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Protecting the Spectacled Eider

Updated Tuesday 13th September 2011

The Saving Species team talks to Matt Sexson from the University of Alaska about his work studying the spectabled eider, an endangered sea duck

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Interviewer
Matt, what can we hear, this cronking, who’s making it?

Matt Sexson, University of Alaska
Well I overheard we've got red-throated loons.

Interviewer
One right in front of you there, look, neck stuck out.

Matt Sexson
And we've got four to the left, and you can hear a number of them catcalling on the lake behind us as well.

Interviewer
Yes, two or three coming past us right now.  Wings flapping quite fast, long beak.  What are they yelling about?  Not us, presumably.

Matt Sexson
Well probably us.  The ponds that we’re in now are very, very likely breeding ponds.  Walking through here earlier we found several with chicks, and so a number of them are probably upset that we’re in their breeding habitat.  But at the same time they're also starting to group up for fall migration.  They're also making feeding flights to feed their chicks, so…

Interviewer
And these are one of the last birds around, aren’t they?  I mean here we are in August, 70 north, Alaskan Arctic and standing on the flat tundra.  This was a really busy place, wasn’t it, in June?

Matt Sexson
Yeah, come the end of May, early June, this place was buzzing with passerines, shore birds, and by now the only birds left are loons and waterfowl.  And most of the waterfowl, all the geese for the most part, have left the tundra as well.

Interviewer
And the reason they come here is 24 hours of light, a huge amount of productivity, 24/7 chick rearing, that sort of thing.

Matt Sexson
Correct, insects, abundant vegetation, abundant sedges and grasses to feed on.  So it’s an optimal place to raise a brood and successfully get it off for the year.

Interviewer
And tell us where we are.  I mean we’re on the Colville River Delta, just put us on the map more accurately.

Matt Sexson
So if you were to look at the state of Alaska and you look at Alaska and the northernmost point is Barrow, we’re about 150 miles east of that, in a large triangular shaped delta.  So if you look at the map, the river itself would branch out, and it would make this triangle of islands and wetlands, and we’re pretty much smack dab right in the middle of that Colville Delta.

Interviewer
And anyone’s definition, this is a remote place.

Matt Sexson
By far, by far, but by Alaska standards, no.  We’re so close to oil and gas production that relatively speaking this is an easily accessible area.

Interviewer
And in natural history terms, is it a remote destination?

Matt Sexson
By far, by far, natural history wise you will see species out here that you won't see anywhere else in the world, and by that standard it’s remote.

Interviewer
Give me an idea of those species.

Matt Sexson
Spectacled eiders, king eiders, common eiders, yellow billed loons, nesting bar-tailed godwits, that’s just a handful.

Interviewer
And these are the, these are the vocalists that would make in June this place an absolute sort of cacophony of wild sound.

Matt Sexson
Right, if you can imagine the arrival of hundreds of thousands of geese in this area, the place is enlightened with sound.  And now, even though you can hear the loons overhead, it’s relatively quiet, and on a very quiet night it’s almost surreal how quiet and dead the tundra is.

Interviewer
But haunting, because those red-throated loons that are cronking above our head are also making that really sort of, that really kind of screeching kind of yell which just seems to carry through the heavy air around here.

Matt Sexson
And in the evening as well, you can hear them make this really high pitched call that sounds like a cat meowing, but to me it almost resembles a cat fighting another cat in a back alley, and it’s just really high pitched squeal that just captures you, and you're looking around to see who’s hurt, what happened, but in reality it’s just loons calling each other.

Interviewer
Now this place, where we’re standing, remote, it absolutely is.  We’re surrounded by pools.  They're fairly rectangular pools that they're broken up with channels but a very flat landscape.  I wouldn’t call this featureless because as I look ahead of me across the tundra, the vegetation is a wonderfully stylish blend of yellows, greens and browns.  I mean for me this is a pretty place.

Matt Sexson
I think it’s gorgeous, and especially in August when everything is green and it’s flourishing, you get, it’s kind of odd in that it’s offset in time.  The birds arrive when it’s still flooded, there’s still ice and snow on the ground, the vegetation is just emerging.  And most of the birds are timing their annual cycle with that peak productivity of the vegetation.  And so by the time the vegetation has blossomed and it’s beautiful and it’s green, the birds are already leaving because they’ve picked off all the seed buds and all the seeds that were being dispersed earlier.

Interviewer
And to the, you know, to the untrained eye, my untrained eye, this looks like quite a simple place, but you see this as quite a complex wetland.

Matt Sexson
It’s incredibly complex, and between the species that nest here and use it, you see differences in how they use the landscape.  For instance, when we’re out looking for spectacled eider nests, we know what features to hone in on, what vegetation types.

