Eider egg hunt: Field research along the coast

e nestlings


Flying north

The drone of the Cessna 185 is almost hypnotic. My chin hits my chest and I struggle to fight off the urge to drift into sleep. As we fly northward from Fairbanks over the Yukon River, our pilot Dave motions toward the east. In the distance, a massive plume of gray smoke from a large fire ascends 10,000 feet into the sky and drifts to the southeast. Evidence of a typical summer in interior Alaska, the smoke is from one of a number of lightening-caused fires that burn portions of interior Alaska almost every year, removing aging stands of 40-foot spruce, recycling nutrients, and stimulating new growth in a patchwork-quilt landscape composed of fire scars of varying ages.

It is July 10 and we are headed for Demarcation Bay on the northern coast of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, only 5 miles west of the Canadian border. Our mission, to complete the first ground-based nesting bird survey of the barrier islands of the Arctic Refuge in over 30 years.

Our survey is important for two reasons. First, there is uncertainty about the long-term future of these islands. They could be susceptible to increased erosion as a warming climate leaves them without the protection of ice for longer periods each year. Second, the barrier islands are believed to be the primary nesting habitat for common eider ducks on the Refuge. Two other Alaskan-breeding eider species have already delined in numbers and have been listed as threatened species. Evidence shows that numbers of common eiders breeding in northeast Alaska and northwest Canada are also in decline. It is important to the survival of the species that we better understand the dynamics of common eider populations here. Our survey will provide baseline information for future studies and will ground-truth aerial survey counts of common eiders along the Refuge's Beaufort Sea coastline. Our crew consists of three Fish and Wildlife Service employees: Arctic Refuge biologist Steve Kendall, Fairbanks Fish and Wildlife Field Office biologist Jim Zelenak, and me.

After months of anticipation, we are anxious to begin the survey, but first we have to get there, which is no small task in itself. Demarcation Bay is 375 miles northeast of our Refuge headquarters in Fairbanks, and we must cross two mountain ranges, the Yukon River valley and the Arctic coastal plain, each with its own unique weather system. For us to fly to the Refuge, Federal Aviation Administration regulations for small aircraft require that our pilots be able to see the ground, and all too often our trips must be aborted when there is ground fog or when mountain passes are obscured by clouds.

e northeast AK map

Today, as we continue northward, thunderheads are building on the southern face of the Brooks Range mountains, and lightening flashes to the east of us. I get nervous when Dave indicates he intends to continue northward between two billowing pillars of clouds. I have a weak stomach, and I anticipate that we are in for some major turbulence. But as we climb in elevation to clear the peaks below, the clouds seemingly part before us. I take that as a good omen for the rest of our trip.

e river mountainsOur route over the Brooks Range takes us up the Coleen River, over the continental divide, down the Kongakut River and across the narrow coastal plain to the Turner River where it flows into Demarcation Bay. As we cross the upper Coleen, I recall a study that determined this area is the most remote in the United States; more than 80 miles from the nearest road or village.

e demarcation mapAfter passing the Kongakut River, we quickly cross over rolling foothills and a narrow expanse of coastal plain tundra. There are no maintained airstrips on the Refuge, but a flat gravel bar at the mouth of the Turner River has been used as a bush strip for years. Dave masterfully sets us down on the bar, and we quickly unload our gear. We have arrived.

Arrival

e planeAfter Dave takes off and banks to the west, and the buzz of his engine trails off in the distance, the sounds of nature fill the void - the rush of wind, the lapping of water on the shore, the croaking voice and whistling wings of a passing pair of loons. A chill goes up my spine. I realize we are utterly alone, 70 miles east of the village of Kaktovik, the nearest human settlement, and totally dependent for our survival upon our resourcefulness and our limited gear. This troubles me. Living daily with modern conveniences has dulled my skills and confidence in being able to function and survive in the wild. Never have I felt so isolated. Repressing my anxiety, I tell myself that we can do this, one step at a time: set up camp; fix dinner; inflate the boat. Everything will work out fine. In a matter of minutes my confidence returns.

The sun-lit Arctic night passes quickly and too soon it is morning. Despite the comfort of our warm sleeping bags and the inhospitable chill of the morning air, we are eager to get started. Even now, in mid-July, daytime temperatures along the Arctic coast rarely rise above 50 degrees Fahrenheit, and it is common for fresh ice to appear on ponds and puddles after night-time temperatures dip below freezing. After wolfing down a hot breakfast, we assemble our boat, a 14-foot inflatable, and attach its 25-hp outboard motor. For the next ten days this craft will shuttle us from the mainland and between barrier islands along the coast. We throw together a quick lunch, don our floatation suits, grab our day packs, load the boat, and set out.

