Eider, At Our Fingertips
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One of the bird species that I badly wanted to photograph while in Svalbard was the Common Eider. These are very large ducks that make their summer home on the archipelago. In winter they migrate south and can be found along the northeastern coast of the United States, invariably in salt water. We would see them on numerous occasions but they proved to be shy, elusive, and difficult to photograph.
However, on our final day in Svalbard, we walked to the outskirts of town, the location of a large sled dog kennel. And, there, to our surprise, we found hundreds of eider, both male and female. Nearly all of the females had built nests on the ground, right out in the open and sometimes within inches of where we stood and walked. They seemed indifferent to our presence. Males wandered around among the brooding females, still trying to attract their attention. A male would puff up his chest, arch his neck, tilt his head upwards and emit an eerie high-pitched breeding call that sounded like: “ooo-wool!” The females were utterly indifferent to the males’ pleas.
I also photographed a male showing off for the ladies with the more traditional wing-flapping behavior that nearly all ducks exhibit.
The females, for the most part, remained glued to their nests, but I’d occasionally see a female get up, walk around, and stretch her wings before returning to the nest.
Eider used to be hunted for their fine down, which was used to make comforters and to stuff pillows. Fortunately for the eider, synthetics were created that are much cheaper than eiderdown.
So, why were these birds hanging out on the outskirts of Longyearbyen, allowing by-passers to walk within inches? The answer lies in a nearby sled dog kennel. The birds’ natural enemy is the Arctic Fox. Foxes raid nests for eggs and young. But, foxes, evidently, are fearful of sled dogs and stay away from kennel operations. Somehow, the eider figured this out and had appropriated the margins of the sled dog kennel as a breeding ground.
Images made with a Canon 5Diii, 400 DO, aperture preferred setting, ISO 800, f7.1. Shutter speeds varied.