1 it is noted, “Head and upper neck, glossy green with shadings of purple and deep Prussian blue.” Prussian blue is as deep and iridescent a blue as one might imagine. So, according to this text, the purples and blues we see when we look at the heads of certain drakes is part of the plumage.

The speed with which a concerned hen can usher her young ducklings across a stretch of open water never ceases to astonish me. The Mallard hen and her brood in this photo were especially vulnerable – and they caught me quite off guard as they scooted across a patch of water in front of our home. Not wishing to add to the anxiety she was surely feeling, I snapped a quick documentation photo and let them pass. (May 15, 2019)

The apparent dominance of purple and blue in certain drakes probably has to do with some combination of natural variation among individual birds and the complicated manner in which light can play on bird plumage. Anyone who has closely watched hummingbirds has witnessed the latter as a gorget can appear to change color in a fraction of a second and may take on a range of hues. Birds themselves, it should be kept in mind, don’t see these colors quite the way we do as their eyes can pick up near ultra-violet wavelengths that humans cannot detect.

When is a Green-head not a green-head? Several of the drakes in this photo appear to have purple heads. (March 16, 2017)

1(Birds of North America, T. Gilbert Pearson, ed, New York, 1917)
**A History of Game Birds, Wildfowl and Shore Birds, Edward Howe Forbush, Massachusetts State Board of Agriculture, 1912

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

Mallard Anas platyrhynchos
Order: Anseriformes
Family: Anatidae
Anas: Latin for duck
platyrhynchos: from Ancient Greek for broad bill

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

David Narver, Birds of the Chignik River Drainage, summers 1960-63: Common on Black River; Occasional on both lakes

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

Aniakchak National Monument and Preserve Bird List: Presence Documented

Previous Article: Brant – the Goose that Was Once a Fish (sort of)

Next Article: Northern Pintail

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Aniakchak National Monument and Preserve Bird List: Presence Documented

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

Next Article: Mallard

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

Birds of Chignik Lake: Cackling Goose (Aleutian Form) – Picture a Canada Goose with a White Necklace

 

Early morning high flyers: The white cheeks are typical of Canada Geese. The white necklace is not. Long considered a smaller, more northerly form of Canada Goose, the descriptor “Aleutian form” was often tacked on. But in 2004, the American Ornithological Union assigned these necklaced birds species status and named them for their higher-pitched honking in flight: Cackling Goose, Branta hutchinsii. (Chignik Lake, April 18, 2018)

As a given species disperses from its core range, the tendency for it is to become smaller, perhaps a response to less favorable feeding conditions or other environmental factors. Over time, a given population’s size difference along with other newly formed adaptations may result in a new species.

As geese go, Aleutian Cacklings are small – a little larger than Brant, but a lot smaller than an average Canada Goose. As far as I can determine, Cacklings seldom hang around in the Chignik System. Your best shot at seeing them there is to hope for a reasonably clear spring day and find a comfortable place to watch from. And then listen. During migration, separate flocks of Cacklings and Brandt noisily pass through at virtually any hour day or night on their way to nesting grounds further north. The Cacklings are distinguished by their more goose-like, high-pitched honking.

Cackling Goose: Photo credit – Roy Lowe/U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service – U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Wikipedia

For comparison, here’s a Canada Goose. One of these typically weighs from as little as six-and-a-half to nearly 20 pounds. This is considerably larger than its Cackling cousin which weighs roughly three to five pounds. Wild Mallards weight about two to three pounds. (Potter’s Marsh near Anchorage, Alaska, June 25, 2012.)