Exploring the area

Our first task is to deploy a battery-powered water temperature and depth gauge in Demarcation Bay near the mouth of the Turner River. This gauge is one of several positioned by Refuge staff and the Geological Survey of Canada to provide information about tidal fluctuations and storm surges in lagoons along the Beaufort Sea coast. The depth gauge is mounted on a concrete anchor block attached by rope to a float. Every 15 minutes it records water depth and temperature, and it stores this data on a computer chip. We motor out to the site where the gauge has been deployed in previous years and lower it into the water. We will visit the site again in September to retrieve the unit before freeze-up and will then download its stored data.

Although Steve is anxious to start the nesting-bird survey, I ask that we first investigate two unique relicts found nearby.

The first, LST 642, is a World War II vintage landing ship tank that is grounded in the southeastern portion of the bay. LST 642 was constructed at a shipyard in Illinois in 1944, saw service at Iwo Jima and the South Pacific in 1945, and performed occupation duty in the Far East until February 1947. The Navy brought LST 642 to the Beaufort Sea north of Alaska in the summer of 1947 as one of a group of vessels. They were used to transport supplies and equipment needed by the Navy to explore for oil and gas at the Naval Petroleum Reserve, now called the National Petroleum Reserve - Alaska (NPRA), located a few hundred miles west of the Arctic Refuge. The ship grounded on the beach at Barter Island that summer and was abandoned by the Navy in February 1948. The ship remained there for several years. Many residents of Kaktovik, the village on Barter Island, have memories of playing on the ship as children.

At this point the history of the vessel becomes hazy. Accounts say that LST 642 was sold to a Canadian company in the late 1950's, and that as they were towing it toward Canada it broke loose in a storm. The vessel's whereabouts was unknown for some time. It was eventually discovered in the early 1960s, foundered in southeastern Demarcation Bay, where it remains to this day. I have only flown over the vessel once and have never been near it on the water so I am anxious to see it up close.

e shipAs we approach the LST we are impressed by its size. It is more than 300 feet in length and 50 feet abeam. It seems incredibly out of place in Demarcation Bay, like finding the Loch Ness monster in a local duck pond. Yet here in a designated Wilderness area, a place of incredible natural beauty, lies the humble remains of this once proud and battle tested Navy vessel. Much of the superstructure once affixed to the deck has rusted through from years of exposure to salt spray. It has been torn off in the violent arctic storms that are frequent here. As we pass by, I peer in through a hole in the side. I see ice--tons and tons of ice--filling the ship's cavernous hold. This vessel is going to stay put for a long time. As we pull away, I feel frustrated that this rusting hulk has become a permanent fixture in this Wilderness. A place, as the Wilderness Act describes it, where man's presence is largely unfelt.

We continue northward to my second point of interest, located in the northeast corner of Demarcation Bay. In 1917, Tom Gordon, a Scottish whaler and trader, established, on a bluff overlooking the bay, a fur trading post for the Native Inupiat Eskimos traveling along the coast. I had wondered if there would be any remains left of the old trading post. We find none, and it is only later that I learn the trading post was dismantled and moved to Barter Island in the 1930's.

We do, however, find the remains of another era, the "cold war" era. In the early 1950's, the U.S. Air Force constructed an outpost here as part of the Distant Early Warning system or DEW Line. The DEW Line was an interconnected system of manned radars that were intended to provide early warning if a bomber attack was launched at North America across the polar region. Because the site at Demarcation Bay was a communications outpost rather than a radar site, it was relatively small compared to other DEW Line sites. The military has removed all the structures and most of the debris from the site. Only a couple of gravel pads and a short gravel road remain. They will likely stand out for eons as reminders of man's footprint on this remote landscape.

e dewlineAs we investigate the site, a small band of caribou approaches us, curious about the three strange bipeds. These animals are members of the Porcupine Caribou Herd, the second largest caribou herd in Alaska (123,000 animals). The group near us is composed of cows and calves. They have probably come to the coast for the cool temperatures and stiff ocean breezes which deter the swarms of flies and mosquitoes that plague caribou further inland during mid-summer. Most of the herd has already headed south and east into the mountains, beginning the annual migration toward wintering grounds in the Yukon Territory and within the southeastern portion of the Refuge along the southern slope and foothills of the Brooks Range. As the caribou lose interest in us and move away, we decide it's high time we begin our survey.

Survey begins

e caribou groupDemarcation Bay is separated from the Beaufort Sea by a couple of large sand and gravel barrier islands and a gravel spit. The barrier islands typically parallel the coastline within a mile of the mainland. They tend to be long and narrow with widths ranging from several hundred yards down to 50 yards or less. The islands are largely unvegetated, although in places they support small patches of beach rye grass and a few other species.

