Spectacled Eider

Somateria fischeri

(c) US Fish and Wildlife Service. Spectacled Eider male
  • ANATIDAE
  • Swans, Geese, Ducks
  • Anseriformes
  • Eider de Anteojos
  • Eider à lunettes
Introduction

Wintering on the Bering Sea and breeding on remote Arctic tundra, the Spectacled Eider seems far removed from modern civilization. Nevertheless, industrial pollution transported by wind and waves, and lead shot scattered by hunters have been poisoning this beautiful sea duck, causing its numbers to plummet.

(c) US Fish & Wildlife Service. Spectacled Eider female
Appearance Description

Spectacled Eiders are medium-sized sea ducks, measuring about 21 inches long, with a 33-inch wingspan, and weighing 3.4 pounds. In breeding plumage, the drake Spectacled Eider's under-parts are mostly dark gray and contrast with a white back, neck, and front half of the wing. Dark feathers with a green sheen adorn the front and rear of the head. Thick black lines connect these patches over the crown and across the cheek, leaving large white patches around the eyes that look like goggles. Females sport goggles as well, although they are cast in shades of brown. Females also have a warm brown body strongly marked with fairly even, curved black bars.

Range Map
Courtesy Kenn Kaufman
Range Distribution

The Spectacled Eider breeds in Western Alaska on the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta and along the northern Alaskan coast from Wainwright eastward to Camden Bay. In Siberia, this sea duck also breeds around the deltas of the Yena, Indigirka, and Kolyma rivers. Critical molting areas include Alaska's Ledyard Bay and Norton Sound. The Spectacled Eider winters in the Bering Sea, south of St. Lawrence Island.

Habitat

Close to the coast and always near water, Spectacled Eiders breed on Arctic tundra and use small islands, shorelines, peninsulas, and drier spots in wet meadows for their nest sites. Here, thick sedges and grasses are important components for nesting. These sea ducks molt in shallow waters near the shore, but then congregate in the Bering Sea for winter, often on pack ice with openings, over waters as deep as 200 feet.

Feeding

On its breeding grounds, the Spectacled Eider consumes insects such as flies, midges, beetles, and their larvae; crustaceans including amphipods, fairy shrimp, tadpole shrimp, and snails; and various plants such as pond weed seeds, crowberries, and moss. While foraging, these birds dabble, dive, and glean items from the surface. During molting and while wintering, they dive for snails, clams, mussels, amphipods, crabs, sand dollars, sea stars, and fish like sculpin and small cod.

Reproduction

Pairs of Spectacled Eiders appear to form at sea in late winter. Monogamous pairs probably maintain bonds with behaviors similar to other eider ducks, like ceremonial stretching and head tossing. Arriving on the breeding grounds from mid-May to early June, paired females select a site and build a nest, at which time males chase off rivals. A bowl shape is pressed into the damp tundra, lined with grasses and sedges, and then filled with one to 11 olive eggs. Insulated with down that the female pulls from her own chest, and incubated by the female alone for 90% of the day, the eggs hatch in about 24 days. The brownish, downy chicks already show the spectacled pattern and can walk, preen, and swim in about a day.

Spectacled Eider chicks grow at an amazing pace, reaching adult size in two months—testament to the fertility of the Arctic tundra. The young eiders first fly in about 50 days and probably spend the next two to three years at sea, before returning to breed.

Migration

Completing a full but short migration, Spectacled Eider initially travel in flocks of six to 80, then form super flocks with other eider ducks to stage, molt, and rest. Throughout June, males leave their breeding areas, followed by females and immature birds in late August. All Spectacled Eiders stop in mid-route to molt during the fall. Throughout October, weather and food abundance affect their departure for the wintering grounds. The condition of the sea ice dictates spring migration, and most Spectacled Eiders arrive on the breeding grounds from May to early June.

