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Spectacled Eider Life History


Lakes and PondsIn North America, Steller’s Eiders breed in marshy tundra habitats, mostly in the bird-rich Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta of western Alaska and in northern Alaska along the Beaufort Sea coast. In western Alaska, their nesting areas lie in a vast area of saltmarsh and tundra with an abundance of lakes, creeks, and rivers. The areas with highest elevations hold plant communities with dwarf willows and dwarf birch that grade into grasslands or wetlands with sedges. In this matrix of habitats, Spectacled Eiders select small, sedge-dominated islands in lakes rather than nesting on higher ground in dwarf shrubs. In northern Alaska, they use islands in ponds, lakes, and river deltas, placing the nest among dwarf willows, mosses, lichens, sedges, and pendant grass near the water’s edge. Males depart the nesting area after the female lays eggs, moving toward the Bering Sea to molt, mostly in the prey-rich shallow waters of Norton Sound. Females and young follow later. All move to the Bering Sea pack ice south of St. Lawrence Island for the winter, where they seek out large leads or breaks in the sea ice called polynyas. Back to top


Aquatic invertebratesOn the breeding grounds, Spectacled Eiders gorge on abundant insect life, plants, and seeds, which they consume with rapid, dabbling motions in the water, sometimes tipping up to reach prey below the water’s surface. Prey includes caddisflies, flies, midges, dance flies, long-legged flies, dung flies, craneflies, beetles, tiny crustaceans (amphipods, fairy shrimp, tadpole shrimp, clam shrimp), snails, and clams. They also eat mosses, sedges, water milfoil, and mare's tail, as well as seeds of buttercup, fine-leaf pondweed, and crowberry. At sea, they dive as deep as 250 feet underwater to feed on marine invertebrates, especially mollusks. They typically swallow prey while still underwater. Prey at this time of year include marine worms (polychaetes), hairy-shell snails, moon snails, topsnails, yoldia clams, macoma clams, rough myas, blue and horse mussels, small crustaceans (amphipods), spider crabs, lyre crabs, tanner crabs, wrinkled crabs, barnacles, sand dollars, bryozoans, protozoans, and sea stars. Their diet also includes some fish, including sculpin and cod. Back to top


Nest Placement

GroundNest are set in sedges or dwarf shrubs near the water’s edge on small islands, pond shorelines, and dry hummocks in wet meadows.

Nest Description

The female creates a depression in the tundra vegetation with her body, which she lines with grasses and sedges, then adds down feathers from her breast after laying the third egg. Nests measure, on average, about 9.5 inches across, with interior bowl 5.5 inches across and 2 inches deep.

Nesting Facts

Clutch Size:1-11 eggs
Number of Broods:1 brood
Egg Length:2.7 in (6.8 cm)
Egg Width:1.8 in (4.5 cm)
Incubation Period:23 days
Nestling Period:50-52 days
Egg Description:

Pale green or light buff.

Condition at Hatching:Covered in thick down and able to walk soon after hatching.
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DabblerIn spring, Spectacled Eiders return to the nesting grounds having already selected a mate. The species is socially monogamous. As in other eider species, males begin to display in winter flocks, with head tossing, neck stretching, and wing-flapping, accompanied by soft calls. Displays conclude before spring migration, but on the breeding grounds, pairs often stretch out the neck and shake the head side to side as a signal to take flight. Females select the nest site and build the nest, and males usually chase other males away from her. Spectacled Eider pairs usually nest far from other pairs, although they occasionally clump in to small “colonies.” Once the female has laid eggs, the male departs for molting areas at sea. The female incubates and raises the ducklings on her own. As ponds begin to freeze in early autumn, the females and young birds gather into flocks and migrate to sea. It is likely that most Spectacled Eiders remain at sea for the first summer after they hatch. During the dark winter months, Spectacled Eiders form large flocks that forage and roost very close together. Back to top


Red Watch List

Spectacled Eider populations have been in decline for at least four decades in North America. Partners in Flight estimates a global breeding population of 250,000 and rates the species an 18 out of 20 on the Continental Concern Score, placing it on the Red Watch List for species that are threatened with extinction without significant conservation intervention. The Spectacled Eider was listed as Threatened under the U.S. Endangered Species Act in 1993. Even with these protections, this species is still hunted both in the United States and Russia, including some subsistence hunting by indigenous hunters. Poisoning by heavy metals (especially from lead shot) and by marine pollutants continue to be a source of mortality. Petroleum exploration and extraction activities have degraded nesting habitat in northern Alaska.

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Lutmerding, J. A. and A. S. Love. (2020). Longevity records of North American birds. Version 2020. Patuxent Wildlife Research Center, Bird Banding Laboratory 2020.

Partners in Flight. (2020). Avian Conservation Assessment Database, version 2020.

Petersen, M. R., W. W. Larned and D. C. Douglas. (1999). At-sea distributions of Spectacled Eiders (Somateria fischeri): a 120 year-old mystery resolved. Auk 116:1009-1020.

Sibley, D. A. (2014). The Sibley Guide to Birds, second edition. Alfred A. Knopf, New York, NY, USA.

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