Eider duck research at Icy Cape

Our field research sites, by nature of the boundaries of Arctic Beringia, are in remote and wild places. The barrier islands of Kasegaluk Lagoon are no exception to this.  A thin strip of land a couple of miles offshore in the Chukchi Sea, Solivik Island is at first glance wind-swept and barren. There are no trees, no shrubs, and no animals in sight. There’s a lot of sand and bones, and yet these islands soon reveal themselves to be teeming with life.

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Camp on the barrier islands of the Chukchi Sea coast. Tents are encircled by both an electrified fence and a trip-wire fence in case a polar bear wanders into camp.

Arctic tern colonies are the most obvious terrestrial life, as the birds attack to defend their nests with loud cries of “kak, kak, kak” and dive bombing that isn’t always a bluff. The tern colonies we encountered had up to ten nests in a small area, just bare scrapes on the ground, with two eggs each. Common eiders and long-tail ducks use the aggressive terns as cover and often site their nests among or on the edges of these colonies. The ducks benefit from the terns as they chase off ravens, jaegers, gulls, and biologists.

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Arctic tern nest

Common eiders are the most at-risk waterbird species on Alaska’s North Slope due to the susceptibility of their nest sites to potential overwash and erosion from storm surges. The birds often hide their nests among driftwood, which provides cover from nest predators as well as protection from the elements.

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Female eider duck captured for genetic sampling prior to release

Our work is to assess the ecological importance of, and risk to, the poorly understood barrier island ecosystems in northern Alaska, and assess which islands are, or will continue to be, the most critical for nesting birds. This is critical information for managers as the area is developed, both for avoiding disturbance and for disaster preparedness. We are assessing the physical health of the ducks, as well as collecting genetic, and population size information. Our sites in the Chukchi Sea will be compared with sites at Prudhoe Bay and further east to the Canada border in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

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Determining approximate age of embryos by candling eggs with a makeshift egg-candler, a field notebook. Photo Sally Andersen

Written by Sally Andersen, WCS Arctic Beringia Program Conservation Coordinator, June 2015.

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