Chasing Eiders

A Week on the Beaufort Sea with Arctic Refuge Bird Biologists

Photos top left to right: Bridget Lyons for USFWS; Danielle Brigida/USFWS; Bridget Lyons for USFWS

This essay was written by Bridget Lyons, a 2018 artist in residence with the multi-agency Voices of the Wilderness program.

She’s on her nest — right up there, by that group of glaucous gulls.” Will was standing at the console of our boat, peering through his binoculars.

“Okay. Noose or net?” Elyssa said from her position in the back of the other eighteen-foot inflatable Zodiac.

“Noose, I think. This island is too narrow for the net. If I approach from the lagoon side, I think I can pull this off.”

“Cool. Laura, can you pass the noose pole over to Will? And grab the banding kit. Makenna, there should be one more nest camera in that blue dry bag. See if you can find it — and a Kestrel as well. Which one of you wants to hold the hen?”

Elyssa Watford confidently delegates the tasks she’s gotten to know well. As a master’s student at the University of Alaska at Fairbanks working with the US Fish and Wildlife Service in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, Elyssa has spent the last two summers chasing common eiders. These migratory sea ducks nest on barrier islands along the Beaufort Sea coast, the northernmost boundary of this rarely-visited 19.5 million-acre preserve. Because of its low-lying topography and proximity to the North Pole, this ecosystem — and the creatures who dwell in it — is likely to show evidence of the effects of climate change earlier and more dramatically than others. Gaining some insight into how one species of waterfowl might adapt to these shifts is what we are here to do.

Elyssa Watford at work. Photo by Danielle Brigida/USFWS.

While Elyssa assembles the equipment needed to measure, weigh, and draw blood from the mother eider, Will Wiese — her friend, fellow researcher, and Arctic boating mentor — walks slowly in thigh-deep, 38-degree water. He’s shed his Mustang suit, a foam-filled, full-body, electric orange safety garment worn on the boats at all times, so he’s down to his waterproof fishing waders and the numerous wool shirts and fleece jackets required to maintain a reasonable body temperature while working in a windy, rainy environment where the ambient air temperature hovers between 35 and 45 degrees.

Will Wiese uses a pole to attempt to catch an eider. Photo by Danielle Brigida/USFWS.

As Will approaches the nest where the female sits incubating her eggs, he extends the ten-meter telescoping pole he’s carrying. It’s a device originally designed for carp fishing that the team has jury-rigged for the specific task of catching nesting mother eiders. Once he’s close to the dusky brown, mallard-looking bird, he dangles the end of the pole over her head and slowly lowers the circle of monofilament towards her beak. When he slides the pole towards himself, the noose is fastened around the duck’s neck just tightly enough to get a hold of her, but not enough to hurt her.

Taking measurements of a female common eider. Photo by Danielle Brigida/USFWS.

From where we sit, we can see Will walking his hands down the pole, an indication that he’s got an eider on the other end. If he had startled and flushed her, we would have moved in towards the temporarily motherless nest to collect data on the both its placement and the status of the three to five sage-green eggs inside it. But since Will’s got a live duck in his hands, we have the chance to collect some more “intimate” information about her — data that is provided through mouth swabs, fecal samples, and blood draws. For her master’s thesis, Elyssa is studying the energetics of common eider nest choice. She’s focused specifically on the eastern Beaufort Sea population — a subset of birds who choose to lay their eggs on sand spits a few inches above sea level in one of the most remote bodies of water in the world.

Eider eggs and heartbeat monitor. Photo by Danielle Brigida/USFWS || Right: Will looks to judge the age of the egg. Photo by Bridget Lyons for USFWS.

“Here? They build nests here?” I exclaimed, an hour into our six-day research trip. We’d just landed at our first gravel bar, and I was looking in astonishment at a flat and featureless spit comprised of nothing more than an accumulation of half-dollar-sized rocks. A big tide — or even a moderate storm — could wipe this thing out, I thought. And, indeed, both do. But these precarious sites have their advantages. They’re close to the incredibly fertile food source that the Beaufort Sea becomes during the long days of the Arctic summer. Eiders eat invertebrates (they are particularly fond of mussels), so, when their babies hatch, the inexperienced and unprotected young need only walk a few feet towards the water to get their first meal. Additionally, plenty of driftwood — most of which has been dumped into the sea from Canada’s powerful McKenzie River — lands on these sand spits. It provides the nesting mothers with a bit of camouflage and some shelter from the wind. Exactly how much is just one of the many questions Elyssa’s research is investigating.

