Eiders

I’m resisting the seasonal temptation to do a post about Robins. The BBC Your pictures of Scotland page has a couple of nice Robin images and we’ve some lovely Robin cards, but I’m going to keep my stock back for a future occasion. Instead, I’d like to look back in this short post to images made in May, a warmer time of year, even on the west coast. The winter connection arises from my first sightings of Eiders or I should say, hearings. The breeding call of the male Eider, commonly rendered as yar-oooo, begins to be sounded in the winter – once heard, never forgotten.

But my best sightings and photographic opportunities have occurred in the spring and summer months when the birds are close to the shore with young. I’m posting images from Troon (May), Cardross (June) and Stevenston (June). Ducklings in general are such a worry but the Eiders seem to make very promising crèching arrangements with good numbers of adult birds around the young ones. A walk from Ardmore Point to Cardross disturbed one of these groups (four young, three females and three males) which moved smoothly away from the tideline across a mussel bed.

My shallow dives into the literature tell me that there can be conflict between commercial shellfish producers and Eiders (great consumers of mussels). I’ve one image (from Montrose) of a female about to swallow a large shelled mollusc whole. The avian gizzard is a thing of mystery and wonder.

At Troon, the family group or crèche was extremely close inshore, near the old Lido; I lay on top of the sea wall in sniper position, shooting away while the young practised their Eider repertoire. I don’t think these images require much comment from me apart from an expression of my enthusiasm for their spectacular plumage.

Both sexes are beautifully marked and I can’t think of any other species which displays that strange shade of green found on the back of the drake’s neck. I think I’ve got the colour right but I prefer a dark print because the texture in the white feathers becomes visible. The water droplets also look more interesting when the image is slightly underexposed – there is a gradient of tone across them which I like. I found some really nice images at Birdfact and I think we have the same shade of green.

The image from Stevenston seems to contain a group of females but I thought there were significant differences in the sizes of the individuals, and in the patterns of white on the wing feathers. This suggests that some of them might have been juveniles; could there have been time for a brood to have grown to such a size? Perhaps someone will put me right. It seems that male Eiders take a few years to develop their spectacular formal dress.

Eiders seem to be very well studied by ecologists – I would definitely pick something big and easy to see and count if I was interested in populations (so definitely not little brown jobs). I found Vital rate estimates for the common eider Somateria mollissima, a data-rich exemplar of the seaduck tribe and I attempted to read it only to be confounded by the statistical nature of the analysis (I failed statistics in my first year at university, just can’t do it). I was hoping it would tell me how many young Eiders need to be produced every year per breeding pair to ensure a healthy population but I couldn’t find what I was looking for, alas. Eiders are monogamous and long-lived. Once the trains start up again, I’ll be back to the seaside listening out for yar-oooo…

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