Interviewer
And give me an idea around here.  I mean is this, the spectacled eiders aren’t here at the moment, but looking around here, what are you looking for, for a spectacled eider habitat? 

Matt Sexson
Well to our left there’s a pond that’s relatively shallow and the entire edge has this emergent sedge, and it’s flooded.

Interviewer
It’s emerald green grass poking out of the water.

Matt Sexson
Right, it’s a flooded sedge, so it’s not as if it has this raised pond shoreline.

Interviewer
So dry, a dry, it doesn’t have a dry perimeter.

Matt Sexson
Right, but then you look to the right and we have this peninsula that’s extending out into this pond, and it’s raised up above, there’s drier grasses and dwarf birch on that peninsula, and if I were to pick between these two ponds to look for a spectacled eider or a spectacled eider nest, it would be the pond on the right with the raised peninsula.

Interviewer
I'm with you, so a bit of land jutting right through the pond.  You talk about birch, these are trees but they're dwarf trees, this is an extreme environment, they can't really poke their leaves above the parapet, can they?

Matt Sexson
Right, you know, the leaves are no more than centimetre and half long and they stand no more than five or six centimetres tall, and they blend right into the landscape.

Interviewer
And give me an idea, looking at this pond on the right.  If there was a spectacled eider there, if we go back a couple of months sitting on a nest, some males kicking around, what would you see?  Because this is a lovely hue of greens and browns and oranges and things, but what would you see if you saw a spectacled eider out there?

Matt Sexson
So let me give you just kind of some perspective.  If my crew and I were walking across this wetland and we’re looking for a nest that we want to study and maybe later trap to put a satellite transmitter on that bird, we’d be looking across the horizon, pinpointing in on any male spectacled eiders that might be hovering over a female that’s initiating a nest.  And that male will hang around for maybe a week or so after that nest is initiated, but to us it’s an instantaneous cue that there’s a nest there.  And the male being so conspicuous, black and white, this beautiful orange bill, you could see them a mile away.  The female however is hunkered down, she’s that mottled brown.

Interviewer
She is the tundra.

Matt Sexson
Blends directly into the tundra, and as soon as the males leave, it’s a task.  You have to walk around the perimeter of all of these ponds, just to flush her so that you can find the nest.  And so what we would see walking up on this is a male hovering over a female, not necessarily protecting her but accompanying her as she initiates her nest, and as you walk up on it eventually you'll flush the female and for certain you'll know then that you have a nesting pair.

Interviewer
Now you're working on the spectacled eiders, and we’re serialising that in Saving Species.  You told us that there’s a 96% decline in the spectacled eider in Alaska and that’s what’s driving your work.  Can you remind us what you know and what you don’t know about the spectacled eider at this point?

Matt Sexson
Well we have a really good understanding of their general life history, where they go and when they're going there.  We don’t have a good understanding of the complexity of some of those high use areas.  Some of those important areas throughout their annual cycle, such as malting sites and spring staging sites that are so essential for both winter survival following the fall and then breeding site survival and successful breeding following that spring migration.

Interviewer
So to put the, bring the audience up on this, these animals breed up here in the Northern Tundra, they go in winter south in Alaska in the Bering Sea, uniquely kind of on the ice, they make kind of hollows in the ice, and both the eastern Russian population and the Alaskan population come together in those wintering sites.

Matt Sexson
Correct.

Interviewer
And then come spring breeding time, they fly north.  One lot kind of head more towards the Russian peninsula, one lot come over here to the north slope of Alaska. 

Matt Sexson
Correct.

Interviewer
And it’s the Alaskan population that is plummeting.

Matt Sexson
Right and we have two populations in Alaska that are essentially divided by the Brooks Range, this massive east-west mountain range across northern Alaska.  And it was in the western population where hunting is more prevalent and fox predation became more widespread that we saw that huge decline.  But that decline is also thought to have occurred here on the north slope as well, just through countless aerial surveys that have shown that there is a decline.

Interviewer
And so picking up the detail of their migration, if you talk about moulting sites and things, is this information for information’s sake, or can you see it contributing to trying to mitigate that decline?

Matt Sexson
For sure, I think throughout that migratory corridor there are several potential threats that we can envision in the future.  With expected oil and gas development offshore in the Chuckchi, with increasing sea ice loss, with potential increase for vessel traffic throughout the northern latitudes, there’s a lot that can be done with basic location data, and conveying that location data to the policymakers and management authorities so that they can mitigate for that in their permitting and in their activities on, in real time.

