All joking aside, East Bay Island is one of the world’s largest common eider colony in the world. Depending on the year between 4000 and 8000 pairs nest on the island during the summer months, starting when the island is still locked in endless ice in every direction. Grant started working on East Bay in the 1990s, and over the last several decade has developed a great system to catch the eiders and mark them as they arrive on the island. The well devised system, as you will see, takes advantage of some tried, tested and true techniques for catching birds, starting with decoys at sunrise (which means 2am in the Arcitc)!
The next step in the process are unraveling the giant nets. The nets we use are actually gill nets used for catching salmon, but here we string up the 100 meter nets between two poles. Under low light conditions the nets can be virtually invisible. Below you can see Oliver holding the net as it is pulled along.
Next, the lower half of the nets are untied. We tied them up so that they don’t drag on the ground as we as moving them. They are then untied in order for it to be fully deployed.
At the same time the banding station must be set up. This is where the birds are brought when the are extricated from the net to be measured, weighed and banded. This includes a metal band with a unique number on it, a colour band that is indicative of 2013 which is easy to read from a distance, and the females get some extra bling (nasal tags) that make it easy to identify them on the colony even when they are sitting on nests. We get set up to hold up to 18 birds in boxes with getting them in and back out as fast as possible.
Once everything is set up, the next step is to wait. Sometimes you don’t actually get to this step with birds hitting the net, but most of the time the runners, those who run along the nets when the birds hit and them must disentangled them, have some time to enjoy the view.
But there is little rest as soon the birds start to arrive. One of the most important and difficult jobs is that of being a runner. The runners are positioned at each end of the net and when the birds hit the net they must run along the nets, over pretty rough terrain, and gently remove the ducks from the nets. Below is a picture that Holly took of Max pulling a male common eider out of the net.
Once the birds are removed they are brought to the banders at the banding station. After taking a series of measures and giving the birds some bands the last step is to weigh the birds as you can see Nik doing below with a male eider.
The females also get nasal tagged before they are released. Here Rian puts a set of nasal tags on a common eider female. The nasal tags are small pieces of plastic that tied on with surgical monofilament which degrades in the sunshine and falls off within a few months. Now when this female is seen on the colony she will be easily identified as ‘circle yellow circle purple’ and the crew will be able to easily identify her reproductive progress. Importantly, when we catch returning females they have their ankle bands on still, and we just stick on new nasal tags each year so we can track females over several years.
The birds are then released and we see many of them back on the island within a few hours, sometimes within 20 minutes. All in an early day’s work at East Bay! We usually wrap everything up at the banding station at about 9am, just in time to go and have breakfast.