King eider’s unusual appearance stands out

Posted April 17, 2009, at 7:10 p.m.

The recent sightings of a king eider drake off Pine Point in Scarborough led me to try for my own sighting of this bird. Alas, it was not meant to be — something always kept me from getting to the area near high tide.

Just the knowledge of this bird’s presence off the coast of Maine was excitement enough, though. Its image conjures the bleak, wild landscape of its breeding grounds — the high arctic. I imagine choppy, gunmetal-gray northern waters ringed with sea ice, while in the distance the high-arctic islands beckon, adding their own hint of mysterious vastness and little-known diversity to the tableau.

The king eider has often been seen amidst a huge raft of common eiders — at times numbering more than 1,000 birds, according to one observer — that has been hanging around the mouth of the Scarborough River.

“There were hundreds of eiders as far as I could see. I have seen flocks that big only a few times,” a contributor, Charlie, wrote to the MaineBirding.net e-list.

He added that at one point, “The whole flock took off. It looked like, I don’t know, the plains of the Serengeti on National Geographic. Nothing but black and white wings and splashing feet.”

Charlie said finding the king eider among all those common eiders was like “finding a needle in a haystack.”

However, once found the king eider sticks out like a sore thumb, due in large part to its outlandish appearance — which is almost as noticeable as the clownish look of an Atlantic puffin but more elegant.

Although its bill is smaller than that of a puffin — or even of a common eider — it is still a shocking red in the male of the species. But that’s not its most noticeable characteristic; the area just above the bill is a large, bulbous shape called the “frontal lobe” that is golden-orange and outlined in black. As well, the “Birds of North America” species account describes its “forehead, crown and nape” as “pearl blue” in color, and its cheeks as “iridescent pale green.”

The female king eider duck is similar to a female common eider, but its plumage is a deeper reddish brown with a distinctive “scalloping” pattern to its feathers. The bill is also smaller and shaped normally — lacking the large “frontal lobe” of the male, as well as the characteristic sloping extension from the forehead seen in common eiders.

According to the BNA, there are two distinct wintering grounds of king eiders. The western wintering birds are found along the coast of Alaska in the Bering Sea; eastern groups are found off the coasts of Labrador, Newfoundland, and the northeastern United States. Individual birds are sometimes found as far south as coastal Virginia in the East, and off the central California coast in the West.

Here in Maine king eiders have been seen from Cobscook Bay to Ogunquit. Most sightings occur in winter, but last summer one of these birds was seen off Eastport during the months of June and July.

King eiders migrate to their breeding grounds on the high Arctic tundra in early spring — March and April — and depart breeding and molting grounds in late fall, around October or November. They may travel up to 5,000 kilometers (more than 3,000 miles) each year.

Females nest inland at varying distances from the coast in marshy areas or near bodies of fresh water. Their main predators appear to be arctic foxes, especially during years when lemming populations are low. During these times fox predation on king eider eggs “may cause almost complete reproductive failure,” according to the BNA.

I wondered about the fate of the king eider so far from its breeding range. It seems to be high time for the bird to depart; it must be gaining a huge advantage from continuing to remain down at Pine Point. Judging by the large numbers of common eiders, perhaps the area is particularly bountiful this year, and the bird is fueling up for its trip north.

If it hangs around just a little while longer, perhaps I’ll get to see it yet.

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