One resource the barrier islands do have in abundance is driftwood, even though they are situated more than 100 miles north of the treeline. Driftwood enters the Beaufort Sea after being carried down Canadian Rivers such as the MacKenzie and the Firth. The wood typically moves westward, carried by the near-shore ocean current known as the Beaufort gyre. The driftwood is of importance to both humans and wildlife. In years past, Native people collected the driftwood for shelters, implements, and firewood. Waterfowl, including eiders and a few other seaducks, use the driftwood as cover for their ground nests.

e common eider

e common eider closeupWe begin our survey on the easternmost gravel island at the mouth of Demarcation Bay. Jim and I are novices at locating common eiders nests, our primary species of interest and the most common barrier island nester, so Steve tells us what to look for. Eider hens often nest near driftwood. They scrape out a bowl-shaped depression in the gravel and line it with the soft underfeathers of down they pluck from their breasts. The hens are brownish gray so they blend almost perfectly with the mottled earth tone colors of the beach gravel.

Steve takes the lead in searching, and soon calls out that he has found a nest. He points to a spot about 20 feet ahead, next to a large log. Because the incubating hen is so well camouflaged, it takes a few moments for Jim and me to spot her. The eider hen remains motionless on the nest, her head and neck outstretched and resting on the ground in front of her. She doesn't even blink, knowing that the smallest motion will reveal her position.

As we approach within about 10 feet, she flushes from the nest in a sudden, startling explosion of sound and motion. She lunges forward, flapping her wings, squawking loudly, and running at full speed for 20 to 30 feet until she is airborne. She circles us at a distance of about 100 yards, flying just above the ground, and then lands in the lagoon. With the hen off the nest, we quickly move in to gather the necessary data: nest location; distance from water; elevation above the water; amount of down in the nest; number of eggs; and size and abundance of driftwood near the nest.

We gather up the large light-olive green eggs and float them in the shallow, calm waters of the bay. By observing how high the eggs float, and at what angle, we can estimate when incubation began and when the eggs will hatch. We quickly return the eggs to the nest and cover them with down to insulate them against the cool afternoon temperatures and to hide them from aerial predators like gulls and jaegers. Within five minutes we have recorded our data and resumed our search for additional nests. The hen remains on the water as we depart, but she will return to her nest when we move a few hundred yards down the beach.

e eider nestEider nests are sparse on the eastern end where the island is only about 50 yards wide. As we move to the west, however, the island widens to several hundred yards and small ponds dot the landscape. The terrain varies more in height and in the amount of driftwood present. The increased width and complexity of the island increases the difficulty of the survey. It's important that we communicate well with each other to ensure that the entire island is searched.

We spread out about 10 yards from each other and walk in zigzag patterns to ensure complete coverage. We use landmarks like large or uniquely shaped pieces of driftwood to mark the extent of our searches, and I shuffle my feet in gravel to mark my trail. As the width and complexity of the island increases, so do the number of nests that we find. I wonder if the eiders key in on these areas of increased driftwood and undulating terrain to make it more difficult for predators to find their nests. It certainly has that effect on us!

At each nest we record new information onto our data forms. In addition to common eiders, we occasionally find nests of Arctic terns, glaucous gulls, long-tailed ducks and snow buntings. Finally, we reach the western end of the 2-mile-long island. Our first day's survey is complete.

As we motor back to our camp, a bearded seal bobs up to inspect us and then quickly disappears beneath the waves. Largest of the Alaskan ice seals, the bearded seal or "ugruk" is one of the favorite subsistence food species of the Inupiat Eskimos. Bearded seals are also an important food for polar bears. The seals frequently swim in shallow coastal waters, river mouths, and small bays where they feed on bottom-dwelling fish (cod, flounder, and sculpin) and invertebrates (whelks, clams, and crabs). Male bearded seals grow to a length of about 10 feet and females to about 8 feet. Ugruk is valued both for its meat and for its rough hide which is used to make excellent nonskid boot soles.

