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Spectacular eiders

Possibly the most coveted duck in North America amongst the birding crowd is the Spectacled Eider, Somateria fischeri. The gaudy and ornate appearance of the drakes led to the nickname “Spectacular Eider”, which this species certainly is.

Sea ducks have a special place in my heart. As a kid growing up in land-locked Columbus, Ohio, the thought of scoters and eiders toughing it out on cold, windy sea coasts fired my imagine and certainly piqued my interest in birds. To me, these ducks were beautiful, mysterious, and mostly unattainable at the time. The license plate above has graced my cars since 2004.

Spectacled Eider drake, courtesy Birds of North America Online.

Goggle-faced with a pea-green mullet, the black and white drake Spectacled Eider is one of the world’s most distinctive species of waterfowl. It’s also one of the toughest, as we shall see.

It was with great interest that I listened to a fascinating program on “specs” at the recent OOS/Columbus Audubon waterfowl symposium. Veterinarian Gwen Myers of the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium has participated in research on this species for the past few summers, spending weeks at a time in the remote Alaskan tundra where Spectacled Eiders breed. Her talk was fascinating; filled with wonderful photos of the tundra and its fauna, and lots of info about specs. Gwen’s talk was a conference highlight and allowed attendees to live vicariously through her exploits.

Hen Spectacled Eider, courtesy Birds of North America Online.

Seeing a spec ain’t easy. The Alaskan nesting sites are remote; this is one bird you’ll not see from the car window. They’ve also declined tremendously, shrinking back to three core breeding areas in Alaska. At one time they occurred over much more extensive reaches of the Alaskan coastline. There are many more specs in eastern Russia, but good luck getting to them and the demographics of the Russian populations are poorly known.

Spectacled Eider distribution. Map courtesy Birds of North America Online.

Dr. Myers and crew were choppered in to remote Spectacled Eider country with enough supplies to last a few weeks. Any hardships were countered by the incredible burst of life on the summertime tundra: clouds of waterfowl (and mosquitoes), scores of shorebirds of many species, interesting mammals, and the prolific blush of elfin tundra flora.

Catching a Spectacled Eider is not the easiest task in the world, but catch them they did. Once a bird was caught in mist nets, a variety of data points were collected, then the bird was fitted with a radio transmitter. You can see the antenna projecting from the bird’s back in the above photo. Implanting an antenna and receiver may seem rather invasive, but the results have demonstrated that the tagged birds are not adversely affected. This technology enables researchers to gather basic life history data on a bird that is utterly inaccessible to people most of the year.

In 1993, the Spectacled Eider was listed as Threatened by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. There is no question that populations have declined tremendously in modern times; less clear are the reasons for the losses. The area outlined in red shows the approximate location where most Spectacled Eiders spend the winter.

This locale is one of the most inhospitable environments on earth in the winter. The Bering Sea freezes, but poorly understood openings termed polynas form in the lee of St. Lawrence Island – the land mass just north of the outlined area and the sixth largest island in the U.S..

If you think our winter here in Ohio was rough, consider conditions in Gambell on St. Lawrence Island. Today, March 4th, air temperatures hovered between minus 10 and 15 degrees and because of gusts to 35 miles per hour, a wind chill alert was issued. Those stiff sea breezes from the north make the air temperature seem like minus 45 degrees.

Spectacled Eiders pack open leads in the Bering Sea south of St. Lawrence Island. An estimated 340,000 birds congregate in just a few spots. So remote and inaccessible are these wintering grounds that it wasn’t until 1995 that the mystery of the specs’ wintering grounds were discovered. It was radio transmitters such as Gwen Myers and other researchers are utilizing that led to this discovery.

To say that these are hardy birds is a gross understatement. For many months, the frozen Bering Sea is dim with the gloom of a sunless winter, fierce Siberian winds roar across the icescape, and air temperatures average around zero with regular dips to minus 20 or colder. A human plunged into this environment wouldn’t last a New York minute; the down-cloaked eiders are unfazed.

Eiders are the consummate clam-crackers; their heavy bills allow them to snap the hard husks of mollusks and get at the tender succulent meat within. So, it stands to reason that these wintering eider pods are grouped over mollusk beds. Good thing these birds dive better than Jacques Cousteau, as it’s probably 200 feet or more to the sea floor.

Any species that puts all of its eggs in one basket, so to speak, as the Spectacled Eider does, is highly vulnerable. These wintering locations are not that far from the greatest ship-caused environmental tragedy to date, the Exxon Valdez spill. If some disaster were to take out the mollusk beds upon which the eiders depend, it could be curtains for one of the world’s most spectacular bird species.

I believe that Gwen Myers has been scheduled to give her Spectacled Eider program at an upcoming Columbus Audubon meeting. Check their website for details, and try and make it down to hear a fascinating talk.


Anonymous said…
Love the informative post on this great, beautiful bird.
Gary Wayne

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