Birds of Chignik Lake: The Long Bill of the Short-billed Dowitcher (and a thought from Ernest Hemingway regarding shore-bird conservation)

Having encountered them only once on the Chignik River in the past five years, Short-billed Dowitchers would have to be considered a rare species here. I was happy to be surprised by a small flock of them one late-summer day while looking for teal.

It’s a bit difficult and somewhat sad to think that not so long ago, shorebirds such as dowitchers were considered fair game by many shotgun-toting sportsmen. Ernest Hemingway mentions this in a couple of his books, noting (happily, I think) in his posthumously published Islands in The Stream that he loved watching the little plovers and other peeps and could no longer think about shooting them. Perhaps the early American ornithologist Elliot Coues said it best in a passage he wrote in the 1917 edition of Birds of America:

“(The dowitcher’s) gregarious instinct, combined with its gentleness, is a fatal trait, and enables gunners to slaughter them unmercifully and sometimes to exterminate every individual in a ‘bunch.’ To turn a 12-gauge ‘cannon’ loose among these unsuspicious birds, winnowing in over decoys with friendly greeting, is about as sportsmanlike as shooting into a bunch of chickens. To capture them with a camera requires skill and patience, and herein lies the hope for future existence of our disappearing wild life – substitution of the lens for the gun!”

Note the bill serrations on this dowitcher which has just come up with a tidbit of some sort – perhaps the larval stage of an insect or a mass of invertebrate eggs. The tip of the bill contains sensitive receptors called Herbst corpuscles which aid it in searching for food. Short-billed and Long-billed Dowitchers both have exceptionally long bills, and as the bill lengths fo the two species vary and overlap, it is not a reliable diagnostic. In fact, unless the birds are vocalizing, distinguishing Long-billeds from Short-billeds in the field is quite difficult. The flock of over a dozen dowitchers I encountered were in freshwater on the Chignik, several miles above the estuary – habitat where one might more likely encounter Long-billed Dowitchers. They were not vocalizing, but I believe these are Short-billeds based on more overall spotting than barring, a more sloped forehead, and the fact that Short-billeds are more common than Long-billeds on the Alaska Peninsula. But I am happy to have someone with more experience with these peeps offer a correction. It is also entirely possible that both dowitcher species were represented in this flock.

In recent years, dowitchers have experienced rather steep population declines. According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology All About Birds website, reasons include sea level rise, loss of habitat due to development and other factors, and hunting. Regarding the latter reason, I have to agree with Messrs. Coues and Hemingway. With the species in decline, it would seem the better part of discretion to stow the shotgun and opt for chicken breasts.

It’s common for shorebirds to travel in mixed flocks with each species taking advantage of slightly different feeding strategies. Here a pair of Least Sandpipers get in on the action.

The dowitcher’s needlelike bill probes silt, mud and sand with an astonishing speed that has been compared to that of a sewing machine. I’ve recently begun broadening my documentation to include video and was happy to have had the presence of mind to do so with these birds. The “sewing machine” feeding style is well demonstrated – as is the challenge of getting a good, clear still capture of these frenetic birds in typical Chignik low-light conditions.

Dowitchers feeding at Devil’s Flats on the Chignik River, Alaska

Partially concealed behind tall grasses, sedges and Arctic Dock, camera at the ready, its long lens wrapped in a camouflage sleeve, Barbra and I watch as a group of shorebirds bank in unison, the white of their underwings flashing. A short way upriver, they wheel and come back, pass overhead, bank and wheel again a little ways down river, and then return to settle in over the shallows we’ve been watching. I look at Barbra and she smiles. New birds. Our 99th species in the freshwater portion of the Chignik Drainage between Chignik Lake and the estuary. Hemingway was right. They are wonderful to watch.

Although the range map below does not indicate the presence of Short-billed Dowitchers on the Alaska Peninsula, David Sibley includes the peninsula on the range map in his field guide as does the Audubon website.

