True North

Vast but fragile, arctic ecosystems are home to a variety of waterfowl

Photo © Kevin Pugh

Bruce Batt, Ph.D.


Arctic map
Eight countries have territory within the Arctic Circle.

Images of sea ice, glaciers, permafrost, bitter cold, and vast, barren landscapes all come to mind when most of us think of the Arctic. It is indeed bitterly cold and seemingly desolate most of the year. Beyond the Arctic Circle, the sun doesn't rise for months during the northern winter, when fierce winds and cold will freeze bare skin in seconds. But for many who cherish untamed wilderness, spectacular vistas, and the mysteries of life in such daunting extremes, the Arctic has a captivating appeal.

The best way to see the Arctic at a realistic scale is by aircraft. It is simply enormous, and there are no roads. From the air, one is immediately impressed by how vast and barren most of the land looks. The only trees are pressed flat against the ground, and rocky landscapes prevail. Glaciers abound in mountainous areas. But at the right places and times, arctic landscapes come alive with masses of migrating caribou moving between summer and winter habitats. There are magnificent coastlines that are home to spectacular concentrations of nesting sea birds that feed in the productive Arctic Ocean waters. The ocean also provides rich food resources for seals, walruses, polar bears, and whales, especially belugas.

The Arctic is a land of enormous seasonal contrasts. Caribou, musk ox, and polar bears are the iconic wildlife, but a closer look during the short summer, with 24 hours of daylight, exposes areas of spectacular productivity by plants, insects, smaller mammals, and migratory birds. Waterfowl are well represented, as more than 20 species nest in the Far North and produce young that populate North America's flyways. These include the tundra swan, greater and lesser snow geese, Atlantic and Pacific brant, white-fronted geese, emperor geese, cackling geese, and Ross's geese. Five different sea ducks make up the true arctic duck species: the long-tailed duck and Steller's, spectacled, king, and common eiders. And many other species that also breed farther south including mallards, pintails, American wigeon, and green-winged teal also nest in arctic regions.

In the vastness of the Arctic, waterfowl are relatively inconspicuous, except for the special locations where some species concentrate during migration, nesting, or brood rearing. Tens of thousands of eiders and long-tailed ducks build up offshore in the ocean just prior to nesting. All except the colonial-nesting common eiders disperse widely to nest on tundra ponds and streams. Most snow and Ross's geese breed in enormous colonies that can have more than a million breeding birds that are visible horizon to horizon. The other arctic geese nest as isolated pairs, but they can be seen in larger flocks after the nesting period when pairs with young and the nonbreeders gather on the richest feeding areas. Tundra swans are solitary nesters, as are the other waterfowl species that travel to the Far North to produce young.

Getting There

Many of these species arrive following remarkable migrations from their winter homes. Tundra swans, for example, nest well above the Arctic Circle and winter as far south as the mid-Pacific and mid-Atlantic coasts. Many that nest in the western Arctic migrate from North Carolina's coastal wetlands to stop on the prairies of Canada and some northern states before continuing their journey to the Arctic—a distance of more than 3,500 miles each way. Pacific brant nesting in the western Arctic stage, in the fall, on the Izembek Lagoon of Alaska's Aleutian Islands before migrating in early November, nonstop, across the Pacific Ocean to winter on Mexico's Baja California—more than 3,000 miles in two and a half days. Their spring migration is more leisurely along the Pacific coast. The segment of the Atlantic brant population that nests in Canada's eastern high Arctic follows what is perhaps the most unexpected migration pattern. Their spring journey starts in Ireland and then crosses the North Atlantic Ocean after stops in Iceland and Greenland.

Other species have surprising annual movements, even if not over such great distances. For example, the wintering grounds of Alaska's spectacled eider was a mystery until 1995, when some of the earliest satellite transmitters tracked the birds to an open area in the Bering Sea between St. Lawrence and St. Matthew islands. The harlequin duck population that nests in northern Quebec winters along the southwest coast of Greenland, as do many common eiders from Canada's eastern Arctic. Some long-tailed ducks from Alaska winter as far west as the Sea of Japan. One population of lesser snow geese winters in parts of Washington and California and migrates up the Pacific Flyway to breed on Wrangel Island off the coast of Siberia.