Second day

e tentsAfter another night that seems much too short, we are up early to pack up camp and move to the west. Our first challenge is to fit ourselves and all our gear into the boat. Let's see, we have 25 gallons of fuel, 6 dry bags of gear, two 30-gallon bear-proof barrels filled with food, a 5-gallon water jug, two storage boxes, a cooler, a tool box, 3 survival suits and 3 people each wearing floatation suits. All this needs to fit into our 14-foot boat. By the time we finish loading the boat, we look like the Beverly Hillbillies going to sea! With all the gear aboard, our boat rides considerably lower in the water than it did the previous day. As a result, I must haul the boat further through the shallows before we reach water deep enough so the propeller isn't churning through the mud. Finally, a hundred yard from shore in water nearing the tops of my hip waders, the propeller is clear of the mud and we're off.

e biologistWe resume our survey on an island on the west side of the main channel into Demarcation Bay. Here we see remnants of Native occupation--driftwood log foundations set below ground level and driftwood spruce trees set into the ground on end with their roots extending skywards. Later we learn that this was a seasonal fish camp and that the poles set into the ground served as vertical supports for fish drying racks.

Here the island includes more sand and patches of beach rye grass. In these areas we find a number of nesting eiders taking advantage of the cover the grass provides. Because of these patches of vegetation, this part of the island seems more fertile and productive than the barren gravel areas. It is interesting to speculate if the Natives established their fish camps here because this part of the island is naturally more productive and inviting, or if the area has become more productive from the organic matter discarded by people over hundreds or thousands of years?

e red knotAfter four hours of nest searching, it is time for lunch. We break out the pilot bread, sausage and cheese. As we eat I notice a lone shorebird feeding along the water's edge. This is the first shorebird we have seen on the trip. I point it out to Steve, who is an excellent birder and always quick and accurate with his indentifications. After raising his binoculars, he pauses. "I'm not certain, but I believe that it's a red knot" he says. Jim and I scramble for our binoculars, cameras, and a field guide. Sure enough, after a quick consultation with the field guide there can be no doubt: it is a red knot, the first of this species any of us have ever seen! Normally breeding on the islands of the eastern Canadian arctic, but not unheard of in Alaska, this fellow is considerably out of his normal range. After taking a few photos with less than optimal light, we return to our lunch, pleased to have seen a bird that is rarely found in this part of the arctic.

After lunch we continue searching westward over the island. Unfortunately, before we can cover much ground, the wind picks up from the west and rain begins to fall. With heavy drops pelting our faces, searching the island becomes a challenge. By the time we complete the task, I'm soaked and chilled by the wind. We agree it would be a good idea to quit early and find a place to camp. Our map shows that on the mainland, just west of Demarcation Bay, a small tundra stream empties into the coastal lagoon. Hoping for a convenient source of fresh water, we decide to give it a try.

Rainy afternoon leads to glorious night

Our landing site on the mainland consists of a low gravelly spit that rises to a tundra-covered coastal bluff 30 feet above the lagoon. On the bluff lies a structure of 3 wooden poles bolted together with two-by-eights that once supported a coastal navigational aid. The 20-foot wooden tower is now lying on its side. It appears to have been forced up out of the ground by permafrost and then toppled by gale force winds that are common along the arctic coast. We decide this is a suitable campsite except there is no protection from the west wind that buffets us with frigid blasts right off the Beaufort Sea ice pack. We are also concerned that we may not be able to cook a meal in this wind.

After some discussion, we decide that we may get relief from the wind by using our inflatable boat as a lean-to windbreak. We empty the craft of all our gear, remove the outboard motor, tip the boat onto its side with the bottom facing into the wind, and support it with our emergency paddles. It works like a charm! On the leeward side of the raft we circle the cooler, storage boxes, and bear-proof barrels, to provide an additional windbreak. In no time at all we have the water boiling on the backpacking stove. It lifts our spirits to drink hot tea and chocolate, huddled around our little stove behind our makeshift windbreak! We feel as if our blood had been congealed by the cold wind and rain, and now finally our circulation is returning.

e campWarmed by the hot drinks, we set about fixing supper, a hamburger noodle casserole. By the time the last noodle is scooped from the cooking pot, the rain has ended and the wind has considerably diminished. We pitch our tents on the verdant coastal bluff, and I tie off some cord as a clothesline on the fallen navigational aid to so we can dry gloves, socks, and other items of clothing soaked in the afternoon shower.

At 11:00 pm the sun emerges below a cloud layer to the northwest of us, flooding the coastal plain with a sepia light. Jim and I can't pass up the opportunity to venture out and admire the meandering stream and abundant wildflowers that blanket the tundra.

e buildingAs we hike westward across the coastal bluff we discover the remains of a Native dwelling. The design is simple, consisting of a single room. The walls were constructed by standing driftwood logs on end, and the flat sod roof was supported by driftwood logs extending the width of the dwelling and resting on the walls. The structure was excavated into the ground a couple of feet, as deep as the permafrost layer would allow, and sod was stacked high against the exterior walls for additional insulation. The dwelling was sited near the coast and, with the elevation provided by the bluff, it allowed its inhabitants an unrestricted view for miles out to sea. I reflect that the people who once lived here may never have had $100 to their name, but still they had a million-dollar view of this spectacular country.