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

Short-billed Dowitcher, Limnodromus griseus
Order: Charadriiformes
Limnodromus
: Ancient Greek limne = marsh, and dromos – racer. marsh racer
griseus: Medieval Latin for gray

Status at Chignik Lake: Only one sighting in five years, however it is likely that this species is a regular if brief late summer migrant in the drainage and may even nest in nearby areas of tundra or marsh.

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

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

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

Birds of Chignik Lake: Redhead… “Are You My Mommy?”

In breeding plumage, a male Redhead. The question is, how did one of these get mixed in with a flock of Greater Scaup out on the Alaska Peninsula? (Photo courtesy of Kevin Bercaw, Wikipedia)

One of the most fascinating aspects of birding in the Chignik River drainage is that at any given moment, you might encounter something rare or unexpected. Under the “rare” category are species such as Northern Shrikes, Gyrfalcons, Yellow-billed Loons and xanthochromic Common Redpolls – birds that are seldom seen outside the far north, and even in Alaska are generally not frequently encountered. But, in part because of the unique geography of the Chigniks, there are also fairly common birds that unexpectedly end up here, many miles beyond what is generally considered to be their range. Our river cuts a path between rugged mountains on the Alaska Peninsula creating an obvious migration route for passerines, raptors and waterfowl. And then there are the fierce winds that funnel through this valley, so that Pied-billed Grebes, Red-breasted Nuthatches, White-throated Sparrows, Great Blue Herons and other birds that “aren’t supposed to be here” occasionally find their way to The Lake. 

Some of these birds may represent the vanguard of a species expanding its range. I’ve  documented Oregon-race Dark-eyed Juncos as wintertime residents from fall through early spring every year at the lake since we first arrived here in 2016. In fact, there are a dozen in the village right now, hundreds of miles from what is considered their range. And a pair of male and female Red-breasted Nuthatches that stayed in the village for awhile this year may portend things to come for that species as the climate continues to warm and more trees populate the peninsula.

And the Redhead? I suspect that something else entirely was going on with the lone male I photographed in a group of Greater Scaup last spring. Brood parasitism. Among all ducks, female Redheads are best known for their habit of laying their eggs in the nests of other birds. According to Audubon, Redheads have been documented leaving their eggs to the care of at least 10 other species of ducks, American Bitterns and even a raptor, the Northern Harrier. Scaup are a frequent target of their brood parasitism. Knowing how ducks imprint on whatever or whomever they take to be their parent, it is quite possible that this Redhead thinks of himself as a Greater Scaup. 

This is part of a flock of perhaps three dozen Greater Scaup and a few Red-breasted Mergansers. Just left of center, the bird flying highest is the Redhead. We do occasionally see Canvasbacks out here, a close relative of the Redhead. By comparison, the red of the Redhead is brighter, the head is much more rounded, and the wings in flight are darker. I searched the flock for a female counterpart, but found none. (Photo March 11, 2021, Chignik Lake)

Whether he is traveling with brood-mates or he simply fell in with a flock of fellow diving birds, it’s likely that eventually this Redhead will eventually get things sorted out. On the other hand, with breeding season fast approaching when the above photo was made, hybrid crosses between scaup and Redheads have been recorded. You never know what will turn up next at The Lake.

Redhead range map: with permission from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, All About Birds. The Alaska Peninsula lies to the west of this map.

Redhead, Aythya americana
Order: Anseriformes
Family: Anatidae
Aythya: from the Latin aithuia for an unidentified seabird referenced by Hesychius, Aristotle and others
americana: Latinized version of America

Status at Chignik Lake, 2016 to present: Rare or accidental.

David Narver, Birds of the Chignik River Drainage, Spring & Summers 1960-63: Not reported.

