Saving an Iconic Sea Duck

Jennifer Malpass with a female American common eider.

Jennifer Malpass is a doctoral student in the Fisheries and Wildlife Science program at The Ohio State University in Columbus, Ohio, who spent her summer as part of the Directorate Resource Assistant Fellows Program, assisting our Migratory Birds program with the development of the American common eider conservation action plan.

Jennifer Malpass, DFP Fellow, with a male American common eider.

Jennifer Malpass with a male American common eider. (Photo credit: Jennifer Malpass.)

Jenn has a background in environmental education. She ran a nature program at a falcon camp in Ohio for many years, and enjoys connecting people with nature. Jenn’s doctoral research focuses on how the food and vegetation resources in residential backyards influence predator-prey interactions between robins and cardinals and their nest predators.

Fieldwork in Boston Harbor

Jenn’s work with our Migratory Bird program began in May in Boston Harbor when she took part in American common eider fieldwork alongside our biologist Chris Dwyer and his team, as well as numerous state and local partners.

A male American common eider. (Photo credit: USFWS.)

A male American common eider. (Photo credit: USFWS.)

The American common eider is a sea duck found in New England and up the Canadian coast as far north as Labrador.

In addition to its importance as a barometer of change in marine environments, the common eider has cultural significance as a harvested species for Aboriginal populations, is hunted for sport, and produces the “eiderdown” used in luxury products.

Eiderdown collected from common eider nests is the best natural insulating material known to man.

Eiderdown collected from common eider nests is the best natural insulating material known to man. (Photo credit: Jenifer Malpass.)

The American common eider has been threatened in recent years due to the emergence of Wellfleet Bay virus, a new disease characterized earlier this year. Wellfleet Bay virus has been associated with mass die-offs of eider on Cape Cod for the past decade.

In 2007, approximately 3,000 dead eider were recovered from Cape Cod National Seashore.

A research program in Boston Harbor began several years ago, because it seems to be an epicenter for the disease. You can read more about the virus and current research in the Boston Globe’s coverage here.

One of the primary goals of the fieldwork Jenn assisted with was to place satellite transmitters in the eider in an effort to gather important data that can be used to help answer questions.

Questions such as, where does the bird travel? If the bird tested negative for Wellfleet Bay virus last year, but positive this year, where and how did the bird come in contact with the virus?

This mist net with decoys on each end was set up in the pre-dawn hours to capture American common eider in Boston Harbor.

This mist net with decoys on each end was set up in the pre-dawn hours to capture American common eider in Boston Harbor. (Photo credit: Jennifer Malpass.)

Common eider are the most marine of the sea ducks, coming to shore only to breed. The remoteness of their habitats makes surveys for sea ducks difficult, costly, and hazardous. Technological advances in the field of ornithology such as satellite transmitters allow wildlife researchers to finally start to answer questions about where American common eider are located throughout the year. Here you can see the external antenna wire for the transmitter on this adult male as he recovers from surgery. (Photo credit: Jennifer Malpass.)

Here you can see the external antenna wire for the transmitter, near the bird’s tail. (Photo credit: Jennifer Malpass.)

This male common eider is receiving anesthesia through a nose cone prior to surgery. Experienced wildlife veterinarians from Biological Research Institute and US Geological Survey-Patuxent performed surgeries to implant satellite transmitters in 8 male and 8 female American common eider in May 2015. (Photo credit: Jennifer Malpass.)

This male American common eider is receiving anesthesia through a nose cone prior to surgery. (Photo credit: Jennifer Malpass.)

The work was a huge collaborative effort between our agency and partners from the U.S. Geological Survey, the Massachusetts Park Service, a team of three veterinarians, a private consulting group, and others, each contributing their own expertise.

Jenn assisted the team in capturing eider with nets and transporting the birds back to the lab by motorboat.

There, veterinarians operated on the birds, placing a transmitter within the bird’s body cavity through a small incision near the cloaca. The transmitter is the size of a matchbox and is secured within the body cavity, and a thin antenna wire passes through the duck’s back to relay information to satellites.

Jenn, along with her team members, played important supporting roles during the surgery. They took the bird’s heart rate, temperature and respiration rate every 5 minutes. If the temperature was too high, they placed bags of ice on its feet or packed its wings with ice, to prevent the bird from becoming overstressed.

After post-surgery recovery, the bird was evaluated to ensure it was alert and ready to be transported back to its habitat.

A male American common eider is released at Deer Island, with the Boston skyline in the background.

A male American common eider is released at Deer Island, with the Boston skyline in the background. (Photo credit: Jennifer Malpass.)

A highlight of the field work, Jenn says, was getting up at 3:30 a.m. to set the nets before sunrise. It’s the best time to place them, she says, because when it’s cloudy and the first light is coming up, the birds can’t see the nets as well.

Working with the (larger) sea ducks was a new and, sometimes, humorous experience for Jenn. The robins and cardinals she typically works with require delicate handling, especially when the capture nets are near water. She asked one of her team members, aren’t you worried the birds could drown if the net drops in the water?

They shared a good laugh when she realized they were talking about sea ducks – birds that both float and are able to hold their breath for long underwater dives.

The field crew captured females to take a small blood sample to test for exposure to Wellfleet Bay Virus.

The field crew captured females to take a small blood sample to test for exposure to Wellfleet Bay virus. (Photo credit: Jennifer Malpass.)

Another task was to complete a nest census on Calf Island in Boston Harbor. They walked the entire island, expecting to find perhaps 15 or 20 nests. Instead, they came upon about 80 nests. There were nests everywhere they turned, she says. They took blood samples from over 60 females, banded birds and counted eggs. There were so many birds, she says, they ran out of supplies.

The days, Jenn says, were awesomely long, but in an awesomely good way.

Future Plans

One of Jenn’s future goals is to work for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. She graduates in December, and is working towards a position at the interface of conservation, research and education. A position involving applied science, she says, communicated across a broad spectrum of the population.

She wants to pursue science that makes a difference, and then communicate that science to people.

It was clear that Jenn’s time as a DFP Fellow this summer, both with the sea ducks and with the Service community, has been a great step along the journey towards her future goals.

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