Spectacled eider project will estimate global population

Field work will begin in May 2018, with final results anticipated in 2020

A new Interior Department research project, to include the Yukon Delta National Wildlife Refuge, will estimate the global population of threatened spectacled eiders, and evaluate changes in distribution at marine molting, staging and wintering areas. The two-year, approximately $300,000 project, is a partnership between U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologists from the Yukon Delta refuge, the Migratory Bird Management Program, and the Endangered Species Program, as well as the U.S. Geological Survey, Alaska Science Center, said Kate Martin, the lead person in USFW eider recovery program.

Logistics planning has already begun and the field work is to begin in May 2018, Martin said. Biologists hope to have final results by the summer of 2020.

Spectacled eiders that nest in Alaska and Russia winter together south of St. Lawrence Island in sea ice leads in the Bering Sea.

The project will include use of satellite transmitters and aerial surveys.

“In order to find the wintering flocks in their extremely remote marine wintering habitat, we need to mark spectacled eiders with satellite transmitters,” Martin said.

“We will capture and mark spectacled eiders as they arrive on the breeding grounds on the Yukon Delta National Wildlife Refuge in May 2018. We’ll track marked birds using satellite locations received weekly while they are using non-breeding marine habitats. We ‘ll conduct aerial surveys in March 2019 and 2020, while the birds are wintering in the Bering Sea, and will have preliminary results in summer of 2019 and final results in summer 2020.”


The main objective of the project funded by the Cooperative Recovery Initiative is to estimate the abundance of the global population of spectacled eiders, she said.

A primary reason for listing the species as threatened under the Endangered Species Act was an observed 96 percent decline in the breeding population on the Yukon Delta refuge.  Since listing, the spectacled eider breeding population there has increased, she said.

The estimate of the global population (those that nest in northern and western Alaska, as well as Russia) will be compared to results of previous surveys to ascertain trends and evaluate the species’ status relative to the recovery criteria, to aid in determining if recovery goals have been met.

The project will not investigate effects of lead shot on individual spectacled eiders or the spectacled eider population, Martin said.

Previous studies have been conducted on effects of ingesting lead shot on spectacled eiders and those studies showed a reduced survival rate for those individual birds who ingested lead shot.

Results are similar to what has been found with other waterfowl, she said.
“Based on documented effects at the individual level, we have hypothesized that lead contamination could have contributed to the decline of spectacled eiders. Given the available information, however, we cannot say for certain whether lead contamination had a population-level effect on spectacled eiders or was a primary factor in their decline.”

Lead shot was banned for waterfowl hunting in 1991, but its use in ammunition for upland hunting, shooting sports and in fishing tackle remains widespread, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. In fact, in early March, the new Interior Secretary, Ryan Zinke, opted on his first day in office to reverse the ban on lead bullets and tackle on federal lands that went into effect on Jan. 19, President Obama’s final day in office.

“The most significant hazard to wildlife is through direct ingestion of spent lead shot and bullets, lost fishing sinkers, lead tackle and related fragments, or through consumption of wounded or dead prey containing lead shot, bullets or fragments, USGS notes in an article on its website.