New England Coastal BIrds

New England Coastal BIrds

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Wintering Ecology of the Common Eider in Rhode Island

A day with Common Eiders; Health Testing, Banding, and just admiring!

     My phone rang on Sunday afternoon and it was Joshua Beuth, a graduate student of URI. Josh has developed a project to examine the body condition of Common Eiders throughout their wintering period in Rhode Island. He had previously contacted me regarding the images of two hen Eiders on my blog that I photographed
( ) pictured with Satellite transmitters. The two hen Eiders were also part of Josh’s program. These transmitters are currently providing daily location data until April. To conserve battery life, these transmitters will switch to a reduced transmission period and are expected to transmit data into 2013.  Josh knew that the Common Eider was my favorite bird and that I greatly admired it. He told me that he was going out early Monday morning with his crew to capture adult Common Eiders for more health testing and also he would be banding and releasing the birds, and would I like to come along? Absolutely I said; I just needed to rearrange my Monday schedule. I was really excited by this; banding eiders was something that I always wanted to experience. Josh said that he and his crew were planning on meeting at the boat ramp in Jamestown at 3:30 am, and he would see me there.

     A brief overview of the Common Eider Project- The research project studying the Wintering Ecology of Common Eider in Rhode Island is a collaborative project between the RI DEM, Division of Fish and Wildlife, and the University of Rhode Island.  This project utilizes satellite radio telemetry of adult female eider to investigate the home range, habitat usage and movements of Common Eiders.  This data will be used to influence decisions about where to construct offshore wind farms to help minimize the impact on the birds.  The project is paid for with funds allocated to the DF&W from the USFWS wildlife restoration money that is sportsmen funded as well as funds from the University of Rhode Island. 

     The Winter Ecology of Common Eider in Rhode Island research has been taken on by Joshua Beuth, a Master’s candidate (with Professors Scott McWilliams and Peter Paton) that is using the project as the base of his thesis. Between Mid-November and Early-December 2011, 26 adult female Common Eider were surgically implanted with satellite transmitters by veterinarians from the USGS Patuxent National Wildlife Research Center (Patuxent, MD) USFWS (Patuxent, MD), RI DEM and a private veterinarian.  Field crews consisted of RI DEM biologists and technicians, URI graduate students and professors, USGS Biologists, USDA Biologists and a large group of volunteers.  During this capture period, over 180 sea ducks were captured and banded, with highlights including a first winter female King Eider and a male Harlequin Duck. 

     In addition, a second research component was added to augment the telemetry project secured by Jay Osenkowski (Supervising Wildlife Biologist, RI DEM).  Josh developed a project to examine the body condition of Common Eiders throughout their wintering period in Rhode Island.  This research has been supported with funding from USFWS Avian Disease Program and USFWS Region 5.

     Monday morning, 3:10 am- As always, I was a bit early and admittedly really anxious! Before long two vehicles pulled up and we introduced ourselves: Randy Mickley a Wildlife Biologist with the USDA, and Pat McGee a project technician. A third vehicle drove up; it was Brain Embacher a friend and waterfowling partner of Josh’s and an assistant for the project. I know Brian’s brother Bill (a decoy carver) and I did remember meeting Brain a few years ago at a decoy show. We all were getting ready for the day which meant putting on our waders or survival suits when a fourth vehicle showed up pulling the first boat for the project. It was Capt. Jim Tappero also a waterfowling friend of Josh’s and a project assistant. Another truck pulling a boat showed up and it was Josh. We introduced ourselves and chatted while everyone began prepping the boats and stowing the gear and equipment. 

     After both boats were launched, outboards warmed up and running lights turned on, the six of us headed out into the East Passage under a clear night sky highlighted by a gorgeous full moon. I was with Randy in Josh’s boat, and Brian and Pat were with Capt. Jim in his boat. The weather forecast was calling for winds out of the west at fifteen to twenty knots, seas two feet. The winds would be increasing to twenty-five knots and gusty and shifting to the southwest by late morning. There was a gentle roll on the sea with slapping white caps as the boats passed outside the protection of the high bluffs of the Jamestown coastline. To the east, the shimmering lights of Newport overlapped the spattering of stars making it impossible to tell where Newport ended and the sky began. In the distance to the north, the lights of the Newport Pell Bridge flashed its geometric shapes across the night sky.

