Eiders we’ve known

6 08 2014

Seanetters don’t find all that many banded dead birds, and probably the most common species to be found banded is the Common Eider. Of course, this is one of our top beached birds overall, so the odds are higher than for many species our walkers find only rarely. But not every species is being actively banded. Eiders are, and by following up on these bands, we get a sense of where those banding activities are going on.

Warren Mumford, walking in Chatham on Cape Cod, found a banded female in April. Here is the bird, and the certificate giving the information on her:

Found in Chatham, MA in April. (photo by W. Mumford)

Found in Chatham, MA in April. (photo by W. Mumford)



We’ve been interested in the wintering eider work going on in Rhode Island, including satellite tracking of individual birds by researchers at URI, so we are most pleased to contribute some low-tech data in the form of a banded bird report.

Advanced decomposition in  this banded eider. (photo by H. Rasmussen)

Advanced decomposition in this banded eider. (photo by H. Rasmussen)

Farther north, Brad Allen works with eiders on their breeding islands, and when I saw that Helen Rasmussen, who walks for us in Portland, Maine, had found a banded eider in July, I was fairly certain it would have been one of Brad’s. Sure enough, the certificate indicated that the bird was banded on Ram Island (or thereabouts) in mid May, when the birds are nesting. Ram Island is just off of Portland, so Helen’s bird was a local and appeared to have been dead for some time. It leaves one to wonder whether she was able to successfully rear her young before she died.

As I was putting this post together, I found a report on a project of Brad’s on Flag Island in Maine studying the eider population there. I am particularly interested in much of this paper as it covers some of the dynamics between eider ducklings and the Great Black-backed Gulls who eat them. As someone with great personal and professional affinities for both these species, their conflicts are of keen interest.

As the paper points out, the newly hatched ducklings mass together in groups called creches, with young from multiple mothers all traveling together under parental protection. The paper notes that the ducklings enter the water within hours after hatching, and, on Flag Island at least, leave the shores of their place of hatch and are lead off by their mothers to presumably safer waters. It is possible then that Helen’s bird did have young she was still supervising near the shores of Portland when she met her unfortunate end. What happened to any ducklings she may have had with her is unknown.

That brings me to the final eider of the day. Or at least, I believe it to be an eider. It’s a headless, fluffy duckling with eider-looking feet. Mary Dwyer, who walks Seapoint Beach in southernmost Maine, found this bird on July 9th.

Headless seaduck chick. (Photo by M. Dwyer)

Headless seaduck chick. (Photo by M. Dwyer)

It’s quite rare that we find carcasses of such young birds, so I have little experience with their i.d. But in my internet searches, “Common Eider chick” turned up similar looking birds to this specimen. I also tried looking up “scoter chick” just by way of comparison, but google assumed I meant “skater chick” and showed me altogether less useful images.

That wraps up my last post until I return from my summer hiatus. I will be vacationing along a lake in the middle of Maine, and preparing to teach chemistry to eager minds come fall. Enjoy the remains of the summer, my dear readers, and I will you see you here upon my return.

Common Eider die-offs in the news

6 05 2014
A cheery looking Chris Dwyer with a less cheery looking eider (Boston Globe photo)

A cheery looking Chris Dwyer with a less cheery looking eider (Boston Globe photo)

While visiting my parents the other day, my father brought the paper in from outside and tossed it on the table. Imagine my surprise when I caught sight of a picture of our partner, Chris Dwyer, of the US Fish and Wildlife Service, in a front page article in the Boston Globe. The story highlights the work of a cadre of biologists, Massachusetts state and local officials, and a veterinary surgical team. The group went to work on the Boston Harbor Islands, the southern limit of the Common Eider’s breeding range. Team members came from a number of institutions and agencies, including US Fish and Wildlife Service, USGS, University of Pennsylvania, USDA, Biodiversity Research Institute, National Park Service, and Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation and Division of Fisheries and Wildlife seeking to continue their research on Wellfleet Bay Virus, a newly discovered pathogen suspected of driving the annual die-offs of eiders on the Cape. The crew was able to capture, band and sample 38 birds. Ten males and nine females also had satellite tags surgically implanted before their release. Two of the captured birds had been previously sampled in earlier years, so the researchers are eager to see how their viral test results compare over time.