“Our primary goal here is long-term monitoring of common eiders — tracking their productivity over time.” Elyssa is talking to a group of sailors holed up near our camp in Demarcation Bay, a protected spot about sixty miles east of Kaktovik, Alaska and ten miles west of the Canadian border. They are waiting for the ice to clear before they continue their journey east along the notorious Northwest Passage. The last thing we expected when embarking upon this far-flung data-collection mission was to encounter other human beings. However, when we spotted their double-masted ketch, we immediately dubbed it “the pirate ship.” The erstwhile pirates invited us aboard for dinner, and, seeing the opportunity to dry out and warm up in a mosquito-free cabin, we took them up on their offer. In exchange, they asked us to talk about what we were doing. Elyssa, who stands strong in her athletic body and commands respect with an articulate speaking style, took the floor to talk about melting sea ice — a subject close to these sailors’ hearts — might affect common eiders.

“Typically, we’ve got the polar ice cap breaking up and creating large flooding events and near-shore storm surges in August or September. But now we’re starting to see more of that earlier in the season, like in July.” Elyssa is working to understand how the birds’ nest site selection might be affected by these climatic changes and how their different nest site choices might affect the incubating mothers’ physiological responses.

Caribou tracks and Sea ice. Photos: Bridget Lyons for USFWS

The kinds of physiological responses she’s looking at include things like heart rate and blood chemistry. To analyze these, she needs data, and to get that data, she’s got to brave the iceberg-strewn Beaufort Sea. The six of us on the crew left Kaktovik, an Inupiat village of 250 people, in two inflatable boats equipped with 70 and 115 horsepower outboard motors, eight tanks of fuel, multiple dry bags full of camping gear and scientific instruments, and enough food to last a week. As soon as we left the village’s protected bay, Elyssa and Will throttled the motors up to twenty-five miles per hour, a speed which lifts the bow of the boat up above the water and creates enough air movement to sting any flesh that remains exposed to the elements. I was clad in multiple synthetic layers, fishing waders, and the ungainly orange Mustang suit I’d spent several minutes wrangling myself into (I did get faster over time). Nevertheless, I quickly discovered that my wool buff — a neck gaiter that can be pulled up over the mouth and nose — would prove to be my most critical article of clothing for boating, along with my sunglasses, a hat, and multiple hoods.

Stopping the boat in two to four feet of water was standard operating procedure at each sand spit, as was the binocular scan for nesting mothers. Hanging out in the Zodiac while Will attempted to noose a nesting female was not unusual — nor was the incredible efficiency with which the team clicked into “go mode” once he captured one. The clear and clipped nature of their communication and swiftness of their movements reminded me of a surgical team in a hospital drama.

Sea ice surrounding the Zodiac boat. Photo by Bridget Lyons for USFWS.

“Pass me two bands,” Elyssa says. She crimps them loosely, one around each leg.

“Calipers now?”

“Please.” She grabs the tool, opens it, then closes it down — first around the bird’s lower leg, then across the length of its beak, then along its head. “Tarsus 61.5. Culmen 51.9. Head 127.8.”

“Scale coming.”

“Good. 2040 grams.”

“Envelopes for the feathers?”

“Uh-huh.” She pulls a few from the mother’s head. “Feathers coming at you. Nest ID and band number on the envelope.”

“Got it. Ready for the swabs?” Makenna asks.

“Yes, ma’am.”

Each one of these procedures has a distinct purpose. The banding enables future identification of these birds — not just by Elyssa and Will, but also by other scientists who might spot them. The measurements create a baseline reserve of data about what the nesting females’ “normal” sizes and weights are, and the fecal and mouth swabs allow testing for disease. The feathers — all of which will molt later this summer, when the hens are busy raising their young — are retained for genetic and isotope analysis. The blood samples Elyssa extracts will be assessed for chemical compounds that yield information about the birds’ nutritional status and physiological stress during different stages of incubation — the twenty-six-day chunk of time these mothers remain seated on their nests.