     When we approached the capture location, I was let out on a small rocky ledge while everyone started setting up the gear by boat. Josh had briefly explained the procedure for capturing the birds to me on the phone the day before. I could barely make out the boats in the dark sky and on the dark sea, only the bright red/green bow lights and white stern lights gave their position away. But as my eyes slowly adjusted to the darkness, I could see that they were very skilled setting up their equipment.

     The capturing procedure- First, you have to know and understand the species profile. Every aspect of the subject species is taken into consideration such as species anatomy, habitat preferences, feeding habits, etc.  Is this a species that prefers isolation or it gregarious? How does the wind/weather/tide affect its habits? These are just a few of the factors that need to be assessed and evaluated to be successful with the capture. Josh had been scouting the coast and had located large pockets of rafting eiders in many locations. He determined that this location in Jamestown had the ideal conditions for a successful capture that day. The birds were concentrated in good numbers near a few island outcroppings, islets and ledges in a very accessible area.

     Adding to the positive factors for the day; the water was fairly shallow, the wind was coming from the west leaving a good lee along the islets. This kept the surface of the sea flatter which keeps the boats steady during the entire process of set-up, capture, testing procedures, and of course taking down the equipment.  The one negative for that morning being that the entire area was littered with a network of treacherous boulders just under the waters surface. Since the tide was falling many of these boulders (that would be easy to pass over at high water) were now showing or barely visible just under the water (aka motor-eaters) and reachable to the lower units of their outboard motors. But, Josh and Capt. Jim are seasoned and savvy boatmen, and they negotiated those boulders expertly, with only that familiar sound of a skeg scraping a rock echoing out into the darkness just once and a while!

     Even though the falling tide/boulder/skeg issues present a mechanical concern (for the outboards), the falling tide in the morning is a perfect condition for Eiders. By nature-Common Eiders feed mostly on the falling tide in some areas. Dropping water depths mean the mussels, periwinkles, crabs, echinoderms (such as sea stars), urchins, and Sculpin fish that they feed on are easier to reach and obtain in water depths that are at least six feet shallower at low tide. Less work means less critical and vital body energy is expelled during their winter feeding activities. Couple this with naturally wanting to feed first thing in the morning equal an ideal scenario.

     With all the Common Eider natural factors evaluated and taken into consideration, it was now time to set up the equipment. How to capture the birds? Since Common Eider are a naturally gregarious species and Josh located a large concentration of them in an area with very favorable conditions, there was one more factor that was important to the success of their set up location and capture procedures. Because Common Eiders are a diving duck, (the largest in North America) to become airborne, they need a long pattering run along the surface of the water to aid in take-off. This is key for the success of this capture. Dabbling ducks (such as Black Ducks) will use their wings to slap the surface of the water to aid in lift. The bird uses its wings to “push itself” up and out of the water rising straight up building momentum with its wings as it raises its body up into air. Although Eiders do use their flapping wings to aid in take off; it’s their powerful legs that build the momentum needed to gain altitude. However, the Eiders still use their wings to lift themselves out of the water-this will be clearly shown in images later in this report.

     The Eiders would be captured in a mist-type net set up similar to what is used for song bird gathering and banding. In theory this sounds simple, but on paper not so much.  To collect songbirds in the mist nets, the nets are stretched between two trees of poles in a flight path. The birds simply fly into the nets a product of flight habits. Although the same basic concept applies to Eider and Sea Duck capture, very special circumstances need to be factored into the theory. When you capture shorebirds, Mallards and Geese, the mist nets are set up along the shore or a tidal flat and hidden under local vegetation or drift debris. The birds are enticed to the area with the offering of food, and when enough birds have assembled, the nets are discharged and the birds are captured under the nets. But when you are trying to capture a species of waterfowl that is a very hardy and powerful species that dives underwater (especially to escape danger); that changes the whole equation.