At times wave after wave of geese cruise north above Chignik Lake. This is yet another flock of Aleutian form Cackling Geese. Their high-pitched honking is part of a springtime symphony which includes winnowing snipe, bugling cranes, rattling kingfishers, piping eagles, mewing gulls and fluting thrushes. (April 18, 2018)

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

Cackling Goose Branta hutchinsii
Order: Anseriformes
Family: Anatidae
Branta:  Latinized Old Norse Brandgás = burnt-black goose
hutchinsii: after English surgeon and naturalist Thomas Hutchins

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

David Narver, Birds of the Chignik River Drainage, summers 1960-63: (Species not yet separated from Canada Goose.) Reported Canada Goose rare on Black River

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

Aniakchak National Monument and Preserve Bird List: Presence Probable but not Documented

Previous Article: Emperor Goose – Alaska’s Painted Beauty

Next Article: Brant

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

Birds of Chignik Lake – Emperor Goose: Alaska’s Painted Beauty

Emporer Gesse in Flight

Part of a flock of over 200 Emperor Geese overwintering at Chignik Lagoon. An almost strictly Alaskan and Siberian species, Emperors winter along the Alaska Peninsula and Aleutians and breed still further north. (March 9, 2019)

Although not strictly a species associated with the Chignik Lake study area, I include Emperor Geese in this report as they are a spectacular, unique bird that is special to The Chigniks. They are not likely to be encountered outside of Alaska and far eastern Siberia. In recent years their numbers in Alaska have been rebounding following a precipitous decline which saw their population plummet from 139,000 birds in 1964 to just 42,000 in 1986.

Formerly referred to as Beach Geese and still sometimes called Painted Geese, these surely are, as Edward W. Nelson who made a special study of them declared, the “least known and the most beautiful” of North America’s Geese. (March 9, 2019)

As our planet continues to change, it will be interesting to note what effects this has on Emperors. Hopefully they will part of the Chignik wintertime seascape for a very long time to come.

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

Emperor Goose Anser canagicus
Order: Anseriformes
Anser: Latinized Greek for swan
canagicus: for Kanaga Island in the Aleutian Island chain.

Status at Chignik Lake, 2016-19: Possibly Occasional on Chignik River; Common on Chignik Lagoon in late Winter

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

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

Aniakchak National Monument and Preserve Bird List: Presence Documented

Previous Article: Tundra Swan – Harbinger of Spring at The Lake

Next Article: Cackling Goose

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

Birds of Chignik Lake – Tundra Swan: Harbinger of Springtime at The Lake

There may be snow on the ground and ice in the river, but when Tundra Swans begin showing up on the Chignik you know spring can’t be far behind. (March 16, 2017)

We were told that when swans show up on the river below the old dump, it’s a sure sign spring is on the way. While it seems possible to encounter Tundra Swans somewhere in the Chignik system in virtually any season (provided there’s open water), in early spring they’re still traveling in flocks, making it a good time to look for them. Prior to breeding, they’re often found with newly arrived ducks – Mallards, Northern Pintails, Buffleheads and other species.

This Tundra Swan was part of a pair we found feeding with a small group of American Wigeons on the Chignik River. The yellow lores and a very white back are diagnostic. (May 4, 2019)

Swans and Ducks gather on The Chignik in Spring. In addition to the scaup, Mallards, Common Goldeneyes, and Buffleheads in this frame, Northern Pintails, Red-breasted and Common Mergansers are often mixed in among the swans. (March 14, 2017)

A thin white line of several dozen swans underscores the Chignik Mountains at Black Lake. The shallow, weedy waters are important to waterfowl anytime the lake is ice-free. (January 3, 2018)

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

Tundra Swan Cygnus columbianus
Order: Anseriformes
Cygnus: Latinized Greek for swan
columbianus: after the Columbia River (Meriweather Lewis of Lewis & Clark first named this species during their exploration across Northwest America)

Status at Chignik Lake 2016-19: 

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

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

Aniakchak National Monument and Preserve Bird List: Presence Documented

 

Previous Article: Pelagic Cormorant

Next Article: Emperor Goose – Alaska’s Painted Beauty

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

Birds of Chignik Lake: Pelagic Cormorant

A hint of iridescent gloss in its plumage, a Pelagic Cormorants skims above Chignik Lagoon on a blue-sky day in late winter. Pelagics are common in The Lagoon where the fish they feed on are plentiful. Only very occasionally do they stray inland to the river and lake. (Chignik Lagoon, May 9, 2019)

My first close encounter with cormorants came at a pool I was fishing on Japan’s upper Tama River some years ago. I was in the midst of a fruitless morning when a cormorant of some sort showed up and elbowed its way into my pool. In no more than a few minutes it dove six times and caught six fish. Impressive.

