An eyebrow on the forehead of mainland Alaska, the barrier islands of the Beaufort Sea coast stretch across the top of Alaska, separated from the mainland by extensive coastal lagoons. The islands are almost completely barren of vegetation save for a few clumps of Elymus grass and ground-hugging vascular plants. The irony of this dearth is that many of the islands do grow ducks. Pacific common eiders nest in colonies on the barrier islands, often in groups of 100 or more nesting females. It can be difficult to place your foot without stepping on a nest in some of the denser colonies.
A research trip with US Fish and Wildlife Service to the islands north and west of the busy industrial hub of Deadhorse in July of 2017 to identify nesting eider colonies displayed both the barrenness and fertility of the islands. We found large nesting colonies nearly as soon as we set foot on the islands, but nest after nest after nest had been depredated by an arctic fox. On each new island as we moved west from Deadhorse, we beached our boat, hopeful that we were ahead ahead of the fox. We came upon him on Egg Island sleeping off a stomach full of eider eggs, but it wasn’t until we’d gone over 30 miles from Deadhorse that we found an intact eider colony. While the Arctic fox (or foxes) clearly had an impact on these eiders, recent research shows that they themselves are being outcompeted and even consumed by northward moving red foxes – perhaps these islands were a respite for this hungry individual.
After so much destruction, it was satisfying to see a successful colony. We banded eighteen birds, one of which was a female who had been previously banded in 2001, the last time the eider colonies had been visited by researchers. She was sitting on a nest, incubating what was perhaps her 10th clutch of eggs.