This last aspect of the research is one of the most compelling ones for Elyssa. “The fact that these ladies fast and sit on their eggs 99.5 percent of the time — for twenty-six days — is just wild to me. It’s amazing that they are able to do that with their bodies — starve for that long and still hatch their babies.” This phenomenon is called “capital breeding,” and while eiders are not alone in employing this strategy, the extreme duration of their fast is unique in the bird world. During this time, the hens can pass through three metabolic phases. In each, they use energy from different sources, and these sources can be identified by a chemical analysis of their blood. Elyssa thinks that if she can get a handle on when the mothers transition through these stages, she might get a better sense of both the levels of stress they are experiencing and the ways in which they respond to that stress. If they enter the final phase of fasting too early, do they abandon their nests to save themselves? And, does wind, rain, or an especially high tide associated with an earlier summer storm cycle precipitate this final phase of fasting? Answers to these questions could be critical to understanding whether or not these birds will survive the climatic changes that are most certainly coming their way.

Photos: Danielle Brigida/USFWS

While Elyssa and Laura work with the captured mother, Will and Makenna move to the nest. Will has brushed aside the pile of tawny brown fluff to expose the eggs. This is eider down, a substance that human beings have long exploited for its remarkable ability to retain heat. We use it for comforters and pillows for the same reasons that the hens line their nests with it — insulation. One by one, Will holds each of the eggs up to a small cardboard device he calls a “candler.” It’s a toilet paper tube that shuts out light and enables him to see across the eggshell and its membrane towards the eider embryo within. Based on its size, he can determine the age of the egg and predict when these young will hatch — if they aren’t eaten before that day rolls around.

The likelihood is that they will be. The vast majority of eider eggs will never grow into reproducing adults. Many will be predated by gulls, Arctic foxes, and polar bears — either as eggs or as newly-hatched young. Some will not be able to feed themselves once they’ve hatched, and others will not be strong enough to complete the annual fall migration towards the milder climate of Alaska’s St. Lawrence Island and Russia’s Chukotka Peninsula. Their breeding cycle has adapted to these slim odds; female eiders lay three to five eggs once a year for ten to fifteen years. “Of the forty or fifty eggs they lay over a lifetime, only two of them need to survive to reproductive age in order for the female to have replaced herself and her mate and contributed to keeping the population stable,” Will explains. Recently, those numbers have worked out, although there was a significant decline between the late 1950’s and the early 1990’s. At the moment, the population may actually be increasing slightly. The question on the table is whether or not this success will continue as traditional eider breeding sites become threatened by changes in temperature, ice density, sea level, and storm cycles.

We visited four different nesting sites that day, motoring ten to thirty minutes at a time between each of them. Because the sun doesn’t set in the Arctic in late July, research doesn’t have to stop at 6pm, or 8pm, or even midnight. And, since we had a base camp established at Demarcation Bay, we stayed out a lot later than your average research scientists might, keeping rock star hours on more than one occasion. On these evenings, after I peeled off my mustang suit and waders, changed my socks and hat, and crawled into the tent, I was incredibly grateful that no camp set-up had been required. The kitchen was already in place, the bucket we used as a toilet was hidden behind a log down the beach, and the bear fence — a wire strung around camp and hooked up to an air horn — was armed and ready. Both grizzlies and polar bears roam these parts, and our food stores and human odors make for tempting exploration — enough so that we carried guns (Remington 870’s) with us wherever we went. The four full-time members of our crew had taken the Fish and Wildlife Service’s firearm safety class and received training in deploying both live ammunition and a variety of “deterrents,” such as cracker shells, aimed at avoiding the unnecessary killing of a bear in an unexpected encounter. We never saw any live bears. I know this is something I should be grateful for, but I not-so-secretly hoped we’d see a polar bear at a distance, preferably on an iceberg.