     With all the other factors figured in (weather, tide, water conditions, species availability, species habits, etc) how do you set-up the mist nets? Assuming that you are successful in the deployment of the nets, how do you make the birds fly into those nets? The ocean is a vast area, and just because there may be a thousand birds concentrated in the selected area for the project, what will make the birds end up in your nets? It’s an easy scenario- you have to entice the ducks to the exact area of your net set-up and coax them into it! To make this work (physically) you need four components (besides cooperating birds): boats, a skilled staff, mist nets and decoys. The set-up of the mist nets required a very skilled staff. These nets would be assembled in a location between some exposed ledges and islets (remember the motor-eaters) where the birds had been actively feeding. The nets would be stretched between this area forcing the birds to be funneled into the nets with the aid of those islets and ledges. Keeping in mind the falling tide current was ripping through the area, as well as the moderate wind made the set-up and placement of the nets difficult and complicating the set-up procedures.

     How do you set up a capture net on the sea?  Using the songbird capture scenario as a model, the nets were simply stretched between trees or poles. The same scenario is applied here, but with the only difference being that this set-up will need to float on the surface of the water. Josh and his crew used small vertical poles (about six feet tall) to hold the nets. These poles were attached to floating support mechanisms that consisted of two crossed metal poles (approx ten feet in dia.) with lobster trap buoys (painted to resemble Eiders) attached to the ends that kept these structures floating level on the water. The net support poles were affixed to the centers of these floating structures which were connected together by rope and anchored securely on each end. Essentially, the floating structures spanned the opening between the rocky islets and ledges perpendicular to the wind. With the floating structures/upright net supports in place, the nets were then affixed to the upright net poles and the nets were in place. 

     How do you entice the birds to the nets?  Since Josh, Brian and Capt. Jim are avid waterfowlers, the answer was easy; decoys! Their Eider decoys were set up just down wind of the net set-up between the islets. A few decoys were placed behind the nets (upwind) to help disguise the nets from the birds and to give the area a natural appeal simulating a small raft of Eiders feeding among the rocky ledges. Since Eiders land into the wind, and use the wind for take-off the placement of the decoys was critical. If the decoys were too far away from the nets, the birds (when flushed) would be able to fly over or around the nets when they gained the correct momentum for flight. If the decoys were too far off to one side, the birds would take off to the side of the nets and the set-up would be unsuccessful.  If the decoys were too close to the nets, the incoming birds (always vigilant and aware of the “landing area”) would spot the nets and continue on.

     Setting up the decoys:

     How do the birds get caught in the nets? Here is the tricky part! Assuming the set-up is correct and everything has gone as planned and you now have birds swimming amongst the decoys, how do you get them to fly into the nets? The answer is the boats. When the birds have settled in the decoy, and before they can change their minds and swim away, they need to be “coaxed” into the nets. The boats would make sure the birds stay in the decoys by approaching the birds downwind. As the boats got closer, the birds would try and escape. Their natural reaction would be to fly directly away from the boats by taking off into the wind, and hopefully right into the nets. When the birds become caught, Josh, Brian, Pat, Randy and Capt. Jim would free them from the nets and place them in holding crates in the boat. In theory this work great, but there are those exceptions. Although Common Eiders are known by many to be a meek species and not regarded to exhibit high intelligence, I see them differently (which I will demonstrate in images later in this report).

     With the set-up now complete and ready for the first flights of the day, Josh picked me up on the large islet and we all assembled on a small ledge boulder halfway between the net set-up. With dawn slowly approaching, there was a little time for coffee and oatmeal (cookies - thanks Jen) Josh began telling me about his studies with this magnificent bird. I asked him why only hens were used to fit with the transmitters. He told me that everyone has a good fix on the locations where the drake Eiders go during moulting season. I knew that the drakes head well off shore during the moult cycle and congregate in huge rafts during this period. Josh explained that by monitoring and tracking the hens, they can follow their migration patterns from wintering grounds (using his captured birds in Rhode Island for example) to staging areas, northward migration routes and distances traveled, nesting areas, and then southbound migration routes in the fall to wintering areas which could be in the same waters where they were captured. I found that fascinating!

                                          (Above left to right)- Capt. Jim, Brian and Pat

                                            (Above left)- Josh, (right)- Randy

     Brian called out that they had caught a shorebird in the nets. Brain, Randy and Josh went to release the Purple Sandpiper from the nets.

