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.

This is a virtual excursion, part of the 2019 online #ArcticBirdFest. Video contains footage of boating past floating ice, biologists at work on a flat gravel beach with driftwood, common eiders on the beach and in the hand, and landscape scenes of ice, beach, and sky.
Map of Alaska with a star at the northeastern coastal edge where the Arctic Refuge barrier islands begin.

Want to see more? Take a photo tour below:

The research crew walks along a typical barrier island: long, skinny and mostly flat with gravel and driftwood. On one side is the protected lagoon and on the other is the open ocean with floating sea ice.
A dramatic sky reflects in a calm ocean as chunks of ice go floating by.
These driftwood “wrack lines” form in long stretches along the islands.

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.

Staying still and blending in: a female common eider on the nest.
Female common eider in flight (left); eider pair with ice (middle); male common eider (right)
Common eider nest with fluffy eider down
How many female eiders do you see?
Scanning for eiders.

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.

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Walking the islands in search of nests.
Preparing to drop the net (at the center) onto a nest.
Maintaining the net between each capture.
Once captured, the crew quickly goes through their research procedures before releasing the eider back to her nest.
Every captured eider receives a metal identification band and a colored “re-sight” band. During this visit, the crew captured an eider that had been previously banded many years before, and they were able to track its approximate age through the national banding database.
Taking measurements: each captured eider is weighed and measured as part of gauging overall health.
Blood and fecal samples are part of the process and give researchers more clues about a bird’s health and if it shows any signs of avian disease.
The crew also collects information from each nest: how close it is to hatching chicks and characteristics of where it is built.

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.

A chunk of ice washed up on the shore of a barrier island.
A large landscape of clouds, ice, and reflections.
Curiosities: a large whale bone curves across the beach (left) and an ice mirage begins to form in the afternoon sun (right). Although the sea ice floats in mostly flat chunks, temperature and atmosphere in the polar regions can create an optical illusion of a towering ice wall (see: Fata Morgana).

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:

Video contains footage of a biologist demonstrating how to layer clothing and put on a full body floatation suit.

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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.

Stories from Alaska by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service

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