Katie Bernashe '20 began her summer the way she enjoyed her junior year with the swim team, surrounded by water.

A month-long, early summer journey took Bernashe 4,000 miles away to Finland, where she would research, study and document the traits, behaviors, and habitat of the species Somateria Mollissima, otherwise known as the Common Eider (a large sea-duck).

Bernashe’s opportunity for this expedition came about thanks to Colby-Sawyer Professor of Natural and Environmental Science Ben Steele, who has been making the trek to Finland for many summers. As a biology major, Bernashe could not pass up this chance for an experience of a lifetime while also completing a Capstone research project, which is a requirement to graduate and is the culmination of the academic experience at Colby-Sawyer.

An adult sea duck looks for food along a rocky shoreline.

Professor Steele and Bernashe, along with six other researchers, were posted at the Tvärminne Zoological Station, which is approximately 70 miles west of the Finland capital city of Helsinki. The Station is part of the University of Helsinki and is the home base for many projects for a variety of researchers.

“I’m so thankful to Ben for offering me this opportunity,” said Bernashe. “This was my first time out of the country, so I really didn’t know what to expect, but everyone I met was so welcoming and nice.”

Professor Steele, Bernashe, and the rest of the team were tasked to investigate the causes of the declining population of the Common Eider in the Baltic Sea.

“The study area covered over ten different islands in the archipelago. Members of the team searched every island try to catch as many females as they could that were incubating. Once they caught the female, they would take vitals and other important information (weight, length, and blood samples), and mark the nest location on a GPS for me and Ben to locate once the eggs were expected to hatch.”

Bernashe and Professor Steele documented over 250 ducklings from over 50 nests. The team logged data from the late stages of incubation through the hatching of the ducklings, including measurements, and blood and tail feather samples.

A sea duck carries an egg in its beak on a rocky shoreline.

In addition to the examination of the hatching process, Bernashe was also tasked to research the survival of the ducklings based upon how well the nests were hidden/covered and ease of access by prey.

She set up trail cameras on a multitude of nesting sites for photographic evidence of the predation rates.

“Katie did a great job with all aspects of the research, from accurately measuring ducklings to jumping off the boat and securely tying it to a tree,” said Professor Steele. “She was efficient and the motion detection cameras that she deployed gave us lots of new insight into the predators that prey on adult ducks and eggs. We worked seven days a week in all weather, with ticks and mosquitos and Katie embraced everything. I think it was a great experience for her, not only seeing research in ecology in action, but experiencing different languages, different cultures, and different food. Overall it was a very successful field season.”

“Overall this was an incredible experience, and all the individuals I met and worked with had different ethics and backgrounds, so I thought it was really neat working with all of them,” said Bernashe. “This was an amazing opportunity and I would go back and do it again in a heartbeat.”

Despite the fact that Steele has recently retired from teaching at Colby-Sawyer, his passion for bird conservation continues and plans to continue dedicating some summertime research in Finland.