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

Aniakchak National Monument and Preserve Bird List: Not reported.

loon silhouette

Previous Article: Canvasback – the Duke of Ducks

Next Article: Harlequin Ducks – Lords and Ladies of the Aquatic Court

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: Northern Shoveler – a Bill like Baleen

Strikingly marked with blues, iridescent greens, russet flanks and contrasting white, Northern Shovelers are a beautiful bird. And that bill… (Photo taken April 28, 2021, Chignik Lake)

Two decades have passed since the days when I used to ride my bicycle in wintertime and spring to the Hanamizu River in Hiratsuka, Japan to look for birds there. I did not consider myself a birder then, but I liked to look at the water and I carried binoculars and sometimes a bird field guide with me. There were herons and egrets, and it was a good place to see turquoise-colored kingfishers, a favorite, and to find shrikes which left worms and other small creatures impaled on barbed wire fences around gardens along the river. There were startling, parrot-like green woodpeckers, redstarts and other birds in the forested hills nearby, and sometimes I’d go there to look for those as well as owls, which I never did find. My favorite place was the river, though, and I’d often pack a lunch and find a place to sit and watch the ducks. There isn’t much hunting done in Japan, and so the birds were neither tame nor particularly wary. I was often closer to species such as teal, wigeons, mallards and pintails than I’m ever able to get here on the Chignik.

Drake (left) and hen Northern Shovelers, Chignik Lake, April 28, 2021.

Perhaps the most approachable of the Hanamizu’s waterfowl were the Northern Shovelers. Quiet as ducks go, they’d busily and rapidly swish their bills back and forth through stiller portions of the river, managing by means of their unique bills and a feeding strategy unlike the other ducks to avoid competition. As it turns out, their spatula-like bills are equipped with over 100 very fine, comb-like structures shovelers use to sift out small organisms. In both appearance and effect, these lamellae are similar to the baleen of certain species of whales. So, while shovelers are dabblers (non-diving ducks), they do more swishing and churning with their bills than tipping butt up as do teal and mallards.

Typical shoveler feeding behavior: stir up the water or silty bottom, sift the mix through fine, comb-like lamellae lining the inside edges of the bill, and swallow whatever is edible. Midge larvae are abundant in Chignik Lake, making them a likely repast. John J. Audubon reported finding leeches, snails and small fishes among stomach contents.

In four years of living at Chignik Lake and looking at various species of ducks up and down the Chignik drainage, I’d never seen shovelers here. David Narver didn’t record them in his avian study of the Chigniks conducted in the early 1960’s, and a quick check of this species on the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s All About Birds site indicated very few sightings on the Alaska Peninsula and none at all on the Gulf of Alaska side where Chignik Lake is located. So I was astounded to look at my window in the predawn of April 28 and see the unmistakable silhouettes of ducks sporting those bills. Three drakes and a hen, milling near shore along the beach where many of us park our skiffs and scows. I knew I had to make my pictures quickly. It wouldn’t be long before people headed down to the beach to launch their crafts, at which point the ducks would surely take flight and continue their migration across the peninsula.

Among ducks, Norther Shovelers are particularly known for lifelong monogamous pairings. (4/28/21)

The problem I was facing was that what little light there was shone from behind the birds. Given that encountering this species is at best a rare event on the Chignik, my best option was to turn up the ISO, keep the aperture as open as practical, and at the very least make some decent “record” or documentation pictures and deal with image noise and softness later. The pictures in this article are all from photos I took in the pre-dawn light that morning.

As I feared, just as the sun began peeking over the snow-capped mountains rimming the lake, a honda engine pierced the morning calm. As it drew closer, the quartet began hurriedly paddling for deeper water. Suddenly they broke, sent the water into a froth as they took wing, and were gone. (4/28/21)

The Lake is the kind of place where, at any given moment, an interested person might take a closer look and see a species of bird never before recorded here. But in what part of the world isn’t that true? Regrettably, I cannot remember the author’s name, but there is a very short piece of Japanese Zen poetry that reads,

Tend the garden
any size

Those words might be paraphrased to read,

Make a study
anywhere

It seems that the closer one looks – at anything – the more there is to see and to learn and to marvel at.

Northern Shoveler Range Map: with permission from The Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Birds of the World. Note that the Alaska Gulf side of the Alaska Peninsula is not considered to be part of this species’ range.

