Endangered Sea Duck Struggling in Climate Shift

One bird species that appears to be suffering as a result of global climate change is the Steller's eider. It is listed as "threatened" on the Endangered Species list, and a wildlife biologist in Alaska is studying the species to understand why it is moving toward the brink of extinction.

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Naturalists who visited the Bering Sea decades ago found huge flocks of a particular diving duck. The Steller's eider, with an orange breast, black collar and green dots on its head, once bred all along Alaska's coast. But today, that duck is listed as threatened on the endangered species list. Last summer NPR's Richard Harris visited a biologist who's monitoring the eiders on their much-diminished breeding ground in far North Barrow, Alaska.

RICHARD HARRIS reporting:

There's a lot of mystery surrounding the long and steady decline of Steller's eiders. Nora Rojek at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, says the bird's own biology doesn't help. Rojek says the birds don't even try to breed every year.

Ms. NORA ROJEK (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service): In fact since 1991, they've only nested in about 50 percent of the years.

HARRIS: You'd think they would have a sense of urgency.

Ms. ROJEK: Well you'd think so except they're long lived species so they don't necessarily need to reproduce every single year.

HARRIS: In breeding season, Rojek is out here on the windswept tundra to keep an eye on the nests and also to track the ducks by radio beacon.

Ms. ROJEK: So by putting the transmitters on, then you can relocate them again and see how many ducklings they still have.

HARRIS: She reaches into her backpack and pulls out what looks like a miniature TV antenna.

(Soudbite of Static and Beeping)

Ms. ROJEK: You hear that? That's the little beep coming from the bird on nest nine.

HARRIS: But today, Nora Rojek is here to check up on the duck on nest 20.

Ms. ROJEK: As of two days ago, she was still sitting on her nest. I'm actually expecting that the, the ducklings have hatched and are no longer there.

HARRIS: So she tunes to that frequency. We hear no signal just static.

Ms. ROJEK: So I mean, right now, you could trust me that there isn't any bird there because we would hear it, it's really loud if she was still there.

HARRIS: This is a bit concerning. Rojek should hear the duck's signal if she's anywhere around. And if she's far away, she couldn't possibly be with her ducklings.

Ms. ROJEK: But we'll go find out what's going on over there.

HARRIS: We head out carefully across the spongy ground.

Ms. ROJEK: So just kind of go slowly right in here because this is also possible to just step right on the nest. They're really hard to find.

HARRIS: Here it is.

HARRIS: We looked down at a small depression in the ground lined with wispy down. Three light green eggs sit there alone, cold.

Ms. ROJEK: This is not good. Huh.

HARRIS: What do you think has happened here?

Ms. ROJEK: I don't know. She may have abandoned for some reason.

HARRIS: Must be hard to see a failure in an endangered species that you've been following.

Ms. ROJEK: It's really hard, especially since, you know, you can come up here for several years and not be able to find any nest, and then maybe you'd find some nest this year. And to not see very many of them making it, and having ducklings hatch, it's sad really sad.

HARRIS: Rojek holds the eggs up to the sunlight and uses an instrument to peer inside them. These will not hatch. She collects them and then gathers up the nest itself. At least, she says, she could get some DNA for their studies of this bird.

Ms. ROJEK: That's about all we can do at that nest.

HARRIS: As we head back to the road, Rojek says other biologists are now starting to build up a small captive population of these ducks. Someday perhaps that group could help restore the species.

Ms. ROJEK: But, you know, one of the questions is we still don't really know what causes decline, or maybe contributing it to it now. But climate change is possibility.

HARRIS: Maybe the ducks' food supply in the Bering Sea is disappearing, or maybe climate change is affecting the relationship between predator and prey up here on the breeding grounds.

That was a sad day on the tundra. But looking back now, Nora Rojek says the 2005 breeding season was actually a comparatively good year. Chicks hatched in six nests, and they were the first eider ducklings born on these breeding grounds in four years. Richard Harris, NPR News.

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