Two teams from the Massachusetts-based Manomet Center for Conservation Sciences are on Arctic expeditions this summer to study declining shorebird populations. Many threatened shorebird species, including some that are seen in New England, breed in Arctic habitat. One Manomet team is at the Canning River Delta on the north coast of Alaska and the other team is on the uninhabited Coats Island in Canadaís Hudson Bay. The Greenblog is running periodic updates of their work, part of the Arctic Shorebird Demographics Network, a research project with 16 camps across Alaska, Canada and Russia.
King Eiders are constant companions on the tundra, where they breed in large numbers. Like many birds, they have very warm inner feathers called down. They bring their own, but we have to borrow some of theirs to stay warm. (photo courtesy of Manomet Center for Conservation Sciences)
By Brad Winn
Manomet Conservation Specialist
Something was flopping on the tundra like the arm of a fur coat in the persistent Arctic winds.
It was not a live animal, but the gray form stood out from the low vegetation around it. I walked the edge of a partially frozen pond to get a better look. It was the billowing remains of what had been a King Eider nest. The undulating arm that had caught my attention was actually thick belly down from the female eider. She had pulled the down from herself to line the nest before laying her clutch. It had been holding her four eggs off of the still frozen ground and against her belly, keeping them perfectly insulated.
The night before I found the nest, the wind had carried a mere wisp of eider scent to the nose of an Arctic Fox. Thatís all it took. With a nose more sensitive than a bloodhound, the fox moved up the stream of air until he found the source, the sea duck and her eggs. Eiders are strong ducks, and the female had evaded capture but not her eggs.
The fox had carefully lifted each one from the bed of down and quickly cached it within yards of the nest. Without the heat of the down and the incubating adult eider, the eggs would stop developing and the embryos die. Now they sit, future self-contained protein meals for the fox, preserved by the cold tundra, neatly tucked away.
The essence of the Arctic landscape, including Coats Island where we are now, is the enumerable clues of nature hidden within this immense vastness.
We are camped beside a small river that flows north to the coast. Like most geographic features in remote wilderness, the river has no name. (photo courtesy of Manomet Center for Conservation Sciences)
Like the batten of eider down, we encounter evidence of stories that could be unfolding as we watch, or some that might be decades old. Like the set of moss encrusted antlers sticking straight out of the ground where a bull caribou had been pulled to the ground by wolves nearly 30 years before. Or today, footprints across the silt of a quiet pool show where a pair of snow geese walked just hours before as they searched for small mats of algae locked in receding ice.
The land is alive and we are extremely fortunate to read all of its stories.
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