Interviewer
So I get that, that you can't in a way have enough information about their natural history and biology and life history, but you’ve mentioned even in that list there enormous pressures on a single species, oil and gas development, climate change you allude to, hunting, and the change to the ecology because of those three things impacting on it, you mentioned increased predation from foxes.  Do they stand a chance?  Is there anything that anyone could possibly do in the light of those four factors bearing down on them?

Matt Sexson
There are a lot of things that we can do, and I think it all stems from being mindful.  Just taking that data into account, when we do decide we do want to build infrastructure here or we do want a vessel to travel through this area, there are things that we can just do in our actions, as opposed to creating a habitat or directly going out and injecting more individuals into a population, but just by deciding to build somewhere else, or to minimise our footprint for that matter, that we can have a major influence on the species, just by knowing where they are and when they go there.

Interviewer
Looking behind you, so face to the north, if you just whip up a few feet in a helicopter or something, you can see this inextricable sort of line of the oil industry kind of coming down on us, coming south.  You can't stop that, can you?

Matt Sexson
No, but you can work with it.  I think it’s a symbiotic relationship.  Where oil and gas development, they're not interested in plegging the tundra, and they want to cooperate with everyone just like we want to cooperate with them.  And so I think it’s a beneficial partnership, where as a world population we need those resources, we use them on a daily basis, and at the same time we can use the information that we collect as biologists to both conserve the species and help it grow, but at the same time obtain those resources that we need as humans.

Interviewer
And climate change, you know we talk about climate change a lot, during my few day stay here up on the tundra, different individuals have told me that they're seeing, you know, we’re surrounded by red-throated loons now but there’s, you know, some of these loons have been breeding ten days earlier than normal.  I heard today that this has been the driest August on record with the homestead that I'm staying on at the moment.  That you mentioned earlier that ice patterns are changing, the amount of ice is changing.  It, the Arctic’s changing, isn’t it?

Matt Sexson
It is, and for us here at this little postage stamp in time, it’s difficult for us to say how.  Because we’re here in one summer and it may be dry, it may be cold and we may say yeah it’s getting a little colder today or this summer was colder than last.  But looking at the trend over time, I think it’s difficult to argue against the fact that things are warming.

Interviewer
That is climate change; it is the long trend, isn’t it?

Matt Sexson
The planet is warming, and it seems like if you look at the trend and you put the numbers together in one big graphic, that it’s this freight train that’s going to be difficult to stop.  But it’s almost as if as a world population if we put the brake on soon enough, that will slow the train down gradually and over time it will come to that halt that we all…

Interviewer
And the spectacled eider is a single species that is giving you a kind of portal on that huge story, isn’t it?

Matt Sexson
Correct, but the spectacled eider is also representative of the Arctic altogether.  There are many species, king eiders, common eiders, polar bears, walrus, they all depend on the same ecosystems.  They all eat relatively the same things, they depend on the same food chains, and they're all affected by those same conditions.

Interviewer
And to finish on the spectacled eider, a lot of the global population is in Russian territory, close to here but Russian territory, and they all winter together down there on the ice in the Bering Sea, taking a kind of global view, you know, how come the Russian population isn’t declining when the Alaskan population seems to be?  Is that a direct result of kind of, dare I say, American development in Alaska?

Matt Sexson
I don’t think so.  It’s tough to say.  It’s a very interesting question and it’s so big that it’s one of those difficult questions to study.  I think a major part of it has to do with just habitat availability and the expanse of Siberia, but it’s difficult to say just why.  And that’s why we’re all biologists and studying the things that we are, because we ask why.

Interviewer
But is it reaffirming that the Russian population seems to be steady?

Matt Sexson
It is, but at the same time it’s difficult to survey that population.  So most of the information we get about the world population comes from the wintering area.  And just looking at the enormity of the population that winters in the Northern Bering, we get a sense that the population is okay, it’s stable, but as far as what’s going on in Russia, little people actually know.

Interviewer
And finally, you're a scientist, you're working on this fascinating bird with a huge conundrum attached to it, are you hopeful that the spectacled eider in Alaska can be conserved?

Matt Sexson
Certainly, and there’s a lot of good people and a lot of good science that’s being put into the conservation of the species.  And I have no doubt that maybe not my generation, maybe not my son’s generation, but…

Interviewer
But you're a young guy.

Matt Sexson
But I have no doubt in the future that this tundra, which once probably had hundreds of thousands of eiders on it, I think we’ll see a growing population.  And some day you'll come back here, or my great grandson will come back here and he’ll say wow, there are more eiders here than ever.  And I look forward to that day.

Interviewer
And we leave on the cry of the loon.

17’48”

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