WCS North America

Waterfowl in Arctic Beringia

Waterfowl, like shorebirds, marine mammals, and muskoxen, are threatened by climate change, development, and increasing marine shipping traffic throughout Arctic Beringia.


By looking across the region from the Arctic Refuge to Prudhoe Bay to the Chukchi Coast, our goal is to help managers to mitigate any identified impacts of offshore oil and gas development and transportation on nesting eiders, as well as to understand the cumulative effects of sea ice loss and increased storm surges.


    Breeding Birds on Beaufort and Chukchi Sea Barrier Islands

    Nesting birds on barrier islands in the Beaufort and northern Chukchi Seas are especially susceptible to climate-mediated factors and effects from development. Species breeding on the islands are often dependent on driftwood for nest cover, which provides thermal benefits and protection from avian predators, as there is very little vegetation. In a recent WCS-led, multi-partner climate change vulnerability assessment, common eiders were reported to be the highest-risk waterbird population on Alaska’s North Slope. This is largely due to potential overwash and erosion from forecasted increases in storm surges that are expected to have devastating effects on barrier island nest sites. Other birds nesting on the islands include long-tailed ducks, snow geese, glaucous gulls, arctic terns, black brant, and semipalmated sandpipers; however, many other species, in particular shorebirds, use the associated lagoons and are likely impacted by the same factors.

    Our long-term goal is to better establish the ecological importance and risks to the poorly understood barrier island ecosystems – in particular to assess which islands are or will continue to be the most critical for nesting birds. It is this niche and those islands that are most at risk from climate change, disturbance, and potential oils spills.

    Seabird Migrations at Point Barrow, Alaska

    At Point Barrow, Alaska, migrating sea birds pass very close to shore, providing an excellent vantage for estimating populations of king and common eiders and yellow-billed loons. The yellow-billed loon and Pacific common eiders are recognized as species of concern.

    WCS will conduct two fall and two spring migration counts at Point Barrow between 2015 and 2016. These counts will replicate counts conducted in 2002-2004, using both the same location and methods, and will allow us to acquire new population estimates directly comparable to the earlier estimates to determine the status of the population and further explore the rates of decline. Collecting detailed spring and fall migration data will also allow us to address timing, behavior, molt, and weather conditions related to migration. This work will be done in collaboration with the North Slope Borough and the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

    Yellow-billed Loon Entanglement

    In 2009, the US Fish and Wildlife Service listed the yellow-billed loon as a candidate species for protection under the Endangered Species Act. The listing decision is being reviewed again in 2014, with particular attention to identified threats, including as the entanglement of loons in subsistence fishing nets.

    Piscivorous divers such as loons are particularly vulnerable to fishing bycatch mortality because they pursue prey underwater.

    WCS recently completed a comprehensive report on yellow-billed loon entanglement in subsistence and small-scale fisheries worldwide. Our review of the published literature and personal communications with subsistence fishermen in Alaska and other countries concludes that yellow-billed loon entanglement in these fisheries is lower than previously reported. We believe that seabird entanglement (loons, eiders, auks, grebes, etc.) could be mitigated without significantly impeding subsistence fisheries.

    WCS is already working with locals on the North Slope of Alaska and on St. Lawrence Island to reduce unwanted entanglements through training to remove birds from nets, and through increased awareness of the issue.

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    WCS Arctic Beringia
    P.O. Box 751110 Fairbanks, AK 99775
    (907) 750-9991

    Key Staff

    Rebecca Bentzen
    Arctic Beringia Avian Research Coordinator

    Partners Include

    National Fish and Wildlife Foundation
    North Slope Borough
    University of Alaska Fairbanks