Eiders galore

Bruce Mactavish
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Apologies for the missing bird column last week. It was unintentional. Something happened after I emailed the column away on Tuesday morning that is not readily explainable. It should not happen again.

The emails, phone calls, and the conversations over the weekend surprised me a little at how much people missed their weekend bird column.

This is good to know.

 I was asked if I wanted to use the missing column for this week but no way. That was old news. Something new happens every week. If anyone wants to read last week’s column I can send them a copy if they send me their email address.  

In my 20s I was a duck hunter. I used to hunt eider ducks in the winter on the Great Northern Peninsula. Many times I walked out to headland before daylight to shelter in a structure made of rocks piled up called a gaze.

 My ducks per hour of effort was far less than one, but it was the act of trying to outsmart the eider that made it a challenging past time.

Newfoundland eiders are smart birds. The generations of eider ducks have learned to be wary of the hunter.

During those years, I learned a tremendous amount about the habits and intuition of the eider duck. It seemed as though they always had a mindful advantage.

For the last number of decades I’ve been shooting birds with a camera. Now it is open season on all birds all year long. But the eiders have always remained that sweet challenge.

They still taunt me. They do their best to elude my lens, and they do a good job.

During good ice years, large numbers of eiders are forced south to the Avalon Peninsula. This was a fairly heavy ice year though prevailing offshore winds did keep some of the good eider locations on the northeast coast ice free. It took a while, but finally a big flock of eiders found Cape Spear.

In spring, eiders are drawn to each other anyway. There is that new interest in the opposite sex that grows with the lengthening days.

Spring congregations numbering in the thousands are not uncommon. At one point last weekend there was an estimated 5,000 eiders off Cape Spear. The flock looked like a new island had formed off the Cape. Such a large flock is very wary of people. On Saturday with lots of visitors to the cape for a walk in the pleasant afternoon weather, the eiders kept a kilometre or two offshore. I saw my chance for Sunday morning.

Remembering my eider hunting skills, I knew I wanted to be in position with my camera about 30 minutes before sunrise. I had to wait for a little bit of light just so I could see where I wanted to go down on the rocks at the tip of the Cape. There was no ocean swell allowing me to get as close to the water’s edge as I wanted.

I found my crevice in the rocks sheltered from the brisk north breeze and mostly hidden from view from the water. Eiders sometimes feed just off the tip of Cape Spear and they often fly close by here.

I was in a good spot. I waited.

Eiders started flying in from the north and south. They were collecting on the water about one kilometre off shore.

Too far for the camera, but close enough for a good view through my telescope.

The birds were about half drakes. Their black and white plumage was looking smart in the cold morning light. I could not hear them but I knew there was lots of talking going on.

I could imagine hearing the mournful crooning of the drakes above the general murmuring of the flock.

The birds were never motionless, but continually moving, bumping into one another, jostling for their place in the flock that was flowing and changing shape like an amoeba.

Then they start diving in unison until half the flock is underwater. After a minute they start popping up within the flock structure. A small flock of gulls wheeled over their heads trying to steal a mussel or sea urchin the eiders did not swallow on their way back to the surface.

The yellowish bills of the drakes came to a narrow point on the forehead marking them as the race of common eider that nests in the Arctic.

A few have greener bills with a blunt point on the forehead meaning they must be Labrador nesting birds.

True to the birding spirit, I am looking for the uncommon king eider and there are some!

The drakes are stunning birds with a brilliant pumpkin-orange bill shield and a powder blue head.

No artistic genius could have come up with the design and colour combinations of the drake king eider. It is one of the most sought after birds by photographers around the world. Too far for the camera now I soak in the views through the telescope. There are several of them in the flock. This is a good day I say to myself but I still do not have any pictures.

My dream of having the whole flock of eiders come into the point and start feeding did not happen this time.

The eiders were jumpy. An Air Canada jet flew over flushing the wily eiders.

Early Sunday morning walkers started showing up. An offshore helicopter went over creating a panic and flushing the whole lot at once creating a very impressive sight.

My three and half hours crouched in my comfy rock crevice did not go wasted. With the eiders being roused up by aircraft and shifting about I ended up getting some exceptional opportunities for flight shots. The north wind was right for angling them close past my position near the tip of the point. It would have been a gunner’s dream. The ducks had no idea I was staring them in the face as they passed in spectacular flocks. They were flying by so close it seemed illegal.

The heavy overcast light and fast moving birds was a challenging combination for the camera. The photographers out there will know what it means to crank the camera up to ISO 2000 to gain enough shutter speed to freeze the eiders barreling through the cold sea air. Even with that advantage only a small percentage of the hundreds of photographs were in half decent focus.

Overall it was an exhilarating eider experience. There is always a silver lining to the bad weather if you can find it.

Bruce Mactavish is an environmental

consultant and avid birdwatcher. He can be reached at wingingitone@yahoo.ca,

or by phone at 722-0088.

Organizations: Air Canada

Geographic location: Newfoundland, Arctic

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