Eider down, and up, and down again

Eider drake Amble, May 2015

Eider drake
Amble, May 2015

Something that occasionally strikes me is how the habitats of different animals have changed over the 30-odd years I’ve been watching wildlife.

There are obvious ones, like the urbanisation and recovery of Peregrine Falcons. But another is the way birds that existed primarily on open seas and shores have also moved into coastal towns.

A good example is the Eider, a sea duck I used to only spot bobbing up and down and splashing about in little flotillas off the coast in places like Scotland and Northumberland. Their feathers used to be (still are) used to stuff pillows and duvets, leading to ‘Eiderdown’ becoming a word for a quilt/duvet, even when it’s not truly filled with eider feathers.

Eider duck Amble, May 2015

Eider duck
Amble, May 2015

In both Alnmouth and Amble though, I noticed they had moved not just into estuary mouths, but happily down the river and into the harbour.

Eiders are a bird of contrast. There is the contrast between the striking males and the cryptically brown females. There is the contrast in the male’s plumage between black and white (not forgetting that green feathery mane).

Eider drake Amble, May 2015

Eider drake
Amble, May 2015

Then there is the contrast between their appearance, striking and severe, and their voice. Because for a serious looking bird they make one of the quite frankly silliest sounds of any British animal. The male pulls his head back, and as he tilts it back and pushes it back out, unveils a querying “ooooh?”

The best comparison I can draw, and it’s one that only readers of a certain age range and nationality will get, is that if Frankie Howerd was a bird, this is the noise he would make. You can hear a recording HERE

At Amble, this was taken to an extreme, because a small group of males followed a couple of females into a small square harbour. The effect of the tall stone walls was that of an amplification chamber, raising the volume of the call. Sadly I didn’t make a recording myself, I was too busy laughing. But Chris Watson happens to have recorded a four minute video recording them in the very same place. You can watch it on the BBC website.

There’s also a BBC Radio 4 Tweet of the Day dedicated to the Eider.

Juvenile Eider It takes three years to reach maturity

Juvenile Eider
It takes three years to reach maturity

They have clearly become quite tame in these areas, used to people and expectant of feeding. Stand at the harbour wall and they will swim up to you, looking up hopefully. I’ve seen the same thing with Goosander in places like Kendal. It’s great for getting to see these lovely birds, but a little bit of me is saddened by the erosion of wilderness it represents.

This entry was posted in Birds, Ethology, Why watch wildlife? and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Eider down, and up, and down again

  1. Emily Scott says:

    The Frankie Howerd comparison made me smile 🙂

    • David says:

      There was a suggestion on twitter that they also sounded sarcastic, and needed to be holding a little handbag up in front of themselves.

I welcome thoughts, comments and questions, so please feel free to share anything at all. Thanks, David

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