                           (Below)- Brian and Josh remove the sandpiper from the net

       (The images below showing the net set-up were taken later in the morning. I displayed them here so you can clearly see the set-up)

     After the shorebird was released, Josh continued getting ready for the day while describing his program to me:

     Body Condition Research. The body condition research has a couple of specific goals.  The first is to validate a non-lethal method for estimating body condition.  This method is the Deuterium Dilution method which relies on an injection of a known amount of a heavy isotope (deuterium) labeled water into the bird.  After 90 minutes the labeled water has reached equilibrium and blood samples are taken.  These blood samples are then analyzed and provide an estimate of total body water in the bird, which is related to several other measurements of body condition.  We compare our estimates to directly measured levels from a small subset of birds in order to ensure accuracy of the estimates.  Once finished, this method will provide biologists up and down the flyway with a non-lethal means of estimating body condition in Common Eiders.

     The second goal of the study is to evaluate the body condition of wintering eiders at 3 stages in the wintering period.  Samples were collected in December for an early-winter sample, current sampling is for a mid-winter sample and sampling in late March will be for a late-winter sample.  These will be examined to determine the condition of birds upon arrival to the wintering grounds and the changes to body condition that occur throughout the wintering period. 

      The goal for the Body Condition Research samples on Monday was to capture ten adult Eiders: five male and five female. But he would band as many birds as they caught. Randy Mickley who was accompanying Josh in his boat is a Wildlife Disease Biologist & Emergency First Response for the USDA. Randy was part of the capture program to secure blood samples for his research Investigating the Newly Described Wellfleet Bay Virus. Common Eiders have been found sick and dying along the coast of Cape Cod, Massachusetts during spring and fall of every year since about 1998.  Numbers of birds involved in these mortality events have ranged from a few hundred to a few thousand.  (Randy’s vital research is described later in this report).

     As the incredible vibrant array of color inflamed the eastern Newport sky, the Common Eider flocks were on the move! The set-up and the crew were ready.

   The first small flock of five Eiders decoyed perfectly. The boats were deployed (leaving me hidden on this small rock) and move into position. The boats started corralling the birds which naturally huddled together when they saw the boats coming closer, and then took off right into the wind (these images were taken just after dawn under the first light of the day which explains the blurry quality. I lightened the images for demonstration purposes)…..

     …….and right into the nets! Everything worked perfectly, and of the five birds in the decoys, four got caught in the nets, one escaped to the south and right over my head. (I mean right over my head)- I could feel the rush of air from under its wings as it passed a foot or so over my head.

   Josh, Randy and Brian used great care in untangling the Eiders from the nets. As each bird was freed, it was placed in a holding crate and set aside.

     As I sat there watching this unfold before me, the sky was dotted with continuing flocks of Common Eiders.

    Capt. Jim and Pat waiting outside the set up waiting as Eiders passed behind the boat.
     With four birds captured, the team was back in position waiting for the next opportunity of a bird getting caught in the net. They wouldn’t have long to wait! As the sun rose above the Newport skyline, the area was covered with flying birds; they were everywhere, coming from all directions. The regal pied plumages tinged with sea green and salmon colored drakes and the soft tawny brown plumages of the hens ignited with brilliant illumination; a gift from the  beautiful morning sun. They looked spectacular in the sun!

       An adult drake Eider approaches the decoys. It doesn’t land but skims over the decoys and right into the net; an easy capture. Brain and Randy untangle the bird….. Josh prepares the holding crate.

    Brian carefully places the drake in the holding crate.

     Another spectacular adult drake in magnificent full plumage breaks away from a flock and heads for the decoys.  Notice the bright yellow/orange highlights from the sun augmenting the subtle plumage of this drake.

    It lands in the middle of the decoys.

     It swims around for a few seconds…..

  …..and the boats make their move. This drake takes off….

    …..and flies right into the net! Perfect!  

     With that drake collected, another drake lands in the decoys.

     The boats start their run, and the bird takes off…..

     …….and flies…..

    ……right under the net!

     Flocks of Eiders were still flying into the area and again from all directions.

     In reviewing my images later after I downloaded them onto my computer, I discovered that this hen was banded; maybe one of Josh’s earlier captures?

     The drake also broke off from a flock and decided to join the decoys.

     It flew over the decoys and then right into the net; another drake captured.

     After the drake was collected, this beautiful hen landed in the decoys. The sun enhanced her beautiful soft plumage; she was stunning! My little hide on this isolated rock enabled me to be within feet of these spectacular birds! Look at her; she is breathtaking!

