No eider ducklings at Southampton Island bird sanctuary this year

Researchers say no eider ducklings successfully hatched on Southampton Island this year as an earlier ice melt has meant more polar bears are eating the eggs.

Warming temperatures mean polar bears are turning to the eggs as an alternative food source, say researchers

Researchers say no eider duck eggs successfully hatched on Southampton Island this year because more polar bears are coming on the island due to faster melting sea ice. (Environment Canada)

There were no fluffy eider ducklings waddling around at the East Bay Migratory Bird Sanctuary on Southampton Island, located at the north end of Hudson Bay, this year. Researchers say none of the eggs successfully hatched because of increased polar bear activity in the area.

According to Willow English, a PhD student at Carleton University, as sea ice melts sooner in the year, more bears come onto the island looking for alternative food sources to seals.

That's a trend researchers have noticed over the past few years, said Reid Smith, a master's student at the University of Windsor.

"There's just been lots of bears coming on and they're changing their eating behaviours in eating lots of eider eggs. They're [a] really rich resource that doesn't require a lot of energy to get," Smith explained.

The students' research is part of a long-term monitoring project that's been ongoing for nearly 30 years. Along with monitoring the eider duck population, it also includes research of shorebirds on the mainland.

Researchers examine when the birds arrive, how well they breed and the condition they're in.   

Reid Smith, a master's student at the University of Windsor, says researchers have noticed more bears are eating eider eggs. (Submitted by Willow English )

Brandon Norman, a master's student at York University, has been involved with the project for three years and said it's been interesting to "see how the [eider] colony basically climbs and expands in population and then crashes as soon as the bears come on."

The increasing number of polar bears on the island has not only posed a risk to the eider population, but also to the researchers.   

Since 2013, Smith said, they've had to shorten their field season to avoid dangerous encounters. They no longer stay at the camp into August . 

"It's a safety issue." she said.   

'Something that's really special'

English said she got involved in the field of study "just by accident" but has since fallen in love with shorebirds and hopes that her research will excite others. 

English described handling Arctic terns this year that she tagged last year that had migrated to and from Antarctica in the meantime. 

For almost 30 years researchers have been examining when shorebirds arrive, how well they breed and the condition they're in. (Submitted by Willow English)

"I hope people get a better understanding of the birds that are out here and that are amazing birds that migrate thousands and thousands of kilometres every year just to return back to this little piece of the Arctic and appreciate just what undertakings these birds do," she said. 

Norman echoed those sentiments, noting that some shorebirds migrate all the way to the tip of South America.

"Four chicks could fit into the palm of your hand and you're thinking 'wow this thing has a capability of growing up and flying all the way to South America,' [it] is something that's really special."

Smith said it's her first year on the project and it's been an "amazing experience" that's given her a new respect for polar bears.

"A lot of people don't realize how much of a fierce predator they are, so coming into pretty close contact with them gave me new respect for them," she said.

"It was amazing, the research that's being done is really thrilling and fantastic and it's something I'm really excited to come and do more of in the next couple of years."

Researchers say it's amazing handling birds that migrate such long distances. (Submitted by Willow English)

Locals heavily invested in research

All three researchers said the involvement of local Inuit has been important to the project.

English said the community of Coral Harbour is concerned about what's happening with the birds.

"They want to know what's causing declines and whether there's contaminants in the birds that may affect hunters and the people who eat them," she said.

Norman said it was an especially great opportunity to work with one young man from the community this year who was able to a see a Sabine's gull, which his grandmother had told him about, for the first time.

"That was a really, really powerful and unique experience to have," he said.

Researchers say local people are invested in the research on what's happening to eider ducks. (Submitted by Willow English )

Currently, Smith said, there is a training camp going on with youth from Coral Harbour at the camp. They are learning how to do much of the research in an effort to increase the collaboration and co-operation between the project and local people as well as include more traditional knowledge to understand what is happening.

With files from Lissie Anaviapik