An exaltation of Larks. An unkindness of Ravens. A charm of Goldfinches. A murder of Crows. Most bird-watchers will be familiar with collective names for groups of particular birds. However the other day I found myself wondering if there was a collective name for Eiders. I tried several books but drew a blank, so tried Google. And there I found one in an article in Country Life by Paula Lester in September 2017. A quilt of Eiders! Well! Was this a joke, or somebody’s recent invention? There was no elaboration in the article. I tried a few other sources but didn’t come up with any corroboration or confirmation. So there it is: a quilt of Eiders. Why I wanted to know this collective name will be apparent from my first photo!
The term ‘quilt’ is a reminder that the Eider is prized for the extraordinary insulating quality of its down, which the female Eider plucks from her breast to line her nest. The scientific name for this species of duck, Somateria mollissima, means soft body-wool. Eider duck down is still collected from Eider nests in so-called ‘eider farms’ in Iceland. This is an unusual form of farming where the creature is not killed, but actually benefits, as the ‘farmers’ protect the birds from predators. Eider duck down has been traditionally used for bedding for centuries and is still regarded by many as superior in quality to other natural and artificial materials. The French name for this species is ‘Eider à duvet’ and the term ‘duvet’ has largely superseded ‘eiderdown’ in retail culture.
When I was fourteen and in Northumberland on a family holiday, I had my first encounter with the largest species of sea-duck in the northern hemisphere. We were visiting the Farne Islands, and close by the path was a female Eider. The female of the species is a subtly plumaged brown and grey with beautiful barring, excellent camouflage on a rocky shore. But we were surrounded by auks, seals and terns so I didn’t really take much notice of it, being more concerned with dodging the dive-bombing terns, and marvelling at the quaintness of the Puffins. I dutifully ticked off ‘Eider’ on the check-list at the beginning of my field guide. For many years after that, my sightings of Eiders were limited, until one day in Looe I came across a solitary adult male on East Looe beach, mingling with a flock of gulls. According to my wildlife diary (an essential for any naturalist) this was in November 2009, more than half a century after that visit to the Farnes.
The Common Eider, to give its full name, is a bird with an enormous range across the top of the world, breeding on Arctic and sub-Arctic coasts, and it is almost exclusively a marine bird (more so than, for example, a Cormorant or a Herring Gull). The global population exceeds 3 million. It is widespread in Northern Europe, especially in Iceland, Scandinavia and the Baltic, although its European status is ‘Vulnerable’. In the UK it is Amber-listed as a Bird of Conservation Concern, and breeds in Scotland and the Northern Isles and south into Northumberland and Cumbria, with outlying breeding populations now in Ireland, the Isle of Man and North Wales. But it doesn’t breed in south-west England. The annual reports of the Cornwall Bird Watching and Preservation Society (CBWPS) describe it as a fairly rare and very local winter visitor.
The bird I saw on Looe beach was apparently that, but after a while I realised he was there all year round. He didn’t go away in summer. And he was a stunner, white above and black below, with a pinkish flush on his white breast, and that strange greenish patch on the sides of his nape. The top of his head was black and his long wedge-shaped bill grey-gold. Sometimes in mid-summer he was harder to find, but this was because Eiders go through an annual period of moult, and their plumage becomes a mish-mash of dark colours. He was easily overlooked.
A friend started calling him ‘Eric’, and the name seems to have stuck. Sometimes I would find him on the Limmicks off Second Beach, sometimes on Hannafore or Looe Island, sometimes on East Looe beach. Here Eric often consorted with gulls, and sometimes with amorous intent. He would throw his head back, puff out his chest, and emit that breathy ‘ah-oo-oh’ call (somehow reminiscent of Frankie Howerd!). Sadly the gulls were never interested and backed away nervously….
Why didn’t Eric go away in the summer? I wondered if he was injured, but one day saw him fly across the bay. This in itself was an impressive sight. I recently tried to take a photo of an Eider in flight but failed miserably. It was too fast for me. It has been suggested that the Eider is the fastest bird in level flight, reaching 45 mph (Peregrines of course fly much faster when they stoop, but not in level flight).
My theory about Eric – and it is only a theory – is that as a duckling he may have become imprinted on a gull. Ducks are ‘precocial’; their young are hatched from the egg covered in down and with their eyes open. They are active as soon as they are dry, and immediately leave the nest. They tend to follow the first adult they see (even humans). Eiders and gulls (especially Herring Gulls) do often nest in close proximity, and although gulls are known to predate on Eider eggs and ducklings, they have been observed not to take them close to their own nest. Perhaps Eric had imprinted on a gull and miraculously survived.