    I enjoyed this hen for quite a while before the boats moved into position.

     I mentioned earlier in this report about the wing thrusting to propel puddle ducks into vertical flight-essentially using their wings to aid in gaining lift and momentum into the air. Diving ducks use their wings in a similar manner. Although the momentum angle is different, this hen is clearly illustrating that she is using her wings to lift her heavy body out of the water so she can use her powerful legs to run along the water in horizontal pre-flight take-off.

     Although she obviously sees the net and tries to skitter underneath it, her momentum had carried her too far to change direction, and she gets caught in the net…..

    ….where Capt. Jim and Pat were there to immediately remove it from the net!

    And the flocks of Eiders continued. 

    The drake came in to the decoys and landed right in front of me.

    When it took off, it came so close that my camera couldn’t focus or capture the bird in my viewfinder.

    It flew up and over the net.

     Josh had captured enough birds at that point to begin his injection and banding procedures. He went off behind the island in the quieter water where the boat would be more stable.

    And the Eiders continued flying offering beautiful shots for my camera.

     Another drake lands in the decoys…..

     …..followed by two hens.

     Up until this point there was so much happening and so many birds flying, I was obviously distracted by the events that morning. I being a professional decoy and bird carver always pay attention to and look at decoys, even the plastic kind! As I was looking through my camera, it dawned on me that the decoy in the image with the three birds (above image) was a decoy that I carved and designed for the E. Allen Decoy Co. over fifteen years ago. I was pleased to see that decoys that I created were being used for this important study of my favorite bird. That added to the really large smile that was already on my face! The three poses I made for them were high head, low head and with a mussel in its bill.

     Capt. Jim corralled the birds into position and they took off….

…..and one hen flew over the net, but the second hen and the drake flew directly into the  net and were caught. (Or were they).

     After a bit of thrashing, this drake freed itself and dove out of sight. The hen was recovered.

     Here comes another drake headed right for the net….

     …..and right over!

    You can see that you can’t watch every direction. Brian took this image (and it is being used with his permission) of me as a single three-year old drake Eider sneaks into the decoys behind me.

    Capt. Jim and Brian remove this drake from the nets.

    A flock of Purple Sandpipers appear but fly to the backside of the islet escaping the net on this side of the islet.

          Another pair of Eiders land in the decoys and are directed by Capt. Jim towards the  nets….

      ……and are captured perfectly.

   They are also quickly removed from the nets by Capt. Jim, Pat and Brian.

    Brian holding the pair ready for the crates.

     Looking south towards Castle Hill lighthouse.

    A single juvenile drake flies towards the decoys but keeps going.

     With Josh’s quota of ten adult birds (five drakes, five hens) realized, the birds are weighed and banded first before the deuterium solution is injected.
     The birds are carefully removed from the crates and then placed into a soft mesh bag that weighs approx one hundred grams and are weighed. (Some of the drakes weighed twenty-one hundred grams- or- approx. four and one-half pounds).

     After the bird was removed from the mesh bag, it is banded.


    Randy in preparation for the injection, exposes the skin of the Eider by clearing the feathers of its breast.

     The deuterium solution is injected (intra-muscular so that it is rapidly absorbed into the bird’s system) and the birds are then returned to the crates.

     The wind began to increase and the sea became choppier. With all the birds banded and injected, they needed to remain calm for ninety minutes until Josh would draw blood samples completeing his field sampling work. If the birds became too stressed, they would expel too much body water and fluids which could compromise his sample results. Josh decided to take the birds to calmer waters to make the delicate blood drawing process as close to lab conditions as possible. A rocking boat would not be helpful and could cause the procedure to be compromised.  I jumped back into Josh’s boat and Josh headed for the relative calm of the small harbor by the DEM Marine Division at Fort Wetherill. The docks would provide Josh and Randy with a stable working platform out of the wind and rocking boat. 

    As we headed over to the harbor, Capt. Jim, Pat and Brian picked up the decoys and took down the net equipment.

   Josh and Randy set up a make-shift laboratory on the docks along the bulkhead by the DEM building. Here the blood drawing procedure went smoothly and Josh was able to acquire the samples he needed. The blood samples were drawn from the bird’s tarsus. Since the weather was quite mild on Monday, I asked him how he managed these tests in January when the temps were in the single numbers with heavy winds, he just looked up at me, smiled and said one word- “brutal”! I knew exactly what he meant!