Northern Shoveler, Spatula clypeata
Order: Anseriformes
Family: Anatidae
Spatula: Latin for spoon or spatula
clypeata: Latin for shield bearing or shield

Status at Chignik Lake, 2016 to present: Rare or perhaps even accidental. Most likely to be encountered as a spring migrant. However, as shovelers are known to breed on the Alaska Peninsula, this is a species to be on the lookout for in any likely habitat, particularly at Black Lake at the head of the drainage.

David Narver, Birds of the Chignik River Drainage, Spring & Summers 1960-63: Not reported.

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

Aniakchak National Monument and Preserve Bird List: Presence Documented

Previous Article: Northern Pintail – the Dapper Dabbler

Next Article: American Wigeon – America’s Most Vegetarian Duck

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

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

Subsistence Salmon Beach Seining on Chignik Lake

This short video shows a group of Chignik Lake residents beach seining for Sockeye Salmon along the shores of Chignik Lake. The salmon thus harvested were later distributed to village members.

I didn’t have the lenses I might have preferred to have with me, and I have just barely begun the journey into videography, but on a recent hike up the lake to the mouth of Clarks River, an opportunity presented itself. Jake and Jamie pulled up to the beach in Jamie’s skiff and in a few minutes were joined by several other friends and neighbors who had traveled upcountry by honda. The plan was to do some beach seining along the lakeshore for Sockeye (Red) Salmon, with the request that since I was there, would I take some photos? 

I’d made the hike in hopes of finding interesting macro shots, or perhaps a moose or bear in a landscape setting. The 105mm prime lens attached to my camera wasn’t ideal for the shoot at hand, but it was the lens in hand – neither long enough to adequately capture the bear that was fishing at the mouth of Clarks when I first arrived, nor wide enough to capture the sweeping landscape the netting operation was set against. 

Nonetheless, I really got into recording this event, which has been occurring here in the Chigniks in one form or another for thousands of years. In fact, if you look closely along lake and river beaches where salmon harvesting has long occurred, you might get lucky and find stone artifacts such as the ones in the photo below.

From upper left, counterclockwise: The notched ends in the first three stones indicate that they were used as weights along the lead line – the bottom line – of a fishing net. The oblong object in the upper right is an ulu-like knife that would have been used to split salmon carcasses before they were hung to dry. It is still quite sharp. The two center pieces are arrowheads. 

Most of the time in most places, salmon spawn over clean gravel or small rocks in clear-flowing rivers and streams. Sockeye Salmon, however, often spawn along lake shorelines where upwelling in the form of small underwater springs is present. There doesn’t have to be a stream as long as enough water is seeping up through lakebed gravel in water a few feet deep. There the female Sockeye will scrape out her nest, her redd, with her tail, deposit her eggs which a male at her side will fertilize, and then push gravel back over the eggs to protect them while they incubate. Shortly after they’ve spawned, all the adult salmon will die. Their decaying carcasses provide a vital source of nutrition for the various zooplankton and small insects upon which their young will feed until they’ve matured sufficiently to migrate out to sea.

This past season, beginning in late May or early June, over half a million Red Salmon ascended the Chignik River. While many spawn in the lake itself, many others spawn in the Chignik River as well as in several tributary streams and rivers. These salmon, along with the Pink, Chum, Coho and Chinook that also run the Chignik, are foundational to life here. They provide food for our abundant bears, eagles, otters, seals and other wildlife, provide a nutrient base for the lakes and rivers, and, with the help of Brown Bears, become fertilizer for berry flats, wildflowers and other vegetation which, in turn, feed everything from mushrooms to mice to caterpillars to songbirds. It would be no exaggeration to say that every living thing along the Chignik is connected to salmon. That includes the 50-some residents of Chignik Lake, among which Barbra and I are two.