e night riverIn the golden glow of the midnight sun, Jim and I are awestruck by the beauty of this harsh and remote landscape. We wander from flower to stream to pond and back again, camera shutters clicking, trying to record the spendor of this beautiful evening in this magical place. It is only with great reluctance and the realization that we need a decent night's sleep for the next day's surveys that we amble back into camp a bit after midnight.

e night bayI bid Jim a good night, but still can't force myself into my tent. The midnight sun is out in full force, and all of nature seems to be taking advantage of the exceptional evening weather. As I scan the horizon, I notice a large flock of long-tailed ducks in the coastal lagoon not far below the bluff. I creep to the edge of the bluff, as close to the flock as I can get without raising alarm, sit down, and begin counting the birds. It is an impossible task. The ducks are constantly in motion, paddling hither and yon and then diving to the bottom for tasty clams and invertebrates. Since an accurate count is not possible, I decide to estimate the flock size by counting a portion of it and then replicating that portion until I have covered the entire flock. I count a hundred birds, only a fraction of the flock, and multiply that fraction over the flock 15 times -- 1,500 birds!

It is fascinating to observe the flock, watching individuals interact with each other and hearing their incessant calls. The Inupiaq name for the long-tailed duck is Aaqhaaliq, a melodic word that sounds like the bird's principal call.

e longtailed duckLong-tailed ducks, formerly called Oldsquaw, are the most common waterfowl along the Beaufort Sea coast of the Arctic Refuge. They generally nest on islands or the shores of inland tundra ponds in mid- to late-June. Then males abandon their mates and fly to the coastal lagoons. Here they gather in large flocks to molt. After dropping their primary (flight) feathers, they remain flightless for a couple of weeks while a new set of feathers grows in. The coastal lagoons provide safety and a rich food supply for these molting long-tail ducks. When the young are capable of flight, they follow the adult females to the coast, where they all take advantage of the area's ample food resources.

Although I feel that I could sit for hours eavesdropping on the conversations taking place below, I know that I will be in poor shape for another day's survey if I don't get to sleep soon. So I reluctantly tear myself away and head to my tent. As I lie in the reduced light of the wee morning hours, I consider how fortunate I am to be experiencing this special place.

Work completed

e midnight campThroughout the next eight days we walk and boat west toward Kaktovik, completing our foot survey of all the barrier islands in the eastern half of the Refuge. Along the way we experience nearly every kind of weather imaginable: rain, fog, heavy winds, freezing rain, and a July 15th snowstorm; as well as a few rare and memorable hours when the winds die down, the clouds part, and the barrier islands and mainland tundra are lit with an ethereal glow of transcendent beauty that can only be witnessed in the Arctic. On several occasions we see impressive views of the Fata Morgana, a sort of Arctic mirage in which bending light plays tricks on the eyes, transforming ice floes that are only a few feet high into glacial cliffs. Along the way we also see wildlife, including loons, phalaropes, rufous-necked stints, sandhill cranes, scoters, white-fronted and Canada geese, peregrine falcons, arctic foxes, arctic ground squirrels and even a polar bear.

Even in this remote corner of the world we have some human contact. We come upon a fish camp where two young Native boys are anxious to learn what we are doing. They happily help us look for nests for a mile down the beach before turning back to help their uncle and grandfather tend to their fishing nets. At another site, at 1 am we begin to boat past a group of women and children who wave to us from the beach. As we decide to stop for a visit, we notice an elderly woman in the group carrying a rifle. They tell us anxiously about a polar bear that stuck its nose into the window, of their cabin and how they had fired a warning shot over its head to chase it away from their camp. They invite us in and tell us some of the history of the sturdy cabin that is the centerpiece of their camp, and which they helped to build. Again the children are interested in our work, and tell us of the many birds with which they are familiar.

e gary wheelerAfter eight days, we reach the end of our journey at the Native village of Kaktovik with a mixture of satisfaction, relief and sadness. We each know how fortunate we have been to spend time in a part of the world which few will experience. Never in my wildest dreams did I, who grew up in Chicago and attended college in the Midwest, imagine that I would someday be boating in the Arctic Ocean, walking barrier islands virtually untouched by civilization, and searching for eider nests on the last sliver of land between the Alaska coast and the North Pole. But such are the possibilities on the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, America's Wilderness Refuge.

[Author Gary Wheeler was Deputy Refuge Manager of the Arctic Refuge at the time of this research. USFWS photos by Jim Zelenak and Gary Wheeler.]