Timing is Important

While just getting to the Arctic to breed is a major undertaking, the birds face many challenges once they have arrived. As in all habitats where waterfowl nest, a collection of predators strives to survive and raise their own young by feeding on eggs, goslings, and even adults. The arctic fox is a major predator in many areas, but ravens, large gulls, and jaegers also take a significant toll.

The period of suitable weather for breeding is very short. Goose hunters know that in some years low production results in poorer hunting success because of few young in the fall flight. This situation usually occurs because of a late spring thaw or a late snowstorm on the breeding area.

Most species of geese arrive on the breeding grounds by mid-May and leave by mid-September. Much has to happen during the intervening weeks. It takes a week to lay eggs, over three weeks to incubate and hatch them, six to eight weeks before the young are able to take their first flight, and then a couple of weeks to gain strength while storing enough body reserves to allow migration to the first southerly staging areas, which may be a thousand miles away. When cold weather and snow cover delay egg laying, fewer or no eggs will be laid because the female has to use her body reserves to survive rather than produce eggs. Her survival is paramount, as missing one year of production is better than risking death while trying to raise a brood in a year when the young would hatch after the optimal time for feeding and fledging. This is a sensible strategy, as arctic species are typically long-lived and have several years to breed successfully in their lifetimes.

These time and temperature constraints make it crucial for waterfowl to arrive in peak body condition to begin nesting as soon as temperatures allow. The reserves they arrive with are their most important source of nutrition throughout the nesting period, since the female cannot replenish them for quite a while after her arrival. The grasses and sedges that the geese depend on are not fully available until about the time the goslings hatch. Thus, the goslings and the female do have the advantage of prime fresh feed just when they need it most to grow, molt their feathers, or grow new ones for the first time. It also helps that they have 24 hours of daylight during which they can feed.

Influences from Afar

The importance of food resources away from the arctic breeding grounds has taken on an unanticipated twist for most arctic-nesting geese over the last few decades. During the eight months that the birds are away from the Arctic, the majority of their feeding takes place on agricultural lands—everywhere from Prairie Canada to northern Mexico. Biologists believe these food resources are better and more reliable than when the geese depended on native habitats. As a result, the birds are receiving a nutritional subsidy that contributes to higher survival of young birds that make it out of arctic regions. It also allows females to attain extraordinary body condition just before they arrive at nesting areas.

Arctic habitat
Despite its barren appearance, the Arctic is remarkably diverse biologically, supporting hundreds of wildlife species from caribou to long-tailed ducks.

Coupled with a somewhat warmer climate with better average spring nesting conditions, the outcome has been that all the arctic goose populations that have adapted to agriculture are at least stable, and some are at the highest average levels ever recorded. The lesser snow goose is the champion in this story, as there are probably more than 15 million of them now, up from about 3 million birds 25 to 30 years ago, making it the most abundant waterfowl species in the world. This causes major problems on spring staging and breeding areas in arctic regions because these habitats are not able to support the unprecedented masses of snow geese. Waterfowl managers have liberalized hunting regulations dramatically in an attempt to reduce the numbers of these birds. The concept that everything is interconnected in nature is certainly illustrated by these arctic-nesting geese as both nutrition and climate change caused by events and conditions from afar are having never before observed consequences for the birds, hunters, and waterfowl managers.

In contrast, the opposite has occurred for goose species that have not adapted to agriculture—the emperor goose in Alaska as well as Pacific and Atlantic brant. The brant, for example, rarely feed on agricultural lands while, at the same time, their traditional aquatic foods have been degraded by hydroelectric and other types of development. Both brant and emperor geese have struggled to rise above historic low populations.