  • 360,000
  • 17,000 breeding; 330,000 wintering
Population Status Trends

The Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta once hosted as many as 48,000 pairs of Spectacled Eiders. From 1970 to 1992 that number fell to 2,500. For 2000, estimates in this area were approximately 3,700 active nests. This population, though it now appears stable, is much below historic numbers. Along Alaska's northern coast, data published by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service indicate a slight decline of 2.6 % per year throughout the 1990s. Between 1957 and 1992, the Western Alaskan population of Spectacled Eiders dropped 96%. This eider was subsequently listed as "threatened" in 1993.

Conservation Issues

Alaska's North Slope currently hosts the largest number of breeding Spectacled Eiders in North America. In September 2006, after almost 30 years of protection, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management planned to sell leases for petroleum exploration and extraction in Alaska's North Slope at Lake Teshekpuk, where the Spectacled Eider breeds. A federal judge temporarily halted these sales. The prospect of opening of this lake exemplifies the threat to critical habitat for threatened species like the Spectacled Eider.

The Spectacled Eider Recovery Team, formed in 1993 under the USFWS, has focused research efforts and shaped recovery plans. But the recovery of the Spectacled Eider has been slow. The main causes of the species' decline appear to be hunting, lead poisoning and increasingly scarce food resources during winter. The effects of hunting were minimized by banning sport hunting in 1991 and by self-imposed limits by native hunters in 1993. On the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta, breeding females have been hit particularly hard by lead poisoning; in the 1990s their annual survival rate dropped by 34% at some locations.. .

The Spectacled Eider is having an even harder time surviving the Arctic winter. One factor may be the declining numbers and decreasing size of the chalky macoma (Macoma calcarea)—a deep water clam favored by this eider—due to increased predation by walruses and seals, and increased pollutants on the ocean bottom. To protect the eider's wintering grounds, the USFWS has proposed that 73.6 thousand square kilometers of the Bering Sea be designated as critical habitat. If clams and other food resources continue declining, a more comprehensive plan will be needed.

What You Can Do

Support the use of steel shot. The 1998 ban on lead shot is limited to waterfowl and does not prevent its use in marshlands or adjacent uplands for other game. Because lead decays slowly, eider hens continue to ingest pellets as they forage.

Protect the critical habitat of the Spectacled Eider by advocating a moratorium on petroleum development around Lake Teshekpuk. Contact your federal representative to voice your concern.

Become involved in energy conservation with car pools, high fuel efficiency standards, and alternative energy sources. For an overview of wind power, see Audubon's Issues and Actions

Find out about actions you can take including Audubon programs and activities.

More Information

In 2001, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service excluded the North Slope from the Spectacled Eider's list of critical habitats, removing a key check in the opening of Lake Teshekpuk to petroleum development. Learn more by visiting Audubon's Save Lake Teshekpuk.

Learn more about this species and other birds through these resources

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Natural History References

Petersen, M. R., J. B. Grand, and C. P. Dau. 2000. Spectacled Eider (Somateria fischeri). In The Birds of North America, No. 547 (A. Poole and F. Gill, Eds.). The Birds of North America, Inc., Philadelphia, PA.

Sibley, David Allen. The Sibley Guide to Birds. Alfred A. Knopf, New York. 2000.

Conservation Status References

Chipley, Robert M., George H. Fenwick, Michael J. Parr, and David N. Pashley. The American Bird Conservancy Guide to the 500 Most Important Bird Areas in the United States. New York: Random House, Inc. 2003.

"Endangered and Threatened Wildlife and Plants; Final Determination of Critical Habitat for the Spectacled Eider." U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Department of the Interior. Federal Register 66:25 (February 2001) 9145-9185. .

Petersen, M. R., J. B. Grand, and C. P. Dau. 2000. Spectacled Eider (Somateria fischeri). In The Birds of North America, No. 547 (A. Poole and F. Gill, Eds.). The Birds of North America, Inc., Philadelphia, PA.

Richmann, Samantha E. and James R. Lavvorn. "Effects of clam species dominance on nutrient and energy acquisition by spectacled eiders in the Bering Sea." Marine Ecology Progress Series 261 (October 2003) 283-297.

Sibley, David Allen. The Sibley Guide to Birds. Alfred A. Knopf, New York. 2000.