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Paul Smith: Eiders at Green Head

Ice drives the migration of eider ducks.
The 2017 pack ice at Green Head. I expect it again later this week.

What’s with this relentless northeast wind? I’ve been doing manual labour outside for the past couple of days and needless to say, I have colour in my cheeks. The temperatures are on the mild side I would think, for early March in Newfoundland, but with 70-km/h howling wind off Conception Bay, let’s just say the mosquitos weren’t a bother. And there’s no merino wool base layer too much for that biting damp air. This is not dry Labrador West bitter cold, but it bloody well bites deep to the bone. Long hours outside can wear you down. You have to be tough to live here.

Eider ducks along the Great Northern Peninsula. — Paul Smith photo
Eider ducks along the Great Northern Peninsula. — Paul Smith photo

Until this afternoon I have never seen eider ducks in Spaniard’s Bay Harbour. My father told me stories from years gone by but in all the years I’ve lived here, not an eider feather have I laid eyes upon. I’m constructing a two-storey building close to the ocean, a living quarters above a garage. So, I will be able to tie flies by my wood-burning stove, while gazing out over the sea. I was on the second storey this afternoon framing and nailing.  My fingers were not toasty.

Taking a break and looking through a window opening with no actual frame or glass, I saw a commotion on the water down towards Green Head. I figured ducks, but that’s no surprise because waterfowl are very common. There are black ducks flying and swimming around all the time, but these were true divers, not puddle ducks trying to adapt to the ocean. No, only divers could frisk up enough spray to notice at 400-yards in four-foot-high ocean swell.

Wow, I’ve lived in Spaniard’s Bay all my life and March 6, 2018, my first sighting of eider ducks in the harbour. Eiders hold a special place in my heart, a noble bird of northern heritage, wild and elusive to the core. You won’t be feeding any bread scrapes to these critters in a municipal park.

With just my naked eyes I could see white. That ruled out blacks or mallards, without factoring in frolicking intensity in the surf. I guessed goldeneyes. They hang around these parts most winters. No, too big, and not behaving like goldeneyes, or scaups either, the other diving duck with white plumage common in Spaniard’s Bay. Could it be?

I went down the scaffold and fetched my binoculars from the trunk box on my quad. Back up to the second floor I scurried enthusiastically. It’s odd and interesting how excitement can turn up your thermostat and increase blood flow. The cold in my extremities had vanished. To steady my gaze, I rested my elbows on the wooden 2-by-6 ledge of what will be a kitchen window.

Chemically coated glass arranged in a fashion to magnify confirmed my naked eye suspicion. Sure enough, there they were, right off the jagged grey rocks at the base of Green Head, about a hundred eiders, a mix of ducks and drakes.

Wow, I’ve lived in Spaniard’s Bay all my life and March 6, 2018, my first sighting of eider ducks in the harbour. Eiders hold a special place in my heart, a noble bird of northern heritage, wild and elusive to the core. You won’t be feeding any bread scraps to these critters in a municipal park.

Last year's ice brought plenty of ducks, but no eiders. — Paul Smith
Last year's ice brought plenty of ducks, but no eiders. — Paul Smith

I have quite a hunting history with eiders, albeit decades ago. But in recent years I’m just an eider watcher. I think I might prefer shooting them with a camera nowadays. Actually, getting a wicked eider photograph is probably much more challenging than killing one with a gun. I might have a go with a telephoto lens in the morning. We will see how that goes. But I will tell a hunting tale or two from nearly 30 years ago.

My old buddy Clide Collins and I were cruising around Trinity Bay hunting opportunistically, murres, seals, or ducks, whatever swam or flew along. Off Skerwink Point, the headland that separates Port Rexton from Trinity East we spotted about 50 eiders on the water. It was snowing now, fairly thickly I should add, and eider ducks do not like to fly in low visibility. As the boat neared they dived underwater in preference to taking flight. This was a gift from the hunting gods. I twisted the throttle and the boat sped forward.

Clide and I stood in the boat and readied our shotguns, the engine silent. Eider ducks are not easy prey from a boat, and we really weren’t expecting duck for Sunday dinner tomorrow. As they surfaced we shot four ducks apiece, the limit in those days I believe. The remainder decided to fly upon surfacing, not liking the look of us heavily clad winter hunters. I believe we motored further out in the bay afterwards and shot some murres. It was a grand day hunting on the ocean.

It wasn’t always so easy shooting eider ducks. I remember another bitter cold day Clide and I spent hours crouched low and motionless in our boat. There were fair numbers of eiders flying and we had tied on to a big ice pan to conceal ourselves. I maneouvred us close and Clide hooked our grapnel into the ice. We hoped to get a shot on the wing as birds passed by. If memory serves we dropped two apiece out of one big company. Those were the grand old days of my winter ocean hunting, the 1980’s. I’d be on the water every decent Saturday.

I wonder why those eiders found their way to Spaniard’s Bay? I suppose it’s the arctic pack ice. I checked online and it’s jammed into the rocks all along the northeast coast of our fair island. And the final destination I guess is Conception Bay. Arctic ice is right at the mouth of the bay on my computer. I suppose ducks get pushed ahead of the ice flowing southwards from northern waters.  But there were no eiders here with last year’s ice. At least I didn’t see them. Oh well, they are very welcome to Green Head and Spaniard’s Bay. I hope they stick around for a while.

Paul Smith, a native of Spaniard’s Bay, fishes and wanders the outdoors at every opportunity. He can be contacted at flyfishtherock@hotmail.com  or follow him on twitter at @flyfishtherock

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