It was a very successful trip, and we’re excited to see what the results show as they come in. Congrats to this hard working team, and an additional congratulations to Chris himself, who recently won the prestigious William T. Hesselton award for distinguished service by a Northeast wildlife professional. Kudos on the win, Chris; very well deserved!


“Why are eiders dying?” talk well attended on the Cape

14 01 2013
Bird enthusiasts scan Wellfleet Harbor with the expert assistance of Mark Faherty.

Bird enthusiasts scan Wellfleet Harbor with the expert assistance of Mark Faherty.

This past Saturday, I drove out to Wellfleet, Massachusetts on Cape Cod to give a lecture at the Massachusetts Audubon Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary. This Sanctuary is close to my heart as it’s one of the places my family and I camp each summer, and to visit in another, less populous season is always a pleasure too. Beyond the beauty of the place, it was most gratifying to find a room full of people eager to hear about the Wellfleet Bay Virus (WFBV) and its impacts on Common Eiders. Several of those in attendance were Seanetters: Mary Myers and Diana Gaumond were there, and I got to meet Jerry Hequembourg and Steve Gulrich for the first time. Two prospective volunteers approached me about taking on Great Island and Jeremy Point for SEANET, and I was barely able to contain my excitement, given our lack of regular coverage there since the departure of Seanetter Dick Jordan.

To top off an already fine day, I signed up for the “Searching for Seaducks” program led by Mass Audubon’s Mark Faherty. We stopped at Wellfleet Harbor, where we saw Horned Grebes, Common Eiders that were alive (!), Bufflehead, Red-breasted Mergansers, and Common and Barrow’s Goldeneye (a first for me). Then we headed for the ocean side of the Cape and watched the surfers in their ninja-like dry suits, as well as Razorbills, scoters, and loons of two varieties. A one hour program turned into a two hour tour, but no one was complaining. Finally, we headed back and made my trek back home to New Hampshire.

Searching for the elusive Razorbills in Wellfleet.

Searching for the elusive Razorbills in Wellfleet.

I hope to have more breaking news for you, dear readers, and for everyone interested in the progress on Wellfleet Bay Virus research. The various labs and universities involved in the research are scheduled to hold a conference call on their work next month, and I will report on that as soon as it occurs. All the more reason for you to keep an eye on this blog, friends. We are a font of seaduck knowledge!

Rhode Island grad student tracking Common Eider movements

25 09 2012

Satellite tagged Common Eider contemplates her next move. (Photo: J. Beuth)

Josh Beuth, a Master’s candidate at the University of Rhode Island is working with the RI Department of Environmental Management, Division of Fish and Wildlife to study the body condition, movement ecology and habitat usage of Common Eiders during winter.  During November/December 2011, 26 adult female eider were implanted with satellite transmitters.  These birds spent the winter in southern New England before traveling to Maine, Nova Scotia, Quebec and Newfoundland for the spring and summer.  On September 3rd, the first of the eiders returned to the Rhode Island wintering grounds after spending her summer in the St. Lawrence Estuary.

A seaduck’s progress: tracking data for one of the early arrivals back to the RI wintering waters. (Click map to enlarge)

Josh provided us with a map tracking her movements, and we’re excited to see the beginnings of a full annual cycle of data on the movements of these birds. Whenever we give a presentation on the annual eider die-offs on Cape Cod, we get numerous questions about where the birds may be congregating during the summer, and where they might be contracting diseases. The sort of tracking data Josh is collecting is just what we’ve been looking for, and we’ll be watching with interest as additional tagged birds make their way down to southern New England for the winter months.

Thanks to Josh for sharing his research with us, and we look forward to seeing more!