Common Eider Pair
With a name like Common Eider and the fact that it is one of the most common species found along Peaks Island’s shore one might think that this species is ‘common’ and rather uninteresting. On the contrary, this species is one of the most interesting and dynamic of all. Sometimes they form predictable, large groups – moving methodically among favorite foraging sites, and traveling out to sea for their nightly repose:
Common Eider Flock Going Out to Sea Photo © Patty Wainright
Other times they are completely unpredictable, both in their the comings and goings, and their flighty and capricious antics. Posturing and displaying males can already be seen – creating great dramas. Two pairs, for example, isolated themselves from the flock, as the males attempted to impress the females, by puffing their pinkish chests, and by looping about in their clownish ways (See also first photo in this blog):
Two Common Eider Pairs Photo © Patty Wainright
Backshore observations on January 1-3 showed an increase from 200 eiders seen in early December to more than 300. On the evening of January 3, before an overnight storm, these eiders went offshore in one giant flock. Early on January 4th only 200 eiders were seen:
Small Flock of Common Eiders Photo © Patty Wainright
Since, the turbulent seas and freezing rain made observations difficult in the morning, I returned at noon, after the weather calmed, in hopes of finding the missing 100 eiders. I found more than the 100 missing eiders - there were nearly 700. Two separate flocks of 300 and 400 were comfortably riding the swells, one at the Heart House at the end of Onway Ave, and the other flock where the South Shore meets and the Backshore. (Also noted were 35 Black Scoters foraging with the larger eider flock. Photo below.) From where did these extra 400 eiders come? Did this larger flock consist entirely of newcomers or were they mixed with our ‘resident’ eiders? Did the eiders choose Peaks Island voluntarily as a relatively safer haven in the storm, or were they blown here without choice by the storm?
Black Scoter Flock Photo © Patty Wainright
On January 5th, there was a strong wind advisory for the region. On Peaks Island the wind was blowing off the Backshore, flattening yesterday’s large waves close to shore, but not the white-capped seas further out. A large eider flock (400-500), perhaps a mixture of the two flocks seen yesterday, set off from the protected shore (near the Bicycle House) for their nightly rest at sea. How far would the eiders travel? Would they venture into those heavy seas far from shore, or stay closer to shore with less wind and wave action, but close enough to run the risk of being blown onto the rocks during a nightly storm? To my relief they stopped and spread out linearly at what appeared the interface between relatively calm waters and the ‘high’ seas. Thankfully, there were no weather surprises that night.
From January 6th - 8th approximately 300-400 eiders were seen (similar to the number observed before the storm of January 4-5):
Common Eider Flock Near Shore Photo © Patty Wainright
What happened to the larger flock that arrived after the storm? Did they partially mix with our resident flock? Did a large number leave at midday on January 4 when I observed a flock following a lead eider heading offshore?
Based on the above eider stories, one might believe they are the only avian star players off the Backshore. But there are many more. I looked for Buffleheads (white oval patch on side of black head and white breast) that Kathy observed in December. I finally got to see them the morning of the 8th after a minus 8-degree night. These 4 Buffleheads were pint-sized and demure birds as compared to the crowd of eiders nearby that were twice their size and 100 times more abundant. Without incident, the Buffleheads foraged along side the eiders. About this same time at Bush Terminal Park in Brooklyn, NY, my friend, Lisa Gauthier, observed more than 80 Buffleheads (see below photo and the striking irridescent head colors). Bufflehead winter grounds range from upper Nova Scotia (Cape Breton) to northern Florida seacoasts.
Male Bufflehead, Bush Terminal Park, Brooklyn NY Photo © Lisa Gauthier
Another great sighting after the storm was a small flock of 20-30 sandpipers where the South Shore meets the Backshore. After landing on the rocks, just above the breaking waves, and while they eagerly searched for invertebrate-crunchies, I was able to tentatively identify them as Purple Sandpipers (orange legs and base of bill, darkish-grey back and upper chest, and a slightly drooping bill). My husband, Sam, and I observed Purple Sandpipers on Rhode Island’s intertidal rocks in late December. In the winter Purple Sandpipers can be found on coastal waters from Labrador to North Carolina.
Purple Sandpiper Photo © Patty Wainright
The challenge to identify grebe-like birds continues. Most days two medium flocks of less than 50 birds, described as ‘round grey and white non-distinct puffballs’, were seen slightly offshore. Most of the time they were ‘sleeping’ (or keeping their faces warm) with their bills tucked along side their necks, foiling attempts at identification. Still when the birds were active, some variations in plumages were seen – different shades of grey on their heads and back, variation in white patterns on breasts and necks, and the sizes of individual birds. The larger Red-necked Grebe (seen in December) and the smaller Horned Grebe are possible winter residents. The small Eared Grebe and larger Western Grebe are considered rare here, however several birds offshore looked more like the latter (distinct white breast and neck) than the Red-necked Grebe. Has anyone made a stab at their identification? Audubon Christmas Bird counters, are you still on the island?
Other players along the shore during the first week of January 2015 were some of our favorite birds: Common Loons, (?) cormorants, Black Ducks, Long-tailed Ducks, White-winged Scoters, Common Goldeneyes, Hooded Mergansers, Red-breasted Mergansers, Herring Gulls, Ring-billed Gulls, a Great Black-backed Gull, Black Guillemots, and our resident family of marauding crows.
Miller, W.R., A.S. Kennedy, and J.W. Webb. (1956). Maine Waterfowl Identification Guide. The Atlantic Waterfowl Council.
Sibley, D.A. (2000). National Audubon Society: The Sibley Guide to Birds. Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. NY
Thank you for your interest in our Peaks Island birds, and if you have any additional bird sightings you would like to share or questions regarding Peak's bird life, you can send them to: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Written by: Patty Wainright
Reviewers: Michelle Brown and Sam Wainright