Kita the Kitten: Welcome to a Life of Adventure, Chapter I

We’d been considering adding to our family for quite awhile, but the timing and the situation never seemed quite right. After having Buster in our life, we felt the urge even more strongly. He was such a great dog – an eager hiker, a terrific optimist and a joy to be around. We could easily imagine going on hikes and trips with a dog just like him. So, we began watching dog training videos. But when it came to envisioning how a dog might fit into our sometimes unpredictable lives, we had to conclude that now was not the right time.

Then there was the idea of a cat. We loved having Franny in our life back when we lived in Sacramento. She loved chatting, playing and being part of our lives. Her mischief was confined to unrolling toilet paper and pulling socks (only mine) out of drawers. Her lone drawback was that she hated being in a car. And so, her adventures were confined to our home.

Out of curiosity, I began doing some internet searches on pet adoption in Anchorage. There are a surplus of dogs and cats needing forever homes. I suppose this is true of most cities. Jack and I would “aww” over all sorts of pictures, all the while becoming more and more serious about adding a new family member. The more pictures we looked at, the more honed in we became on what sort of pet would fit into our family. This furry friend would need to be friendly, communicative, and happy to go on adventures.

After much deliberation, we decided a cat would make for the best fit. We thought we could find a kitten that we could leash train and also one that could be taught to understand that car noises are not scary. The hope is that one day she would be on the road with us, traveling around the country in our camper. Once our search began in earnest, as often is the case, things quickly fell into place.

There are several organizations in Anchorage that adopt out cats and kittens. My internet searches kept bringing me back to the Alaska Cat Adoption Team’s (ACAT) website. There was a picture of this one kitten… how can a picture tug at heartstrings, I’ll never know. But it did. I showed Jack. Same reaction. Love at first sight. In our conversations, we had already named her Kita, which means North in Japanese.

I contacted Kita’s foster care person, Terri, to see what the process was. Terri, of course, turned out to be a big-hearted lady with a commitment to helping the growing feral cat population in Anchorage. She told me stories of her recent rescues and about the kittens she was currently fostering. Then she broke the news that someone was coming to look at Kita that very day.

Oh no! ACAT has a strict policy about rehoming. They require the prospective owner to come and visit the adoptee in person to make sure there is a positive connection. ACAT is trying to ensure that their cats get placed in a forever home. Disappointed, I gave Terri my contact information and asked her to let me know if Kita’s adoption didn’t go through. Meanwhile, Terri offered to help me find another cat that might fit, so we left off our conversation on a positive note.

A few days later, I got a call from Terri. They guy who was going to adopt Kita kept missing his appointments, leaving her unsure that adoption was going to happen. Jack and I pounced on the opportunity. We were ready to happily commit to Kita’s adoption. We paid a reservation fee and I began organizing a trip to Anchorage. In the meanwhile, Terri called or emailed almost daily with reports and photos of our new little friend playing with her foster siblings, snoozing in different place, and generally being cute.

Kita is now in her new home, having survived her first adventure with her new family. I couldn’t tell the story as well as she can, so I’ll let her tell it.

Well, it’s been quite a couple of days! First, I went with my new owner to a hotel. It was a cool and strange scene. The place was almost devoid of smells and was humming with funny sounds. There were these curious glass panels with kittens behind them that looked just like me! By the time I was finished sussing out the place, night had fallen. I climbed up on a gigantic bed, nestled into a hundred pillows and proceeded to fall asleep. Then, all of a sudden, there were terrifying creaking sounds like the building was going to break. Fearing the worst and not knowing what to do, I jumped up and hid under the bed. A few minutes later a ringing sound made Barbra turn on the light and talk into a little machine. I heard her say “8.2 magnitude? Are you ok? I’m relieved to hear that.” She seemed worried for a bit. Finally, she quieted down, I climbed back onto the bed and we both fell asleep. A short time later, a loud alarm went off and scared both of us awake. Turns out it was a false alarm, maybe triggered by the earlier earthquake. At that point, both of us were too amped up to sleep. We turned our attention to playing games with the feather toy Barbra had brought for me.