The Arctic Sea Ducks

Five species of North American sea ducks nest exclusively in arctic regions: the common, king, spectacled, and Steller's eiders and the long-tailed duck. Sea ducks are among the most beautiful waterfowl in the world. They are also among the least understood, and almost all of them are thought to be on a long-term decline for causes mostly unknown. Of greatest concern are Steller's and spectacled eiders, which are designated as threatened under the federal Endangered Species Act, as their numbers have plummeted in Alaska over the past few decades. Only a few thousand pairs of Steller's and spectacled eiders still nest in Alaska, and they are rare visitors in Canada. However, during the winter, populations of 360,000 spectacled eiders are found in the Bering Sea. The vast majority come from Russia. Up to 150,000 Steller's eiders winter in southwest Alaska, most of which are also from Russia. The causes of the decline of these two Alaska eider populations are not known but are the subject of increased research efforts (see

The common eider is the most abundant sea duck and, weighing up to six pounds, is the largest migratory duck in North America. There are four distinct populations, three of which nest along many coastal areas of the high Arctic. The fourth eider, the king, is much more widespread across the high Arctic and, although thought to be much reduced from historic population levels, is not considered a threatened species. The king eider and the long-tailed duck nest farther north than any other ducks—all the way to the north coast of Greenland, where the window of good weather for nesting is absolutely minimal. Some greater snow geese and Atlantic brant also nest in this region at the top of the world.

The long-tailed duck is the most numerous, widespread, and perhaps the most appealing arctic-nesting sea duck. Besides beautiful plumage, the males have what has been described as a distinctive "melodious yodeling" vocalization that echoes across the tundra during the breeding season and wherever the birds gather in flocks during migration. In the winter, long-tailed ducks are found in coastal areas to California on the Pacific coast and North Carolina on the Atlantic coast as well as in the Great Lakes. The long-tailed duck is the deepest diving of all waterfowl, and the birds have been caught in commercial fishing nets in Lake Michigan at depths of more than 200 feet.

A Warmer but Uncertain Future

Energy and mineral developments in northern Canada and Alaska, along with a relatively warmer climate, have allowed more people to work there and witness arctic regions firsthand. There is even a commercial expedition by small ship through the famed Northwest Passage each summer (see In fact, each summer a few hardy adventurers explore the passage by small sailboat, a feat first accomplished in 1906 by Roald Amundsen of Norway. Concern about the future of the polar bear in a warmer Arctic and the possibilities of significant undiscovered oil deposits have also brought greater international attention to these high latitudes.

The land is sparsely populated. Where there is industrial development, such as mining, petroleum extraction, or pipeline construction, laborers from southern areas are common. Otherwise, arctic communities are small, widely dispersed, and mostly occupied by native North Americans—the Eskimos of Alaska and Inuit of Canada. These communities are striving to adapt to the modern world while maintaining as many of their cultural traditions as possible. These are hunting cultures that survived over the centuries because of their remarkable ability to harvest fish and wildlife from the land.

It is not uncommon, for example, to go to one of these communities in the fall and find almost no one home as whole families, including the children, are out on the land harvesting caribou, musk ox, fish, and berries to put away for the coming winter. Food brought in from "the south" is extremely expensive. Besides, the bounty of the land has been their traditional diet for centuries. There will be important lessons for all of us from the unprecedented cultural evolution that is being sought in these remote communities.

Arctic waterfowl habitats are mostly untouched by the threats that we typically think of. Except for a few permanent settlements, the Arctic looks the same as it did 500 years ago. The greatest threat for the future is likely the changing climate. A warmer Arctic is already reducing the extent and depth of permafrost. As a consequence, tundra ponds are drying up and being lost over a vast area. A longer ice-free season is also leading to massive erosion along Alaska's northern coastline and is threatening to erode large expanses of the North Slope, which contains important habitats for species such as the already stressed Pacific brant. A rising ocean will also inundate vast areas of arctic coastal salt marsh, some of the richest natural habitats used by geese and brant.

There will be more shipping traffic with attendant threats of oil spills, which we already know can have disastrous consequences in arctic waters. Probably the next most significant threat lies in future petroleum development, which is expected to increase as the high arctic regions become more open to exploration. For governments and industry, unprecedented caution must be implemented to prevent oil spills.

For now, the Arctic remains spectacularly wild, beautiful, foreboding, and among the most fascinating and compelling places on Earth. Many of its waterfowl are among the most remote and least studied and therefore among the most intriguing—just like the spectacular landscapes that are their home during the short summer season.