Sunday, March 24, 2013

Beautiful King Eider

This weekend I was fortunate to be able to find and photograph a king eider, not once, but twice!   The king eider is a rare visitor to Massachusetts.   Hailing from the arctic, king eiders will occasionally winter in the coastal waters of New England.  

This male king eider is extraordinary, because he regularly comes close to shore, while most of his brethren usually stay hundreds of yards or more from the coastline.   He doesn't seem to mind small crowds of birders and photographers who gawk at him and hundreds of his cousins, the common eider.

The king eider looks distinctly different from the common eider, which should make him easy to spot.   However, he keeps a very low profile while swimming among the hundreds of common eiders.   He is nearly impossible to spot without the aid of binoculars, even though he is often within fifty feet of the shoreline.   This duck is crafty and unpredictable.   He seemingly hides behind the other eiders and frequently changes directions.   All of the other eiders seemingly swim in the same direction, rarely changing their order.   The king eider darts in and out of groups and often tries to make a positive impression with ladies.   The ladies however usually rebuff him and chase him off.

On both days, it was a group effort to keep track of him.   There were as many as ten people trying to keep an eye on him and he would regular baffle all of us at the same time.   His telltale grey head, reddish orange beak, yellow bulbous forehead and nearly all black back distinguish him from the male common eiders.   He looks to be smaller than the common eiders, but I think that he is purposely keeping a low profile.   A few time he craned his neck up to get a look a round.  At those times, he seemed to be the same size as his common brethren.

This drake seems to be very interested in finding a mate.   Most of the females do not seem to be interested in him.   Although one seemed to take a liking to him for a few minutes.   I wonder if the two of them could actually have children.   I think it is likely, based on all of the strange cross breeds that show up in the birding world.   It doesn't seem to be too much of a stretch for one type of eider to be able to successfully mate with another.

This eider's colors seem to be a bit on the pale side compared to photographs that I have seen of other male king eiders in full breeding plumage.   I have two uneducated guesses about that.   First is that he may be a bit on the young side.   Maybe it is his first breeding year and he hasn't fully developed his plumage yet.   The bulb on the front of his head does not seem to be very large compared to photos that I have seen of other eiders.   The bulb is supposed to be quite large on male king eiders in full breeding plumage.

My second theory is that it is still early for king eider to mate.   He may not be displaying his full plumage yet, but maybe it will develop even more in the near future.   An ornithologist with much more knowledge about the breeding habits of king eiders than I have, would probably have a lot more to say about this.   I can only guess and wonder.

Photographing this rare bird was a lot of fun.   I get a kick out of finding uncommon birds.   I am not sure why.   I think it is a lot like collecting a rare baseball card or stamp.   Their rarity provides a little sense of adventure and excitement.  

Being out in early spring with such beautiful weather can't be beat.   Particularly after a long winter.   Visiting this king eider was a fantastic way to spend the weekend!

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