Soon it was time to snuggle into my travel crate. I cuddled in with a blanket and a soft shirt that smelled just like Barbra. After a sleepy car ride, we waited in a warm building where kind people curiously peeked in at me. After a time, I noticed strange smells and some weird noises coming from other crates that looked kind of like mine but were much bigger. My crate was set atop these others and I was wheeled outside. One after another, we were loaded onto a plane. First the geese, then the pig, then a box of ducklings, and finally me. The smells coming from those crates were quite intense! I watched Barbra take a seat, the engine roared and we ascended into the air! When the plane stopped, all the smelly animals were disembarked and I got to sit right next to my friend, Barbra. This was much better.

The next time we landed, I met Jack. He put me into the truck cab and the three of us drove to my new home. Jack’s a very busy guy who likes to make noise in the kitchen. I could tell he loved me right away because he played with me and petted me very nicely. He even spoke to me in Japanese, which I couldn’t understand, but then he gave me some delicious salmon!

Let me tell you about my new home. It’s big and has very different noises than my foster home. I get all the attention from my two people. They love to play with me. They even made me some new toys. I love to sit on the windowsill and watch the birds at the window feeders. If I get tired, there are soft blankets for me to nap on. At nighttime, I get to share a bed with my new warm family. I think I’m going to have a great life with many fun adventures with these two.

Chignik Lake in 29 Photos: Post Office Creek

Chignik Lake Post Office Creek in Snow
Post Office Creek

Barbra and I call the stream in the above photo Post Office Creek for its proximity to the former post office here in Chignik Lake. The post office has since relocated, but during the first three years we lived here, we regularly crossed this creek on foot as we traveled back and forth. Although our home sits just 60 paces from a lake full of water, this tiny creek holds an especial appeal and anytime I am near it, I find myself drawn to it, approaching stealthily for a careful look into its deeper pools.

From mid-spring through fall, there are char and sometimes salmon parr and one year a pair of Pink Salmon spawned in a riffle below the culvert where the road crosses. The char are wary, but by approaching quietly and giving one’s eyes a few moments to adjust, fish a foot long and even larger might be found. A cottonwood overlooking the mouth is a favorite perch for kingfishers, and when salmon are in the lake eagles can also be found there. Loons and mergansers regularly hunt the lake’s waters outside the creek mouth and yellowlegs can often be found wading and catching small fish along the shore.

During wintertime, there generally isn’t much evidence of life in the creek’s clear waters, but it’s there – char eggs waiting to hatch, caddis larvae along with mayfly and stonefly nymphs clinging to the undersides of rocks, a visiting heron catching small fish where the creek enters the lake, fresh otter and mink tracks at the mouth some mornings.

In summertime snipe nest in a marsh that seeps into the creek, and bears use it as a thoroughfare so that even in the village, you’re wise to carry bear spray if you’re walking that way. The dense thickets of willow and alder near its banks are a good place to look for warblers and thrushes. In fall Coho gather just below the creek’s mouth, resting before traveling to larger tributaries further up the lake. As Roderick Haig-Brown observed, a river never sleeps. Nor does Post Office Creek. I made this picture on January 13, 2021. (Nikon D850, 24-70mm f/2.8, 1/50 @ f/22, ISO 400, 24mm)

Chignik Lake in 29 Photos: Visitor

Chignik Lake Alaska hoary redpoll
Visitor

Right down to his black-gloved claws, male redpolls are strikingly handsome fellows. The species is a regular wintertime visitor at the lake, though they’re unpredictable and irruptive flocks or a few individuals or none at all might be encountered in any season here. Two springs ago, Barbra saw one carrying nesting material. That same late spring we saw a number of what were surely brand new fledglings. In recent years they’ve joined Pine Siskins and Pine Grosbeaks in what has become the annual late-spring Feast of the Dandelions. As the little yellow flowers go to seed, these finches descend on the school yard and elsewhere to gorge on the tiny seeds. This occurs in large part due to Clinton, the school’s grounds-keeper, whom I’ve convinced to put off mowing till after the main part of the dandelion season is over.