     With each blood sample completed and data recorded, each bird was returned to the crates. 

     I asked Josh when the birds would be returned to the water, assuming that would happen after he finished his sample collecting. He told me that they would be released as soon as Randy acquired his blood samples; something that would be done at the boat ramp a bit later. The crew captured a total of thirteen birds for the day (seven adult drakes, five adult females and one juvenile drake). All of the adults were sampled as part of the body condition study and all the birds were banded.

     Because of my location on the small ledge within a very close proximity of the net and set-up, I was able to watch every bird that flew in or over the decoys. Besides the capture totals, nine Eiders escaped after initially being caught in the nets, seven eiders skittered under the nets, five Eiders flew up and over the nets, three flew to the side of the nets, and at least two dozen Eiders flew over the decoys and either flew over or to the side of the nets. (Not highly intelligent)?
     By this time Capt. Jim, Brian and Pat had returned from their second trip with all the equipment taken down and stacked on the docks. Capt. Jim, Brian and I started talking about eiders, sea ducks, waterfowling and the events of the day. I used to hunt sea ducks years ago in the areas where the capturing program was set up that morning. We shared many stories of being on the water in the East Passage, including many hair-raising episodes with heavy winds and very, very large waves; let alone the below zero temperatures, frozen feet and numb fingers included! But I learned one important thing while talking with Josh and all of them; they have great admiration and deep respect for this species, something near and dear to my heart. I noticed this when I watched them carefully and meticulously removing the birds from the net with great care; that impressed me!
     These waterfowl hunters displayed a passion and respect for these birds, it was not about the daily bag, it was about experiencing the bird-often without pulling the trigger. This also became quite clear when they handled the birds just before release. (Don’t tell them this, but I saw a big smile on their faces when the released birds found the sea again and scurried off away from shore). ( I think their smiles were  as large as mine)! 

       When Josh had finished his sample collection, it was time to head back to the boat ramp and pack the gear and assist Randy with his testing. The wind had come up strong southwesterly and large rolling waves were rolling into the passage. Randy and I walked back to the nearby boat ramp, and he drove Josh’s truck back to the DEM building. There they loaded much of the gear and crated birds in the back of his truck. After the gear was loaded, the boats came around the point and into the small inlet boat ramp at Fort Wetherill followed in by the ever increasing rollers. Both boats were loaded on the trailers and then up to the parking lot at the top of the ramp where all the gear was stowed and secured.

      Randy set up a make-shift lab on the tailgate of his truck, and he began drawing his blood samples. 


