Male King Eiders (Somateria spectabilis) are spectacular ducks with contrasting black and white plumage, a misty blue head, greenish cheeks, pale salmon-coloured breast and a striking orange-yellow lobe above their red bill.
Breeding along the northern coastlines of North America, Greenland and Russia, with lower numbers in northern Scandinavia, the species is more likely to be encountered along the coasts of northwest Europe during winter. Nevertheless, in the Netherlands it remains a rare visitor with fewer than twenty records in the last 45 years. So, when one was reported this summer close to where I was birding, I headed out early to try to find it.
As the sun rose over the Wadden Sea a group of Common Eiders (Somateria mollissima), amongst which the King Eider had been seen, was present close to the shore. However, this search would not be that straightforward. The eiders, including the King Eider, were in their dull eclipse plumage, and finding him amongst the similarly coloured Common Eiders would require looking in detail. Good thing, I brought my ATX with the 115-mm objective module with me.
As I scanned through the group of ducks, I was looking for one small feature that would give away the presence of the King Eider: the ‘sails’. Unlike Common Eiders, adult King Eiders have two small triangular fins (or ‘sails’) on their back. Most of the eiders were hunched up with their head tucked tightly under their wings, so this was one of the few features visible.
The breeze lifted feathers on the backs of the eiders that turned away from the wind giving the brief impression of ‘sails’. However, one bird stuck out due to a distinct thorn shape of its ‘sails’. I looked closer with my ATX with the 115-mm objective module and could see the top of the yellow lobe peeking out from between the wings.
Now faded and shrunken, the lobe matched the subdued plumage of the bird that seemed to be content hiding amongst the Common Eiders.
Assuming this individual will stay in the area, I’ll try and find him again in autumn when he should again have moulted into his more recognisable breeding plumage.
Mark Collier is an ecologist and dedicated birder. Born in 1976, this British ornithologist loves the outdoors, nature, photography, digiscoping, hiking, climbing, and – of course – birding. His beloved pastime brings him both peace & relaxation as well as excitement & fascination.