I’m hesitant to say with certainty that the bird in the above photo is a Hoary Redpoll, but he’s got the smallish bill, light side streaking and pinkish breast associated with that species. There is a lot of morphological variation among redpolls. The matter brings up what is to me one of the most interesting questions in biology:

What is a species?

When do two groups of similar flora or fauna differ from each other enough to merit taxonomic separation? The question creates divisions between “lumpers” who advocate for leaning toward the simple “can they interbreed and produce viable offspring” test and “splitters” who observe that even though two types can successfully breed, it may not be useful to group them together as a single species.

My interest in ichthyology has led me to place myself firmly in the “splitters” group. Applying the simple “can they breed and produce viable offspring” test, fisheries managers of bygone eras decimated genetically unique stocks of salmonids (char, trout and salmon) through nearly indiscriminate hatchery breeding policies and stocking programs. What was learned – the hard way – is that although, for example, Chinook Salmon from two different rivers might seem to be the same thing, biologically they aren’t. Each population of Chinook represents a unique genetic strain, specially adapted to the conditions of its own home river. A strain of salmon transplanted from one river to another is unlikely to thrive. Thus, the best approach to ensuring healthy salmon populations is to protect their habitat – river by river, right down to individual spawning tributaries.

Which brings us to the matter of redpolls and the question as to whether there are two species in North America, Hoary and Common, or whether a redpoll is a redpoll is a redpoll. Based on what I’ve read, in addition to any phenotypic or genotypic differences that might exist between the two types, they tend to nest it different areas. Hoaries prefer tundra or other open areas; Commons like more brushy habitat. Which suggests to me that they are different enough that we need to protect both types of habitat if we want to continue to have both types of redpolls. (Nikon D5, 600m f/4 + 2.0 TC, 1/1000 @ f/8, ISO 1600, 1200mm

Chignik Lake in 29 Photos: Speck

Chignik Lake Alaska Red Fox
Speck

By the calendar, this isn’t strictly speaking a winter shot. But on April 1 of 2017, there was still lots of snow with more to come. Ice had only just begun to relinquish its hold on Chignik Lake. No one was seriously trapping that year, and the inhospitable landscape had driven several foxes into the village where food was easier to find. Several of us at The Lake are happy to occasionally oblige these visitors with a handout of fish or whatever else we might have in the fridge. So, full disclosure, the fox in the above photo, whom we named Speck, had long ago dropped his guard in favor of scoring an easy salmon head dropped from our living room window.

We learned quite a lot about Red Foxes that winter, starting with the fact that each is an individual, distinguishable by both physical features and character traits. In all, we came to recognize (and subsequently name) five different foxes that year: Speck, Frost, Kate, King and Skit. Each had its own unique personality, and each had some special physical trait, such as the spots on Speck’s face. He was a favorite, and along with a little female (we think she was a female), Frost -named for the white on her face -, he could often be found sleeping and loafing below our window.

Is it ethical to feed wild animals? It depends. Certainly it’s a bad idea anywhere the species in question is being hunted or trapped. It’s an equally poor practice in parks or other areas where animals might become a nuisance. No one wants to sit down at a picnic table only to be besieged by squirrels, gulls or jays. And we oppose the practice of baiting animals – that is, feeding them in order to shoot them, whether with a rifle or a camera. But we feed birds in order to help them and because we enjoy their company, and in the depths of winter we sometimes put out a salmon head or something similar for foxes. Here at The Lake, most fishermen will leave salmon and trout carcasses on the beach for the benefit of eagles and bears – a practice that is illegal most other places. Foxes have evolved so that an encoded part of their behavior is to follow larger animals – bears, humans – in hopes of obtaining a few scraps of food. People have undoubtedly been sharing with them for as long as there have been foxes and humans. (Nikon D5, 70-200mm f/2.8 + 2.0 TC, 1/1250 @ f/10, ISO 1600, 400 mm)

Chignik Lake in 29 Photos: Otter Pile

Chignik Lake River Otters
Otter Pile

Our first winter in the village, the lake froze solid. Temperatures plunged during a period of calm. Ice-over occurred quickly and the new ice was clear and dense. The lake hadn’t frozen solid in recent years, and so I became the first person in five years to walk across the lake. At one point, Barbra and I hiked up the frozen lake as far as Clarks River. We even did some cross country skiing after a snowfall left the lake blanketed in white.

