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The King of Eiders

Posted by Brydon Thomason on Sunday 27th February 2011 | Birding in Shetland

King Eider drake

A memorable day indeed and a very welcome find back in March 2006. A pristine drake in his full and exquisite breeding attire.

There can be few species of bird (let alone sea duck) as exquisite in appearance as a drake King Eider. It is hard to find a word that describes just how strikingly ornate the head and bill pattern is on a fully mature adult but I guess with the title of King enough is said. It is indeed rather apt that their Latin name, spectabillis means remarkable!

King Eiders have a largely circumpolar breeding range and are quite common throughout various regions of the high Arctic. In Britain they are regarded as a ‘national rarity’ with their having been somewhere in the region of 200 plus records of the species in the whole country. It was first added to the British list in 1832. Perhaps not surprisingly and like so many other species of Arctic vagrant to reach Britain, Shetland alone has hosted at least half of these.

Eiders in action.

Eiders in action, the tightly bunched flock race across the water’s surface as a small boat cruises past.

Historically Kings have regularly occurred throughout the isles and typically found associating with the local Eider flocks as singles and even occasionally multiples. Their beautiful pale, frosty- blue crowns, clown like eye make-up and bulbous orangey-yellow bill shield atop of the red bill are usually easily picked out amidst even a large flock of our local Dunters (the Shetland name for Eider). Structurally they are usually obviously smaller and a little more compact too by comparison.

Female King Eider.

Female King Eider. A much more subtle bird indeed, this ‘Queen’ spent just a couple days amongst the Bluemull Sound winter flock in November 2008.

Immature drakes and females are however quite a different matter. To the untrained eye any of these plumages will very often blend in amongst a Dunter flock without a second glance. Females are what could be compared and referred to as ‘little brown jobs’, although that is really a descriptive term for small featureless brown warblers, pipits, buntings and so on.

They are of course every bit as adorable to me, so cute and compact in appearance with such subtle features. With experience though these subtleties can become quite striking and are the very reason they stand out, if that makes sense! A small brown, seemingly featureless duck may seem challenging to pick out amongst the very similarly plumaged local females.

Female King Eider.

‘Queen’ Eiders have been known to spend as long as six days on the nest without leaving and will scarcely feed during the 22-24 day incubation period.

A combination of these features do however create a surprisingly distinct appearance; smaller and more compact overall size and structure, shorter and neater black bill which runs up onto a much less angular head profile, a ‘teddy bear’ like eye which shows a slight ‘tear drop’ line falling away behind and also a ‘grinning’ line which runs back a little from the closed gape. These latter two features especially combine to show a very cute but actually rather sad facial expression. The feathering also runs further down from the forehead onto the bill than on our Eiders.

In addition to these features are two others which can sometimes be just that little bit harder to see; the black flank barring forms arrow head like chevrons as opposed to the straighter and more vertical bars on a female Eiders flanks, they also have feather formations that appear on their back which are often raised creating tiny ‘sails’ which occasionally stand up like little dorsal fins but these are never as prominent as on a drake.

1st Winter King Eider.

Interestingly for a sea duck, King Eiders are known to migrate overland in some populations and have been known to reach altitudes of up to 1,000m. I wonder where this young fellow was hatched?

Immature and sub-adult plumages of King Eider can be just as subtle, especially on a first winter bird. This is exactly the plumage I found one in in mid-February amongst the Eiders on Bluemull Sound, my favourite and premier winter birding site. The ‘young Elvis’ (“ah- hu hu”) was amongst a flock of around 150-200 Dunters, (less than quarter of the wintering flock there) and is actually the second of this age to be seen in Shetland this winter. Similar to the structural differences described in females, to me he was quite easy to pick out but it was his orangey yellow bill tones and compact shape that made him immediately identifiable.

Some have described this plumage of King as grotty or drab but although I can see why, I couldn’t disagree more, finding the little fellow made my day! This young King was actually the ninth King Eider I have ever found in Shetland, having previously found two females, two first winter drakes and four adult drakes (all were single birds amongst Eider flocks). And indeed a couple of these were known to be annual returnees for a couple of winters. I have also been fortunate to enjoy many others over the years in Shetland.

King Eider and Northern Eider.

The first winter plumaged King huddles together amongst the melee of Dunters, the adult drake behind the two centre females is presumed to be of the ‘Northern’ form borealis. A novelty shot to have them both in the frame (note his tiny pert white ‘sails’ on his back and brightly coloured bill).

Searching for this and indeed other rare forms of Eider is undoubtedly one of my main winter birding motivations. One of these forms, regarded as subspecies or race, is Borealis or ‘Northern Eider’ (as they are also known) which are thought to hail from Nearctic regions. Several of these have also brought me much joy in their discoveries amongst their local cousins but as is the case with so many subspecies their identity, taxonomy and origin are still under discussion. And finally there is the one that all birders dream of finding (yes that’s right and quite often too), Steller’s Eider! Oh how I hope I can write a finders account for one of those, someday…

1st winter King Eider, Bluemull Sound, 3rd March 2011.

*Update* What a difference a bit of light makes! A more recent image taken on 3rd March…