Pelagic Cormorants are common all along the rocky, fish-rich Pacific side of the Alaska Peninsula. Red-faced and Double-crested Cormorants can be found along this coast as well. As for Pelagics, most of the very few we saw in the study area of this project were in flight as they headed up or down the Chignik System – perhaps from one side of the peninsula to the other.

Although their feet are webbed, cormorants’ middle toes are hooked – an aid in preening. 

Belying their common name, (and their binomial specific name, pelagicus), Pelagics rarely venture far out to sea, preferring rocky nearshore ocean waters.

This first-year Pelagic was encountered feeding below the salmon weir on Chignik River. (October 24, 2018)

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

Pelagic Cormorant Phalacrocorax pelagicus
Order: Suliformes
Phalacrocorax: from ancient Greek name for cormorants – literally “bald raven”
pelagicus: of the open ocean

Status at Chignik Lake 2016-19: Uncommon/Occasional

David Narver, Birds of the Chignik River Drainage, summers 1960-63Occasional on Chignik Lake after storms

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

Aniakchak National Monument and Preserve Bird List: Presence Documented

 

Previous Article: Pied-billed Grebe

Next Article: Tundra Swan

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

Birds of Chignik Lake: Pied-billed Grebe – an Alaska Peninsula First

As far as I can determine, this is the lone example of a Pied-billed Grebe recorded on the Alaska Peninsula. The facial striping indicates a first-year bird. (Chignik Lake, January 5, 2019)

The sun hadn’t yet peeked over the mountains rimming Chignik Lake when I noticed a small, grebe-like bird working a nearshore cove. I picked up the binoculars always handy near the living/dining room window and glassed the little bird.

The same bird as above in profile, skim ice in the background. (Chignik Lake, January 5, 2019)

Whoa! There’s a Pied-billed Grebe down below Fred’s! I exclaimed to Barbra. A couple of minutes later, I was clad in waders, camera fixed to its tripod slung over my shoulder. I quietly worked my way toward this out-of-place fellow. Wading out into the water, I stood still, hoping the bird might come closer to check me out.

The grebe did move in a little, but it was still a long shot and there was very little light. I set my aperture to its maximum opening, spun the ISO dial further than I would have cared to, and managed a couple of shots. Then the grebe swam off. Although it hung around for a few days, after that first morning it was always on the far side of the lake. And then it was gone.

From Wikipedia, a Pied-billed in summer plumage. (Mdf – First upload in en wikipedia on 21:02, 27 May 2005 by Mdf)

It’s hard to know what to make of a one-off such as this. Pied-billeds very occasionally have been reported in southern Alaska, but as the map below indicates, this individual was well beyond the typical range for this species. Things are changing in our world; it could be that Pied-billeds are pushing north. For now though, an occurrence such as this is best thought of as an “accidental.” In any event, I was happy to record this species. Maybe this small puzzle piece will have some significance in the future when others study the Chignik area.

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

Pied-billed Grebe Podilymbus podiceps
Order: Podicipediformes
Podilymbus: Podi from Greek, refers to feet at the rear; lympus from the Greek kolympus = diver
podiceps: from Latin for rump-headed

Status at Chignik Lake 2016-19: Accidental

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

Alaska Peninsula and Becharof National Wildlife Refuge Bird List, 2010:
Not Reported

Aniakchak National Monument and Preserve Bird List: Not Reported

Previous Article: Red-necked Grebe

Next Article: Pelagic Cormorant

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