The Loneliest Eider Egg

Once upon a time... on a small, Beaufort Sea island along Arctic Refuge’s north coast…

A crew of biologists place a time-lapse camera near several Common Eider nests to capture video of eider hens as they incubate their eggs. The video footage is used by Arctic Refuge biologists and University of Alaska Fairbanks graduate students to learn about eider behavior and how nest predators affect eider productivity. On this island, one of the nests is unusual. The crew notes that it contains one eider egg and one Glaucous Gull egg.

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Shortly after the crew leaves, the gull returns to the nest. The bird adds bits of beach debris to build the nest and then begins incubating the eggs.

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Ten hours later, the eider that laid the egg, in what she thought was going to be her new nest, returns – only to find that her archenemy, the Glaucous Gull, has taken over. But she is a strong eider with a fierce heart, so she attacks the gull and pushes it off HER nest.

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But the gull and its mate do not give up easily – a battle ensues.

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The eiders are no match for the pair of gulls and leave defeated!  All seems lost for the eider – or is it

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The gull incubates and defends the eggs for 27 days. Suddenly, there is movement in the nest bowl. Have the gull eggs hatched?

Nope – it’s an eider duckling!!! (See its head just poking up to the left of the gull). Now what will happen?

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The gull broods the duckling for two days – caring for it, keeping it warm, and TRYING TO FEED IT!

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But eider ducklings feed themselves, and aren’t keen on regurgitate. Plus, they usually only remain in the nest for about a day before heading to the ocean with their mom and siblings to find delicious bugs to eat. So, after two days, this duckling is becoming very, very hungry.

The determined little duckling decides to venture alone away from the nest – but is almost eaten by the gull located in the nest just behind! (Take a close look. The gull in the background has the eider duckling by the head!!!)

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But the duckling escapes from the gull, just in time to meet some other birds that look just like it.

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The duckling gives a last glance back at its adoptive gull parents, then sets off on a new adventure with its adoptive eider moms.

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You think the story is over – not quite. Two days later, the gull eggs hatch! (Do you see the gray puff-ball of a gull chick next to the parent gull?)

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But then a huge storm sweeps in and floods all the nests on the islands. (See the waves starting to rise up in the picture below – that’s not the shoreline in the background just to the right of the gulls – that’s a wall of water!) Unfortunately, we didn’t get footage of this nest swamping because the camera was damaged during the flood, but we were able to observe flood footage from other cameras nearby.

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But wait, there’s even more to this story! This camera disappeared in the storm. When the crew returned to recover the camera, the crew discovered all the other cameras on the island were gone. The crew found some of the cameras washed up on nearby beaches, but not this one. They had no idea what unusual things had happened at this nest. Surprisingly, a few weeks later, a paddler found this camera and used the contact information written inside to alert the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service office. He said the camera was trashed, but kept the SD card and mailed it to Service staff. What are the chances!!!!


Written by Christopher Latty
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
Arctic National Wildlife Refuge
101 12th Avenue, Room 236
Fairbanks Alaska 99701