King Eiders – Clowns of the Arctic Bird Kingdom

    Text and photos by Malkolm Boothroyd

    A pair of King Eiders floats on one of Coats Island’s tundra ponds. Eiders form pairs in their wintering territory, and stay together until females begin incubation.

    I freeze mid-stride. For a moment I teeter, then gently lower my foot. My hiking boot comes to rest among tundra grasses that shiver in the polar wind. only steps ahead a King Eider lies hunched over her nest. her cryptically patterned feathers blend into the russet and golden foliage so well she is almost invisible. Gingerly I back away. For a second my gaze flickers away from the bird. When I look back, she’s vanished into the tundra.

    I hike on through the tussocks. I am in Nunavut for the first time in my life, working as a field assistant on a shorebird study on Coats Island — on the northern margin of Hudson Bay. I share a cramped hut with three other researchers, the only other humans on an uninhabited island the size of Prince Edward Island.

    A King Eider drake shakes his wings out.
    A King Eider drake
    shakes his wings out.

    A month in the Arctic has taught me more about camouflage than any biology textbook could have. Ptarmigan and foxes transform from white to brown as the snows recede from the landscape. Plovers lay eggs that perfectly match the lichens and gravel that pattern the Arctic heath. In the convoluted refractions of Arctic light, even a 400-kilogram polar bear can resemble a caribou, a boulder or a snow patch at a distance. But few animals rely on concealment more than female King Eiders. Incubating eiders are literally sitting ducks. Camouflage is their only defence against the Arctic foxes that comb the tundra in search of a meal.

    I need a meal too. My job involves hiking 20 or more kilometres each day in search of plover and sandpiper nests. After eight hours on my feet, I’m starved. I trudge back to our camp and join my companions in our cooking tent. After dinner I collect my camera and creep towards a nearby pond. Four ducks float on the water. White and black plumage pattern their wings and chests. Green and steely blue feathers decorate their faces. Their bulbous beaks glow in the evening sunlight with the intensity of hot embers. King Eider drakes are the polar opposites of their mates — seemingly designed to blend in at the Cirque de Soleil, not among the subdued colours of the tundra.

    The sun has been up for close to 20 hours, but I barely feel its warmth. All summer the temperature on Coats Island had hovered within a few degrees of freezing. For every day of sun, we endure three or four days where fog shrouds the tundra and wind blasts our camp. Only a few dozen bird species can cope with the extremities of the Nunavut summer. Most take flight from the impending winter, some migrating as far south as Panama, Costa Rica or even Argentina. But as the Arctic freezes over, King Eiders stay in the North. Eiders over winter off the coasts of Labrador and Greenland, congregating in leads of open water along the jagged frontier of the pack ice. Throughout the winter eiders dive into the ocean’s frigid depths, snapping up invertebrates off the sea floor.

    A King Eider drake takes flight. King Eiders are among the world’s heaviest ducks, some weighing up to two kilograms.
    A King Eider drake takes flight. King Eiders are among the world’s heaviest ducks, some weighing up to two kilograms.

    Tonight, these eiders seem content in temperatures that have me shivering, even under multiple layers of nylon and fleece. Eider down — among the warmest fibres on earth — keep these birds comfortable. I rely on a down parka and sleeping bag to keep me from freezing. Maybe that represents copyright infringement on millennia of evolution by King Eiders. If mimicking the adaptations of Arctic species means surviving a summer on Coats Island, then mimicking was worthwhile. Otherwise I’d never had the chance to witness first hand the camouflage and flamboyance that defines King Eiders, or the countless other phenomena that makes Arctic life so spellbinding.

    Malkolm Boothroyd grew up in Whitehorse, yukon. He is a photographer and Environmental Studies student at the university of Victoria.

    Thanks to Grant Gilchrist for help with fact checking.