Eyes on Eiders Header

Every step is an act of balance in a vast land full of ponds, rivers, and streams where more than half the landscape is water. There are no roads and your tent could be the highest point on the horizon. Trekking though the swampy tundra of the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta (Y-K Delta), scientists are on the lookout for nests. Counting every species they encounter, one bird eludes them all: the Steller's eider. This mysterious bird is a rare sight for researchers across Alaska. Surprisingly, one of the best places to observe these birds in Alaska is at a facility that is located hundreds of miles from their natural habitat.

Watch the video for a glimpse into the strange lengths that scientists are going to in order to learn as much as possible about the elusive Steller's eider. Can you guess what the researchers are doing - and why?

VIDEO: Mystery on the Tundra

Scientists are going out of their way to learn more about Steller's eiders. (1:34)

Why are scientists going to such great extents to learn more about the Steller’s eider? The number of Steller's eiders in the wild are declining. While two breeding populations exist in northern Russia, the breeding population of Steller’s eiders in Alaska has all but vanished and is now classified as Threatened under the Endangered Species Act.

No one knows why these birds started disappearing in the 1970's. Scientists have proposed a few possible explanations, such as lead poisoning from ingestion of spent lead shot; increased predation from gulls, foxes and ravens; and changes in the coastal environment. As temperatures warm and sea levels rise near the eiders' preferred habitats, will the few remaining pairs of birds continue to be successful nesting in Alaska?

Concerned for the Alaskan population, scientists collected Steller’s eider eggs from Barrow, Alaska in an effort to prevent a complete disappearance of breeding eiders. With these eggs, the scientists have created a captive-breeding “reservoir” population. This breeding population resides at the Alaska SeaLife Center in Seward, Alaska, where researchers and aviculturists have the skills to keep the birds healthy while they learn more about this rare species.

VIDEO: Introduction to the Research Project

Dr. Tuula Hollmen describes the Steller's eider research project and its overall goals. (1:51)

Video Transcript

Dr. Tuula Hollmen has been studying Steller's eiders at the Alaska SeaLife Center since 2001. Her project allows scientists to keep their eyes on eiders, to observe and learn about a bird rarely seen nesting in the wild.





  AVICULTURE (n) - the raising and care of birds (especially wild birds) in captivity.
  ENDANGERED SPECIES ACT (n) - signed on December 28, 1973, this act provides for the conservation of species that are endangered or threatened throughout all or a significant portion of their range, and the conservation of the ecosystems on which they depend.
  ECOSYSTEM (n) - a system formed by the interaction of a community of organisms with their environment.
  INGEST (v) - to take something into your body (such as food).
  LEAD SHOT (n) - small pellets of lead that are shot from a shotgun; used for hunting birds and small game.
  PHYSIOLOGY (n) - the way in which a living organism or bodily part functions.
  RESERVOIR (n) - an extra supply of a resource to be used when needed.
  SPECIES (n) - a group of animals or plants that are similar and can produce young.
  THREATENED SPECIES (n) - any species that is likely to become an endangered species within the foreseeable future.
  TUNDRA (n) - a flat or rolling treeless plain that is characteristic of arctic and subarctic regions; subsoil is permanently frozen and dominant vegetation consists of mosses, lichens, herbs, and dwarf shrubs.