22 June, 2002
The second day of summer - after a night of rain (which began at exactly the
time of the midnight sun) and extremely strong winds (our bathroom tent has
blown away to unknown places), I woke up to a summer morning temperature of 35
and winds still blowing around 25 mph. Summer is such a great season!
From yesterday, you should have a pretty good idea how a typical day of
eider hide-and-seek goes here at Camp Olak of the Arctic Tundra. Today, I
would like to tell you more about the birds we are studying - based on both
past research and now my own personal experience.
First, our primary subject, the King Eider (Somateria spectabilis).
The King Eiders vary in coloration by sex (are said to by dichromatic). The
female's color is primarily brown, mixed with some black, tan and white
highlights - she blends in extremely well with the tussock grasses of this
area! The male, during the early summer, is brightly colored with white
and black on its back, a shiny gray/blue head and back of neck, a face of
green shadings, and bright oranges making a knob on the crown of its bill
area - very distinctive coloration in which to attract the female's attention.
On average, the King Eider weighs about .5 - 1 pound (1800 kg), so it is an
average size duck, I suppose. The Eider's spend their winter along the Pacific
and Atlantic coastlines, then migrate as far as 3100 miles (5000 km) in the
spring to arrive in the Tundra by early June for mating. They probably
choose this area as a mating ground for food (sedges, buttercups and reeds,
as well as for aquatic insect larvae) as well as for an area with a low
density of predators. After finding a mate, the female will build a nest,
usually in low, marshy country beside lakes, ponds or small islands, then
she will begin laying eggs (an average of 4-5/nest). The male will stay
until egg-laying has begun, then he will migrate further to the northern
shorelines to molt, thus losing its bright coloration. Now, it is up to
the female to care for the offspring.
Incubation of the eggs usually takes around 21-25 days. After hatching,
the mothers and the hatchlings (her brood) will begin walking/swimming
northward to the arctic coast. After reaching the saltwater, usually in
August, fledging occurs, thus leaving the young on their own for migration
back to coastlines of lower latitudes and warmer wintering.
(information from: Suydam, Robert (2000). King Eider (Somateria
spectabilis) in Birds of North America, No. 491. (A Poole and F.
Gill, eds., The Birds of NA, Inc., Philadelphia, PA)
As I've been here looking for these beautiful birds, there are a few other
observations I'd like to share. Thus far, we have found 22 nests, with an
average of 4.5 eggs/nest. The eggs have an average length of 66 mm (2.67"),
a width of 42 mm (1.75") and a mass of 66 g (.14 lb). They are an olive
green color with an oblong shape. Earlier, to find the nests, we looked
for the brightly colored males and hoped a female would be nearby. Now,
as the males are beginning to leave, it really is a game of hide-and-seek,
as we search the grasses and marshes for the nesting birds. As mentioned,
the females coloration is a perfect camouflage for this environment. She
also has the confidence and instinct to remain on her nest until you
practically step right on top of it - there have been a couple of times
that I can-t see the hen even when I am within a couple feet, she is so
well-colored and so still! Once you do get close enough to the nest, the
hen will flush, or fly from the nest. An interesting behavior, though,
is that before she flushes, she usually defecates (poops) on the eggs.
The smell is so strong that it is almost impossible to get off your hands
at the end of the the day! This behavior is believed to keep foxes and
other predators away when she is not there to protect them. It works for
me! Once she has flushed, many times she will stay close by in the water,
swimming and splashing about in a sort of alarm response to your presence.
She will rear back, spreading her wings and raising her head to increase the
appearance of her size. She will slap her wings on the water as she swims
away, and sometimes she will lower herself or flatten herself out, in the
water so she becomes a little less conspicuous. At times, it is difficult
to get measurements made quickly, as it is so interesting to watch their
When we all return to camp at the end of a day of hide-and-seek, we
usually have many stories to tell. As I mentioned, our group is quite
culturally diverse, so we have been attempting to learn some applicable
Inupiak terms from Qaiyaan for what we are doing and studying. First, the
Inupiak word for King Eider is kingaliq or qinalik (there are a couple
other spelling possibilities). To ask somebody, as we always do "Did you
find any King Eider nests," you would say: "Pikut pen qinalik." To say
"yes"(as we hope the answer to be), you would say "ii," and to say "no,"
you would say "naumi" (pronounced 'know me').
Tomorrow, I'll fill you in on the known science and personal observations
of the Tundra Swan (Cygnus columbianus) or in Inupiak, "qugruk."
As for today, ending with two more marked King Eider nests found a couple
miles south of camp (grand total now 25 as a group and 14 for me!), a few
minutes observation of an arctic fox with shabbily shedding fur, and a crawl
on the tundra after a baby Lapland Longspur that was hopping about, I believe
I'll call it a night. I guess I'm heading back west tomorrow to dive back
into that rich nest area of eiders!
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