Life at the Edge
Journey to one of the most remote places in Arctic Refuge
Put on your orange mustang suits and jump in a small rubber skiff: we’re going boating through the ice of the Beaufort Sea lagoons. This 1 minute virtual tour video takes you along with our biologists as they journey to one of the most remote places in Arctic National Wildlife Refuge: the barrier islands north of the Arctic coastline.
Want to see more? Take a photo tour below:
The barrier islands of the Arctic coast are a unique ecosystem: narrow edges of gravel and sand that separate large spaces of protected lagoon waters from the open ocean and drifting sea ice. Mostly flat and with little vegetation, they catch “wrack lines” of weathered driftwood from rivers hundreds of miles away. Birds make their home here, gulls call and wheel overhead, and tiny chicks run up and down the water‘s edge under the midnight sun of June and July.
Wedged within the fine driftwood margin, common eiders make their nests and settle in for the duration of incubation. Female eiders will not leave their nest for the 26 days it takes to hatch their chicks. On a windswept smidge of gravel, they count on the scant protection and camouflage of the washed up wood.
Common eiders are an indicator species for this ecosystem: by studying their health and learning more about them, we can better understand the conditions of other birds that call the barrier islands home.
Our research crew has landed on this island to search for common eider nests. They spread out and walk in formation, scanning the landscape. When they spot a nest, they use a drop net technique to capture the female eider and collect information about her health and her nest. Elyssa Watford leads the crew as a bio-technician for Arctic Refuge and as a Ph.D. candidate with the University of Alaska, Fairbanks.
Learning more about common eiders and their nests can provide us with clues about overall system health when the environment changes over time. As the Arctic warms, the extent of sea ice becomes more sparse in the summer and into the fall, leaving these island edges and their nesting inhabitants more vulnerable to storm surges and flooding from the open water.
Would you volunteer your summer for a chance to work here? Volunteering on several Alaska bird projects led Elyssa to her Ph.D work, and she’s now joined in the field by others who choose to volunteer part of their summer for a once in a lifetime experience. Many thanks to the Eider Project 2019 crew!
How to Get Dressed: Arctic Coast Style
The Eider Project crew works in an extreme and remote environment where taking safety precautions can be a matter of life and death. The bright orange mustang suits worn while boating are designed to help keep them alive in case of an accident. Over the course of a single day, they will put on and take off the suits multiple times. In this short time-lapse video, Elyssa gives some Pro Tips on how to do it:
Photos, videos, and story by Lisa Hupp, Outreach Specialist.
In Alaska we are shared stewards of world renowned natural resources and our nation’s last true wild places. Our hope is that each generation has the opportunity to live with, live from, discover and enjoy the wildness of this awe-inspiring land and the people who love and depend on it.