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Alaska Science Center

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Spectacled eider, photo by John Warden, USFWS

Spectacled Eider Satellite Telemetry Research at the Alaska Science Center

Female spectacled eider on a nest

Spectacled Eiders (Somateria fischeri) are large sea ducks that spend 9 to 12 months of the year in marine habitat (Petersen et al. 1999). At sea, eiders forage on clams, polychaete worms, and other organisms on the sea floor. In winter, the world population of Spectacled Eiders group at a single site south of St. Lawrence Island, Alaska, in the northern Bering Sea. In the summer, the species is divided into three breeding populations; western and northern Alaska and northern Russia. A majority (> 90%) of adults nest in Russia.

From 1952 to 1993, a 96% population decline was observed within the western Alaska breeding population. In 1993, the Spectacled Eider was listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act and critical habitat was later designated throughout the species’ North American range (Federal Register 1993, Federal Register 2001). Threats to eiders at breeding areas include ingestion of contaminants, particularly lead through expended shot and predators (Petersen et al. 2000).

Unlike other sea ducks, the distribution of Spectacled Eiders appears to be restricted to a few areas, including a single wintering site. This phenomenon might be detrimental to a significant number of eiders if habitat change leads to rapid alteration of high use areas. Recent research has focused on habitat conditions at the known wintering area, south of St. Lawrence Island, where sea ice and abundant, nutrient rich prey appear to be critical for winter survival (Petersen and Douglas 2004, Lovvorn et al. 2009). Without further assessment of migratory patterns and habitat use exhibited by Spectacled Eiders, it is difficult to predict how this threatened species will respond to rapid climate and ecosystem change in the future.

Spectacled Eider distribution from Petersen et al. 1999
Spectacled Eider distribution from Petersen et al. 1999 - click on image for larger view

Satellite telemetry provides a mechanism through which the location of marked animals can be tracked regardless of location, time of day, or weather. Transmitters send information to orbiting satellites, which relay the data to receivers on Earth. In 1993 -1997, biologists at the Alaska Science Center marked Spectacled Eiders with implantable satellite transmitters, which led to the discovery of critical molting and wintering areas (Petersen et al. 1999). However, technology at the time limited the life of each transmitter to a few months, meaning data from late winter and spring locations was not collected.

In 2008, biologists at the Alaska Science Center began marking Spectacled Eiders with similar transmitters to repeat and expand upon the previous study. Each transmitter is expected to send data over the course of 2 years, providing a unique opportunity to learn more about this unique species. At least 100 transmitters will be deployed through 2010, providing location data from 2008 through 2012. The data will ultimately be used to examine migratory patterns and habitat use throughout the year.

The map below illustrates the most recent location signals received from marked Spectacled Eiders. View locations over time from eiders marked in 2008 in western Alaska. View locations over time from eiders marked in 2009 in northern Alaska. Research updates are also available via Twitter at

This project is also being conducted as a component of a graduate degree at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

In addition to USGS funding, this project is being supported by the Minerals Management Service, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Bureau of Land Management, the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, ConocoPhillips-Alaska, Inc., the Mesker Park Zoo (Indiana), and the Columbus Zoo (Ohio).

Recent Spectacled Eider satellite telemetry locations with average sea ice concentration

Recent Spectacled Eider satellite telemetry locations with average sea ice concentration.  Locations represent the best received from each bird during each transmission cycle.  Eiders were marked in 2009 and 2010 in northern Alaska.  Sea ice data are made available by the University of Bremen (  This map will be updated weekly.

Disclaimer:  These data and maps are provided as a public service and educational tool for the general community interested in migratory birds.  Any use of this information for scientific analyses, manuscripts, or presentations requires permission from the teams of principal investigators that collected the datasets.


Federal Register. 2001. Final determination of critical habitat for the Spectacled Eider. Federal Register 66(25):9146-9185.

Federal Register. 1993. Final rule to list the Spectacled Eider as threatened. Federal Register 58(88):27374-27480. (pdf file 2.58 mb)

Lovvorn, J.R., J.M. Grebmeier, L.W. Cooper, J.K. Bump, and S.E. Richman. 2009. Modeling marine protected areas for threatened eiders in a climatically changing Bering Sea. Ecological Applications 19:1596-1613.

Petersen, M.R., W.W. Larned, and D.C. Douglas. 1999. At-sea distribution of Spectacled Eiders: A 120-year-old mystery resolved. Auk 116:1009-1020.

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.

Petersen, M.R., and D.C. Douglas. 2004. Winter ecology of Spectacled Eiders: environmental characteristics and population change. Condor 106:79-94.

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Page Last Modified: December 06 2016 11:33:51.