          About Randy’s work: Investigating the Newly Described Wellfleet Bay Virus (below information by Randy Mickley)
      Common Eider (Somateria mollissima), large sea ducks, have been found sick and dying along the coast of Cape Cod, Massachusetts during spring and fall of every year since about 1998.  Numbers of birds involved in these mortality events have ranged from a few hundred to a few thousand.  Samples collected from Common Eiders by Wildlife Services during the fall of 2010 were submitted to the National Wildlife Health Center and the Southeastern Cooperative Wildlife Disease Study.  These samples were determined to contain a novel Orthomyxovirus, in the proposed Genus Quarjavirus.  Scientists at the National Wildlife Health Center conducted experimental infection trials and demonstrated pathogenicity in naïve Common Eider ducklings to the virus.  Thus far, the Common Eider is the only species known to be affected by this virus, dubbed the Wellfleet Bay virus, where most of these mortality events have occurred.  The Common Eider is considered a focal species by the United States Fish & Wildlife Service.  Cape Cod and Nantucket Sound serve as important migratory staging and overwintering areas for this species.  
     The Orthomyxoviridae family includes viruses that can spread through the air, as well as vector borne viruses transmitted by ticks, fleas, and mites.  This novel virus is not fully understood.  The mode of transmission of Wellfleet Bay virus remains unknown.  Another important question is the demographic impacts of this virus.  There appears to be a curious pattern for either a preponderance of males or females being affected within each morbidity period.  Whether the virus is spread across all Common Eider populations or occurs more frequently in one of the four subpopulations also is unknown.  Several activities are currently underway to address these questions.
      A review of the United States Geological Survey’s National Bird Banding Laboratory’s database was used to provide insight into travel patterns of these birds.  Banding locations from Common Eiders that died from illness or causes unknown over the past 10 years in southeastern Massachusetts indicate that the majority of affected birds were originally banded in eastern Quebec, Nova Scotia, Newfoundland, or eastern Maine.
     Collaborative plans are being developed for a team of scientists from the United States Fish and Wildlife Service, the Southeastern Cooperative Wildlife Disease Study and NWDP to collect samples from Common Eiders during normal bird banding activities this coming spring and summer.  Common Eider blood and associated nest-dwelling parasites will be tested for the Wellfleet Bay virus.  Funding to support this activity will be provided by the United States Fish and Wildlife Service through their Avian Health and Disease Program.   Several groups including L’Universite de Quebec, Nova Scotia Department of Natural Resources, Maine Department of Inland Fisheries & Wildlife, United States National Park Service’s Boston Harbor Islands, and others routinely conduct annual bird banding in these areas.
     Scientists from the Southeastern Cooperative Wildlife Disease Study are validating a serologic test that will enable them to screen sea ducks, including Common Eider, and other bird species for evidence of prior exposure to the Wellfleet Bay virus.  These results will provide insight to the virus’s impact at population levels, and may provide evidence that previously infected but currently healthy birds have antibody titers.
     NWDP Wildlife Disease Biologists have collected wings from more than 200 common eider carcasses at the Wellfleet Bay site.  Studies of feather patterns from these wings will provide information about the age and sex ratio of affected birds.  Isotope analysis of feathers also will suggest geographic regions where affected birds have traveled during their annual migration patterns.
    During this past December, Wildlife Services assisted a team of biologists from the United States Geological Service, United States Fish and Wildlife Service, and the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management Waterfowl to capture Common Eiders with floating mist nets to mount satellite tags.  The team also collected oropharyngeal, cloacal, and blood samples from these presumably healthy birds to determine the prevalence of antibodies to Wellfleet Bay virus.  Common Eiders found in Rhode Island are known to visit the Wellfleet Bay area; creating potential for exposure to the virus.
   Ongoing investigations of the Wellfleet Bay virus will provide insight to this emerging disease, enabling scientists to better predict potential impacts to Common Eiders and whether the disease may also threaten other species in the future.  At present, there does not appear to be any direct threat to poultry, but increased knowledge will also enable a more thorough understanding of potential risk to agriculture.

     As the blood/cloacal/throat swatches and samples were taken and completed from each bird, and the small area of the tarsus has healed, the birds were then released back into the sea. Here Pat brings each bird down the boat ramp for release.

     I couldn’t resist! I had to stroke this beautiful hen’s soft plumage. I also stroked the back of her head which helps settle the bird down (something I use to do when I had and maintained a large wild waterfowl aviary a few years ago. Capt. Jim is holding the bird in the typical proximal wing hold which helps control the bird, but mostly keeps the bird from injuring itself. By holding both wings together it keeps the bird from frantically flapping its wings which can result in an injury to the bird.

     Capt. Jim cradles the bird which keeps it calm. 

     This hen Eider is a senior citizen as evident by the white feathers appearing in the head plumage. This is a common feature in older hen Common Eiders and Redheads.

     Randy takes  cloacal swab samples.

     A close-up of a handsome “Jr” drake Eider

    Portraits of two beautiful hen Common Eiders

    The last of the Eiders were released.

     The day ends in a complete success with the last bird of the day, a stunning drake that refreshes itself in the cold sea. The images of this drake back on the sea where it is meant to be are a perfect close to this report.

     I have been studying the Common Eider (as a very amateur scientist) but mostly as an artist and an appreciator since 1980. I have experienced them from Nova Scotia to Connecticut with every coastal state in between. My professional life as an artist has been profoundly impacted by this species. It is by far the most sought after species commissioned by collectors that I make. I have had wonderful times watching this bird, and I can honestly state that this experience was one of the best I have had with Common Eiders. Without getting into a deep analogy of why, I can end it by saying that I was impressed with the professionalism displayed by Josh, Randy, Capt. Jim, Pat and Brian; they have a very profound interest and concern for this species. Josh's innovative work is so vital to the health and longevity of this species. And after witnessing the large scale mortality of Eiders along the inner Cape Cod beaches, Randy's work is also so critical to help this species overcome this relatively unknown virus. It was a great pleasure to meet all of them, I hope that I can accept Josh’s generous  invitation and make it out with them again. Thank You Josh, and Thank You for what you are doing for this incredible species!

