Egg, Stump, Spy

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.


Camp site on Spy Island in the Beaufort Sea. The manmade island Oooguruk, a six-acre gravel drill site,  is visible in the distance. Photo: Sally Andersen

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.


Eider down strewn about after an arctic fox depredated most of the nests on the barrier island. Photo: Sally Andersen

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.


An eider nest on one of the Spy Islands, a group of barrier islands in the Beaufort Sea. Photo: Sally Andersen


Peard Bay Special Area


View of Peard Bay from the decommissioned Distant-Early-Warning (DEW) Line Site.

Peard Bay, on the Chukchi Sea Coast, is the newest BLM-designated Special Area within the National Petroleum Reserve – Alaska. This area is relatively unknown to scientists, but well known to nearby residents who have used the area for millennia. Located between the villages of Barrow and Wainwright, the bay is sheltered by barrier islands and hosts high densities of polar bears and ringed seals, nesting eiders, and in the fall, migrating waterfowl and shorebirds.


En route to the Seahorse Islands to search for nesting common eiders.

As at Kasegaluk Lagoon, where we are currently studying eider nesting success, we are concerned with the inundation of eider nests and increased predation in this rapidly changing environment. However, we must first fully understand where on the barrier islands the eiders are nesting. WCS personnel recently spent time at Peard Bay searching for nesting eider ducks. On the Seahorse Islands we found a colony of at least 50 common eider nests, some nesting so close together that the nests were touching each other. Other interesting observations included a northern fulmar, a small group of crested auklets, and a nesting red-throated loon.


This eider made its nest amongst the flotsam washed up by the tide. Eiders were nesting as few as 20 m from the water’s edge.



Red-throated loon nest found on a small lake slightly inland at Peard Bay.

Written by Sally Andersen, WCS Conservation Coordinator. June 2016.

Life on the Edge

Over a third of the Chukchi coast in northwestern Alaska is protected by a chain of barrier islands. Along with the associated lagoons, this system of barrier islands is vital to the birds, mammals, and fish in the region; however, these landscapes are under threat from rising seas and increased storm surges. The loss, or periodic inundation of these barrier islands, in addition to the presence of new boreal predators moving north in concert with a changing climate, creates a hazard for the animals that live along this coast.


Barrier islands of Kasegaluk Lagoon on the Chukchi Sea coast of Alaska. You can see the narrow island disappearing into the distance. This island is approximately sixteen miles long and is part of a chain of islands stretching about 40 miles north from Icy Cape.

In early June 2016, we set up our base camp on a barrier island just north of Icy Cape on Kasegaluk Lagoon in the National Petroleum Reserve – Alaska. This lagoon has been designated a ‘Special Area’ due to its importance to beluga whales, polar bears, walrus, sea ducks, and shorebirds. The Kasegaluk Lagoon has the highest abundance and diversity of bird life of all Arctic Alaska coastal lagoons.


Field technician Stacie Evans sets up a base camp on the barrier islands. The crew of two flew from Kotzebue, Alaska with Golden Eagle Outfitters in two small planes that landed directly on the barrier islands.


Eiders build their nests on exposed beaches, starting with bare scrapes and filling them in with down as laying progresses.

Our efforts to study the breeding ecology of eiders, supported by the Wilburforce Foundation, will help prioritize specific areas along the barrier islands that are critical for the long-term health of the species.

Written by Rebecca Bentzen, Arctic Beringia Program Avian Research Coordinator, WCS. June 2016.

River of Birds

During the second field season for the king and common eider population estimate at Point Barrow, Alaska (Niksiuraq), strong, persistent winds from the East prevented birds from migrating until much later than the previous year. But once the wind shifted, it was as if the floodgate had been lifted, and the birds poured past in a great river of wings. One day in early May, an estimated 18,000 birds passed in two hours.


King and common eiders migrating past Point Barrow, Alaska. Photo T. Haynes

The field season is ongoing. Birds are still migrating to their summer breeding grounds, but the wind has shifted again, the lead between the pack ice and the shore-fast ice has closed, and the majority of the population seems to have passed. The memory of the sight and the sound of so many thousands of birds in the sky remains.

Written by Sally Andersen, WCS Arctic Beringia Program Conservation Coordinator, April 2016.

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.


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.


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.


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.

Spring at the Top of the World

Wildlife Conservation Society conducted an estimate of the king and common eider duck population this spring in Barrow, Alaska. Eiders are colonial seabirds that nest along the coastline of Alaska’s Beaufort and northern Chukchi seas and are an important subsistence food species.

Michael Wald, of the tour company Arctic Wild, assisted with training and logistics during the eider population estimate and wrote about his experience here.


Rebecca Bentzen (project Principal Investigator) observes eiders.

Bowhead whale in the lead edge.

Bowhead whale in the lead edge.


Project biologists observing migration sea ducks.


Project volunteer Rosemary McGuire takes a break from breaking trail on the sea ice along the lead edge of the Beaufort Sea.


A flock of eider ducks migrating along the lead edge of the Beaufort Sea.

Climbing up to the viewing perch for a better vantage.

Climbing up to the viewing perch for a better vantage.

Counting eider ducks at Point Barrow, AK.

Counting eider ducks at Point Barrow, AK.