A male ruddy duck in Yukon Flats National Wildlife Refuge. (Courtesy Photo | Adam Grimm)

A male ruddy duck in Yukon Flats National Wildlife Refuge. (Courtesy Photo | Adam Grimm)

These ducks are among many moving northward

Researchers first saw ruddy duck nests in Yukon Flats in 2013.

Every spring, millions of ducks touch down on Yukon Flats National Wildlife Refuge, a spread of muskeg and dark water the size of Maryland. These days, more ruddy ducks seem to be among them. Recent sightings of this handsome, rust-colored bird — the males with a teal-blue beak — suggest ruddy ducks are moving farther northward.

Since the 1960s, biologists for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service have flown into the heart of the broad wetland in middle Alaska to count the ducks that have flown north to nest. Songbirds and ducks to which biologists have attached leg bands have shown up in 45 other states and 12 other countries over the years.

[The man who broke through the Northwest Passage]

Researchers first saw a ruddy duck nest in Yukon Flats in summer 2013. That was a big deal to biologists — the ducklings proved that at least one pair of ruddy ducks was producing new ducks in Yukon Flats. Typical range maps show the northern limit of ruddy ducks’ breeding range to be near Tetlin Lake in eastern Alaska, a few hundred miles south of Yukon Flats.

It may be time to re-draw those range maps. Last summer, Yukon Flats volunteer Michelle Lake spotted another ruddy duck female with three ducklings paddling in its wake. People have now seen at least four ruddy duck families in Yukon Flats in summer. In fall and winter, ruddy ducks live as far away as Central America and the Dominican Republic.

The lowlands of Yukon Flats National Wildlife Refuge. (Courtesy Photo | Bryce Lake)

The lowlands of Yukon Flats National Wildlife Refuge. (Courtesy Photo | Bryce Lake)

“It seems like this species has moved some of their breeding distribution northward,” said Yukon Flats biologist Bryce Lake, husband of Michelle Lake, a teacher at Effie Kokrine Charter School who volunteers with Yukon Flats in summer.

Yukon River ice at the village of Fort Yukon has trended toward earlier spring disappearance in recent decades. Ponds and lakes in Yukon Flats have followed the same pattern, perhaps creating an opportunity for water birds like ruddy ducks.

“The ice-free period is longer,” Bryce Lake said. “Habitat might be opening earlier now than it was 100 years ago.”

[For almost two months, this raven has survived with a blow dart in its head]

University of Alaska Fairbanks biologist Mark Lindberg and post-doctoral researcher Mark Miller found a trend toward farther-northern spring movement when they looked at duck surveys in North America from 1958 to 2012.

“Most every duck species we studied was shifting north,” Lindberg said.

In late July, 2019, Bryce and Michelle Lake will again fly into the buggy, birdy center of Yukon Flats. Sleeping in a tent on some high-ground islands, they will explore the flats with an inflatable boat for 10 days.

“It would not surprise us at all if we picked up another (ruddy duck) brood at one of our spots,” he said.

The Lakes do not expect to see many ruddy ducks. Though Yukon Flats is a vast, intact ecosystem for visiting birds, it is also a protected place for animals that eat them and their eggs.

“Nest survival on Yukon Flats is really low,” Lake said. “Wolves, bears, mink, foxes and gulls are all out there, searching for nests.”

• Since the late 1970s, the University of Alaska Fairbanks’ Geophysical Institute has provided this column free in cooperation with the UAF research community. Ned Rozell (ned.rozell@alaska.edu) is a science writer for the Geophysical Institute.

More in News

Jasmine Chavez, a crew member aboard the Quantum of the Seas cruise ship, waves to her family during a cell phone conversation after disembarking from the ship at Marine Park on May 10. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire file photo)
Ships in port for the week of May 25

Here’s what to expect this week.

Thunder Mountain High School graduates celebrate after moving their tassels to the left, their newly received diplomas in hand, at the end of Sunday’s commencement ceremony. (Jasz Garrett / Juneau Empire)
‘Forever a Falcon’: Thunder Mountain High School celebrates final graduating class

147 seniors get soaring sendoff during 16th annual commencement full of heightened emotions.

Seniors at Juneau-Douglas High School: Yadaa.at Kalé enter the gymnasium for their commencement ceremony on Sunday. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)
JDHS graduates celebrate journey from virtual ‘pajama class’ freshmen to virtuous camaraderie

Resolve in overcoming struggles a lifelong lesson for future, seniors told at commencement ceremony.

Sierra Guerro-Flores (right) listens to her advisor Electra Gardinier after being presented with her diploma at Yaaḵoosgé Daakahídi High School’s graduation ceremony Sunday in the Juneau-Douglas High School: Yadaa.at Kalé auditorium. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)
Alternatives are vast for Yaaḵoosgé Daakahídi High School’s graduating class

31 students take center stage during ceremony revisiting their paths at the school and what’s next.

The LeConte state ferry in 2023. (Lex Treinen / Chilkat Valley News)
Stranded Beerfest travelers scramble to rebook after LeConte ferry breakdown

Loss of 225-passenger ferry leaves many Juneau-bound revelers looking for other ways home.

A photo taken from the terminal roof shows the extent of the first phase of paving to accommodate large aircraft. (Mike Greene / City and Borough of Juneau)
Large-scale repaving project plants itself at Juneau International Airport

Work may take two to three years, schedule seeks to limit impact on operations.

Capital Transit buses wait to depart from the downtown transit center on Thursday. Route number 8 was adjusted this spring. (Jasz Garrett / Juneau Empire)
More service, visitor information helping Capital Transit to keep up with extra cruise passenger traffic

Remedies made after residents unable to board full buses last year seem to be working, officials say

(Michael Penn / Juneau Empire file photo)
Police calls for Thursday, May 23, 2024

This report contains public information from law enforcement and public safety agencies.

(Michael Penn / Juneau Empire file photo)
Police calls for Wednesday, May 22, 2024

This report contains public information from law enforcement and public safety agencies.

Most Read