Research Seeks to Unravel Sea Duck Mystery

© Jason Otto

The 15 species of waterfowl known as sea ducks constitute 42 percent of all duck species breeding in North America. And yet sea ducks are the least understood of all waterfowl. Basic natural history information is lacking for many species of sea ducks and few reliable population indices or survival estimates exist for most species. 

The limited information scientists do have suggests that most sea duck populations are in trouble—severe trouble in some cases. For reasons that remain unknown, 10 of 15 sea duck species are experiencing population declines and three species (the harlequin duck, spectacled eider and Steller's eider) are currently listed as threatened or endangered in all or portions of their range. Understanding the complex connections among breeding, staging, wintering and molting habitat used by sea ducks is essential to discerning population declines, identifying limiting factors and evaluating potential impacts from development, offshore wind farm projects, harvest and climate change. 

To answer some of these questions, the Sea Duck Joint Venture initiated a large-scale, multiyear collaborative research project using satellite telemetry on black scoters, surf scoters, white-winged scoters and long-tailed ducks wintering on Chesapeake Bay, the St. Lawrence Estuary, Cape Cod, Nantucket, the Restigouche River, and Lake Ontario. 

The study calls for a total 300 sea ducks along the Atlantic coast to be captured and implanted with satellite transmitters. So far, 67 black scoters received transmitters from 2009 through 2010 in New Brunswick at Baie des Chaleurs and the Restigouche River; 52 long-tailed ducks received transmitters from 2007 through 2010 in Nantucket Sound, Cape Cod and Chesapeake Bay; and 19 molting white-winged scoters received transmitters in 2010 in the St. Lawrence Estuary. Ducks Unlimited's participation in this important research was made possible by a generous grant from the Waterfowl Research Foundation.