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Rafters found a modern message in a bottle. Bird researchers found a wildlife soap opera.

  • Author: Suzanna Caldwell
  • Updated: December 2, 2017
  • Published November 30, 2016

It all started with a walk along the beach near the top of the world.

It was there, on remote Icy Reef, that Jeff Samuels and a group of friends stumbled on the camera while finishing up a 10-day August raft trip on the Kongakut River in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

Samuels had no idea the camera was full of drama. More specifically, bird drama.

As they waited overnight for their plane to pick them up, he and his friends decided to walk the beach and try to collect trash along the shore. The reef, located where the river dumps into the Beaufort Sea, isn't close to many people. Kaktovik, population 200 and the largest village nearby, is about 50 miles west.

They didn't find much, he said, until his friend Elise Lockton spotted the camera nestled in debris along the rocky shore.

The camera, bulky and about the size of a brick, reminded him of a Fisher Price toy camera, he said. It was banged up and waterlogged. But he decided to open it up to see if there was anything salvageable. On the reef they pulled out the camera's memory card and closely inspected it. Samuels saw that the electrical contacts were rusty. He figured it was useless.

But there was contact information for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on the camera. So he pocketed the card and figured he'd at least try to get the data back to them.

Back in Anchorage, Samuels contacted the service and found the man in charge of the program, Arctic National Wildlife Refuge ornithologist Chris Latty.

Latty has been studying common eider in the Beaufort Sea since 2014. Each year, he and his crew set up 75 time-lapse cameras on barrier island areas to document eider nest behavior. The cameras take a picture every four seconds and can store about 1 million photos.

A FWS camera is on an Arctic National Wildlife Refuge barrier island overlooking common eider eggs (Wilhelm Wiese / FWS)

But in July 2016 an early-season storm surge pounded one of the islands, flooding many of the nests and dislodging many of the cameras. When researchers made it back to the island, about 75 percent of the cameras had been destroyed.

While they were able to recover most of them, a few floated away, Latty said in a phone interview last week.

So he was excited to hear Samuels had found one of the missing cameras. But then there was more of a surprise. It didn't just show the day-to-day life of an eider — instead, the camera showed a battle between two bird species and then some.

Bird drama

Latty said that when researchers were placing the cameras they were surprised to find one nest containing both an eider and glaucous gull eggs. While not unprecedented, such an occurrence is rare. So they set up a camera near the nest and left.

What followed was a battle between eider and gull, captured in a series of snapshots.

Pictures from a camera found on a remote barrier island in the Beaufort Sea captured summer nesting drama between a pair of glaucous gulls and common eider. The camera, thought to be lost during a July storm surge, was recovered by a group of rafters beachcombing on Icy Reef in August 2016. (FWS)

The eider was no match for the pair of gulls. The eider ended up retreating from the nest, her lone egg left behind.

But the gull incubated it, defending the nest for another 27 days until the eider duckling hatched.

An eider duckling being cared for by the glaucous gull that hatched it this July. The images were recovered from a camera documenting the birds that was lost during an early season storm surge. (FWS)

The gull hen didn't seem to care that the eider duckling wasn't one of her own, caring for it and even trying to feed it. But eider ducklings "aren't keen on regurgitate" and begin feeding themselves shortly after hatching, according to a write-up from Latty. When the eider duckling tried to wander off to find food, it's attacked by another gull nesting nearby.

A camera documenting nesting eiders in the Beaufort sea captures a gull attacking an the eider duckling who wandered too close to its nest. The camera, thought to be lost during a July storm surge, was recovered by a group of rafters beachcombing on Icy Reef in August 2016. (FWS)

But the eider duckling escapes. Before long, two eider hens wander into the area and find the duckling. It leaves with the birds, who have seemingly adopted it.

The gull continues to incubate the eggs, and a few days later two glaucous gull eggs hatch. A few days later, the photo narrative ends — the storm floods the nest and the camera floats away.

While the drama was a surprise, Latty said the camera contained some information that was helpful to his project.

Eiders are unusual in that they spend most of their adult lives on the open ocean and rarely come to shore except to breed. While they are incubating their eggs they don't forage and hardly leave their nests, only taking short breaks to get water and maybe preen. During incubation they lose approximately 40 percent of their body weight.

That pattern means eiders don't respond easily to changes in their environment. Earlier storm surges could mean reduced breeding success for the animals, who are already in decline across the Arctic, and storm surges like the one that flooded the nests are occurring earlier each year.

The study will continue next year, Latty said. He said there's almost no way to know what happened to the birds pictured on the camera.

But still, the story serves as a learning experience for everyone involved, even Samuels, who stumbled across the camera in the first place.

"The stars aligned to bring this story to light. That was extra rewarding," he said. "We were all super exciting about our little part in finding out what happened."

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