On a hot Wednesday morning, a group enters the sunlit grove searching for birds. Tucked away amid the dense layer of trees, wooden boxes shelter Goldeneye hens and their green speckled eggs covered in fluffy feathers. This time of the season, the eggs are hatching.

Alaska biologists are monitoring wild common goldeneye ducks in the Chena River State Recreation Area. The project started in 1994 to determine whether ducks would use artificial nesting boxes. Almost 25 years later, biologists — this year, Riley Porter and Fiona Bruce — inspect 150 boxes, checking up on how the ducks are doing and how far along their eggs are.

Besides helping biologists understand duck populations better, the project also helps graduate students practice research and the public learn about wetland management and waterfowl birds on the spot, said project leader Eric Taylor, who is also the division chief of migratory birds for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

“We often see families out there fishing and we will ask the family, ‘Do you want to see a duck in a box? Or do you want to see some eggs? You can actually hold the egg up to the sun and you see the duckling inside!’” Taylor said. “The kids get a hoot out of it, and, of course, there’s hardly anything cuter than a duckling.”

Common goldeneyes are sea ducks that, instead of nesting on the ground, nest in tree cavities made by woodpeckers or holes left from falling branches. The cavities are hard to come by in the Interior, so when the goldeneyes do find a hole in a box or a tree, that’s where they nest. Some of the cavities and boxes can be more than 50 yards from the river and not even facing the water, but the ducks are still able to find them, said Dane Happ, the former park ranger for the Chena River State Recreation Area.

Observing the ducks

On Wednesday, Porter and Bruce lead the group on a quiet walk in the grove, sneaking up on the hens. One of them carries a long stick with a soft attachment that goes into the hole of the box to stop the bird from flushing. They take out each bird to take measurements. Next, they examine the eggs.

In one of the boxes, biologists find 10 green and warm eggs covered with down feathers the mom plucked out to keep things comfortable and safe. For the past 28 days, that’s where the bird spent most of her time. Most of the boxes on the trail have about 10 eggs, but sometimes other birds coming down the river lay their eggs in someone else’s boxes.

“One day, we found 19 ducklings in one of the boxes,” Bruce said.

Unfortunately, not every hatching survives — squirrels might predate the boxes and eggs might turn infertil, Bruce explained. But when the ducklings hatch, they are very quick to develop and leave the nest. The hen shows the ducklings how to feed and once that happens, they do everything themselves.

“These guys, 24 hours after they hatch from their eggs, they are jumping out of the box and following mom around for the next couple of weeks,” Porter said.

Next year, a lot of the ducks will return to the same nest. One of them has come back to her spot for 13 years in a row, Porter said. Ducklings usually return too, flying to the same area and finding a new nest.

Understanding goldeneyes

Since biologists started putting up artificial nesting boxes, the birds have responded.

“We certainly have seen the local population increase,” said Taylor, who has been running the project for about 20 years. “Out of 150 boxes, the first year we maybe had 30 occupied. Right now, at least 80 boxes are occupied with common goldeneyes.”

Birds also seem to be nesting earlier in a season. Before, the project would start in May with a few birds and boxes. Now, on April 15, 20 to 30 goldeneyes are starting to nest, Taylor said.

The long-term monitoring — funded by Ducks Unlimited, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Alaska Department of Natural Resources — allowed biologists to better understand the duck population. For 20 years, they have been tracking how long birds stay in a nest and when they take breaks to go to the river and eat a few bugs, how much ducks’ weight fluctuates during incubation and how often the young and adult ducks return to their nests.

Following ducks' schedule 

Monitoring ducks also provides training and research opportunities for graduate and undergraduate students. One of the project managers this year, Porter, just graduated with a degree in wildlife conservation and will use the project for his master’s degree. He said he always had interest in waterfowl, whether it’s hunting or wildlife research.

Bruce is a biological science technician who has worked on a variety of wildlife projects.

“Wildlife is really my passion,” she said. “And I’m really enjoying this project so far; I like birds a lot, and it’s a really good time in the summer.”

At the time when Porter and Bruce were tagging ducks, they would start their morning at 4:30 a.m., capturing birds from 6 to 11 a.m. and checking eggs after lunch. At this point in the season, they start at 7 a.m. and work all day until 10 p.m. — about 14 to 18 hours a day, seven days a week.

“We have so many eggs to process and ducklings to tag so we’re out all day. It’s our busiest time and seems like all our boxes seem to be hatching within this window,” Bruce said. “But we signed up for it, and it’s a lot of fun.”

Taylor said that students who have done this project in the past have gone on to become environmental attorneys and wildlife biologists.

Intense hours the project requires might have helped them become successful, Happ suggested.

“I honestly believe a lot of it is because of the work ethic that is needed to do this job,” he said. “These folks, they are on the ducks’ schedule.”

To learn more about the project, find out about volunteering opportunities or arrange a walk along with biologists for children or adults, contact Eric Taylor at eric_taylor@fws.gov or 907-903-7210.

Contact staff writer Alena Naiden at 459-7587. Follow her at twitter.com/FDNMlocal.