     Joshua Beuth, Bio- Josh is from Richmond, RI and has been avidly hunting for the past 11 years.  Sea ducks and in particular eiders were the primary species that he hunted for the first 5 years of his “career”.  This passion for hunting led him to study Wildlife Biology at Unity College in Maine.  In December, 2009,  he graduated with a Bachelor’s degree.  In October of 2009 he had started working as a technician for RI DEM DF&W. His supervisor (Jay Osenkowski) and he were interested in learning how to catch sea ducks with floating mist nets.  They took a trip to northern Massachusetts where they joined folks from the Biodiversity Research Institute and got their first look at mist-netting sea ducks.  He repeated this trip to take some additional notes and upon returning to RI, began building their first Mist Net setups.  Since the early days in March of 2010, they had refined  their equipment and technique and have captured and banded roughly 400 sea ducks (300 of them eider) with the mist nets.  This has included 26 eider transmitters and 18 scoter transmitters (separate project currently nearing completion).  His experience with mist nets and 2 years spent working as a wildlife technician for DEM led to this graduate school opportunity at URI.  His goal is to use  his education, experience and passion for waterfowl hunting and research to become a waterfowl biologist at either the state or federal level. 

     Josh had to leave for a meeting at URI, so Capt. Jim, Pat, Randy, Brian and I had lunch in town. After lunch and Good-byes, I had the last few hours of the afternoon free, so why not do a little birding on the way home? My first stop was at Scarborough Beach in Narragansett to hopefully locate the Black-headed Gull. Unfortunately, there were no Gulls on the beach, so I decided to drive over to Galilee. It was just about 3:00 pm which meant the cod boats would be heading into port. If the cod boats were successful, the mates would be cleaning fish all the way in which meant Gulls and Gannets would be following close behind, and maybe an Iceland Gull or two. The wind had picked up to well over twenty knots out of the southwest. I walked out on the small breakwater at Salty Brine Beach hoping for a closer look at the Gulls when the cod boats would pass by the narrows. Also if there were any Gulls to photograph, I could turn around and have the sun behind me for better photos. There was a small Gull roost at the end of the jetty, but no Iceland Gulls were present. But a few Purple Sandpipers and a single Ruddy Turnstone were tucked away on the lower lee side of the jetty seeking a bit of refuge from the very strong winds.

     There were a few Red-throated Loons swimming along the beach as well.

     A pair of Harbor Seals trying to figure me out!

     As the distant cod boats and fishing boats appeared, swarms of Gulls and Gannets were following close behind; looks like they caught a few cod!

     The Lady Frances came into view with a large group of Gulls and Gannets following close behind. Unfortunately, when the Lady passed by, I couldn’t find a single White-winged Gull.

     On the way west I stopped by Ninigret Park, maybe the old reliable adult Lesser Black-backed Gull would be there. I walked out to Grassy Point, but the Gull wasn’t there. I waited for a few minutes, and when I turned to leave, there it was! The Gull made a quick fly-by from left to right. In its bill was a prize: a small Quahog clam. The Gull flew around the Point and then disappeared into the wind heading west in the pond.

     This Greater Black-backed Gull flew over my head looking for a hand out. Its a bit intimidating looking directly into the eyes of a Greater Black-backed Gull flying directly at you!

     There was a large raft of red-breasted Mergansers in the Pond. They soon got up and flew out to sea.

     As I was leaving, the Lesser Black-backed Gull showed up again and flew by and landed just ahead of me. I managed one shot through the weeds as I walked along the shore. It flew around a couple of times and then flew over to the parking area at the beginning of the Trail by the Kayak ramp. As I was just about to my truck, I saw the Gull again, this time it was flying towards, and then landed in the lee at Grassy Point. I had just received one of my two cameras that were being repaired (50D) so I was anxious to take pictures with it. Other than the four thousand images I took with the Eiders earlier that day, I managed a few decent images of the Gull.
Time to head home, it was a long day, but a great one!

Keith Mueller
Killingworth, CT