Photo: Bridget Lyons for USFWS

Once I stretched out in my puffy down sleeping bag, I found myself wondering if there were any eider feathers keeping me warm as I dreamt about dodging icebergs in a sea of visually confounding mirages. In the comfort of my own nest, I could finally remove some of my layers and shed the feeling of being a Michelin man, the feeling I had all day of being encased, clumsy, and limited. My movements were never graceful. Still, I needed to move — both to get in and out of the boats when they were parked in a couple feet of water and to walk. Some days we walked five or six miles on desolate beaches in search of nests, attempting to maintain some kind of normal body temperature while the weather turned from windy and thirty-five degrees to rainy and forty, or, god forbid, calm, sunny, and forty-eight — the conditions in which the mosquitoes come out. We had two days of their Biblical swarms — days when I couldn’t hear myself think over their humming, days when my hand moving in front of my face hit ten bugs in a single swipe. I quickly learned that cold and clear is the weather to wish for, despite the extra work it took for me to keep my hands and feet from going numb.

These kinds of conditions are not for everyone. Elyssa and Will, however, thrive on them. “I like that it’s not simple and straightforward. I like working around these logistical constraints to make things happen and collect the data,” Elyssa says. “Working in the Arctic empowers me. It makes me think more critically and creatively.” It also means that there is not as much information about common eiders as there is about other species, making the establishment of critical baseline data an important element of this project.

Baseline data has to exist before change can be understood, and everyone knows change is coming. It is the elephant in every room, on every sand spit, in every moment of reverie I spent gazing out at the icebergs — icebergs that are melting faster and earlier overall, even though this summer’s ice seemed thicker as a result of its proximity to shore. “This is the fourth summer I’ve been out here,” Will said. “The last three summers, the sea ice was more broken up, so boating down here to Demarcation Bay was easy. But that open water really exposes these barrier islands. That’s the biggest reason these common eiders are considered vulnerable. If those islands change and disappear…well, that’s where they nest. Who knows if they’ll just find somewhere else to nest or not.”

Back on the pirate ship the night we visited for dinner, one of the mates quipped, “So, is it fair to say these guys are sitting ducks for extinction?”

Eider Research Crew 2018: Right to Left: Makenna Fair, Laura Makielski, Will Wiese, Elyssa Watford, Bridget Lyons, and Danielle Brigida. Photo by Makenna Fair/USFWS.

“I wouldn’t say that,” Elyssa replied, choosing her words carefully. “But there might need to be some changes in how they’re going about life in order for them to persist. And it’s possible that they just can’t adapt quickly enough to the changes that are happening.” These changes include not just the shifting composition of the sea ice and the higher likelihood of storm surges; they also include the increasing presence of human beings and industry along the Beaufort Sea coast. At this point, no one knows if or how common eiders will respond to these additional alterations to the world they live in. Gathering the baseline data lays the groundwork for understanding this process, and it’s why I am here, hurling my foam-encased frame over the side of the boat and into knee-deep water, yanking my hands out of two pairs of gloves to mount a camera next to an active nest and write down a few wind speed numbers that Laura is reading off to me. After putting the Kestrel wind meter back into its stand, she heads back to the nest I’m crouched next to. The approaching boat scared the mother off, so we are looking down at four perfect eggs, beautifully and organically arranged end-to-end in their cushion of feathery comfort.

“Ooh,” Laura exclaims, as she gingerly reaches for the largest of the sage green orbs. “It’s warm in here. Wanna feel?”

Common eider eggs. Photo by Danielle Brigida/USFWS.

I pull a bright purple latex glove over my fingers and plunge my hand under the remaining three eggs. It is warm — about the same temperature as my body — or, at least, about the same temperature as my body should be. I can imagine lying down in this bed, even if I can’t imagine hatching into it or sitting on it for twenty-six straight days. I roll the soft down between my fingers, picturing the body of the mother who shed parts of herself to create the perfect incubation conditions for her eggs. She is about 100 yards away now, preening herself in the shallow water, waiting for our departure so she can go back to doing what she has come here to do — what she and her common eider sisters are uniquely capable of doing: fasting and incubating eggs for twenty-six continuous days in the one of the harshest places on Earth.

As I pull my hand out of the nest to grab my pencil and data sheet, I notice a single feather on my thumb. I close my eyes and make a wish — for the continued adaptability and survival of these tough mothers, and for all of us.

This essay was written by Bridget Lyons, a 2018 artist in residence with the multi-agency Voices of the Wilderness program. Learn more about Bridget and her work at www.bridgetalyons.com

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