Most of the river froze as well, and it is certain that bodies of water further up the peninsula also turned to hard water. Due probably to subsurface springs, a few acres of water near the lake’s outflow – right in front of our house – never froze. This open water became a a refuge for all kinds of wildlife – several species of ducks, Harbor Seals, hunting foxes and eagles, and, for a short time, a wolf. Bundling up in warm clothing and crawling out onto the ice day after day, I encountered species of ducks that aren’t often seen here and got some beautiful wildlife photographs.

My favorite subjects were a group of River Otters that used the edge of the ice and openings as they hunted, played and rested. They’re common throughout the Chignik drainage, but they’re shy, and so although we frequently see them, we don’t often get opportunities to make good portraits of them.

At first the otters in the above photo were so cautious I was unable to approach near enough to get photos of more than the “these are otters” variety. Down on my belly, I’d edge forward across the frozen lake pushing my camera on its tripod before me. I’d hear their alarmed snorts from a distance and watch them slip like silk into the water, gone.

But day by day they became more accustomed to my presence. And they are intelligent, inquisitive beings. I think eventually they couldn’t help themselves in permitting closer proximity between us.

Among North American carnivores, River Otters are unique. Truly communal by nature, I’ve never seen them squabble the way bears and foxes often do. Although I would imagine that from time to time these playful fellows and gals must engage in spats, their more usual disposition toward each other is captured in the above image.

I’ve upgraded my equipment and improved my camera skills since that first year, so I keep hoping for another cold winter, an absence of trappers, and an opportunity to get to know these fascinating residents of The Lake better. Chignik Lake, January 2, 2017. (Nikon D5, 600mm f/4 + 1.4 TC, 1/1000 @ f/8, ISO 2500, 850mm)

Chignik Lake in 29 Photos: Blues & Pinks

Chignik Lake Winter landscape sunset
Blues & Pinks

I had read about artists moving to specific locations for the quality of light found in those places. It was a concept the eluded me until, rather late in life, I picked up a camera and began to try to make pictures. I lived in Point Hope, Alaska at the time – 200 miles north of the Arctic Circle. There were periods during the spring and fall when the sun lingered on the horizon for a good part of the day. The soft hues of pink, purple, red, orange, gold, yellow and lilac bathing the snow and ice covered landscape was… amazing.

Although early morning and late evening periods of beautiful light would have been more brief in other places I’d lived in and visited, surely that light was present. But I had missed it. In my pre-photography days, I thought of light mainly in terms of its brightness: enough to see by or not; sufficient to read by or to tie on a fly, or not; bright, too bright, not bright enough, absent. And because that’s how I thought of light, that’s how I saw it – an example of selective, self-imposed blindness that might apply to anything from preconceiving the results of a scientific experiment to being incapable of observing a solution right in front of one’s eyes… or whether or not the object of one’s affection is returning that affection.

If I ever go back to Pennsylvania, it will be one of the first things I look for: morning and evening light. Surely there must be moments when it softly colors the landscape -the rounded mountains forested in mixed trees, the trout streams, a lady’s slipper orchid or an abandoned apple orchard. Now that I can see…

The most challenging element in making a photograph such as this is the camera. Put simply, there is no camera sensor that can fully capture the subtle and brilliant range of colors the human eye can discern. This is where the photographer – at least this photographer – admires the painter who is in possession of a broader and more subtle palette of colors. Still, even with a Monet, the end result is only a proximation of what was seen by being there. Chignik Lake, January 9, 2017, 3:07 PM. (Nikon D800, 17-35mm f/2.8, 2.0 @ f/22, ISO 100, 22mm)