For ten years I have been watching Looe’s lone Eider. I cannot be absolutely certain it is always Eric as he has no identification ring, but his appearances are so regular that I am convinced it is the same individual.
But in 2019 everything changed. In January I was walking on Hannafore and came across two Eiders swimming offshore. A male and a female! They seemed to be together. Eiders feed by diving for mussels and crabs and they were both fishing. The tide was dropping and they clambered out on to the rocks and sat there companionably a few feet from each other. Eric (I assume it was he) returned to the water and appeared to be distracted by some gulls, but his female friend – we can call her Enid – soon followed, and they resumed feeding together. Then they drifted off in the direction of Looe Island.
For the next two months I saw Eric and Enid regularly but then they disappeared. As female Eiders tend to return to nest in the place where they themselves were born, I assumed that Eric had followed Enid to start a new life……
In mid-May I had a message from Claire Lewis, warden on Looe Island. She had seen a party of six Eiders, including just one adult male! Could Eric have consummated his relationship with Enid and raised a family here in Cornwall? I turned to my British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) Atlas, published in 2013, and found there a record of Eiders breeding successfully further up the English Channel in Hampshire in 2010. If Hampshire, why not Cornwall? I studied Claire’s pictures. Alas, the birds were all of adult size. They could not be 2019 ducklings. I saw them myself a few weeks later on a visit to Looe Island. They were perhaps a family party from a previous year.
But this was not the end of it. In the autumn Eiders began to appear in profusion. In late October there was a pair swimming off East Looe beach, perhaps Eric and Enid, but a few days later on November 3rd there was a flock of 14! There was just one adult male, could it be Eric? There were also several juvenile males in transition to adult plumage.
A few days later I was on Hannafore seafront in West Looe and a flock of Eiders appeared close inshore, just below the Sailing Club.
I again counted 14. But then I looked harder at them and realised there were now six adult males!
This was a different group. They were diving repeatedly and surfacing frequently with live crabs, which they shook to disarticulate the legs and claws and then gulped down the rest to be mangled in their gizzards. In my picture the orange mass is the eggs of a ‘berried’ female shore crab.
On into 2020, Eiders continued to appear along the shoreline of Looe Bay in varying numbers. I also saw Eiders further west in Talland Bay, sometimes consorting with a rare winter visitor, the single Long-tailed Duck (which confusingly doesn’t always have a long tail) that had appeared there for the second winter running.
There were frequently groups of at least seven in various combinations of adults and juveniles, males and females, and on February 26th I located a total of 15 scattered around the bay, and the majority were black and white males in resplendent breeding plumage. On both occasions the tide was receding and several of the birds climbed out to rest on the rocks. It was bewildering. Looe appeared to have become Eider Central!
Now I can’t stop looking for them. Frequent observation at close quarters is also helping me to understand their behaviour. Bouts of feeding frenzy by most birds in a group are followed by intervals of at least 20 minutes when they drift on the surface, resting and preening, and digesting their prey. According to Chris Waltho and John Coulson’s masterwork, The Common Eider, these birds have a formidably rapid digestive system, taking only one hour from ingestion to the passage of faeces!
I can no longer confidently recognize Eric as I do not know for certain if he is one of the multiple males. But it is quite likely that he is. I have been seeing him for ten years, but Eiders can live a long time (one male is known to have reached 35). There is a high mortality of ducklings in the first three weeks of their life as many don’t learn quickly enough how to feed and many more are predated, but thereafter mortality rates are low. This part of Europe is relatively free of mammalian predators dangerous to Eiders (no Arctic Foxes or Polar Bears!).
I have become curious to know where these birds have come from. I had always assumed that Eiders in Cornwall were visitors from northern Britain, but could they have come along the Channel from a different direction? Eiders are widespread breeding birds on coasts in the Netherlands, Denmark and the Baltic, and there is a small population in France. The distribution of Eiders is complex. Some birds in the far north migrate long distances to escape the ice which prevents them feeding; others stay in their breeding areas all year or move short distances (sometimes northwards) to large stretches of open water like the big Scottish firths.
Now you know why I wanted a collective term for Eiders! Look out this month for the ‘quilt’, before the birds head for their breeding grounds. The wedge-shaped bill of both male and female is a distinctive identification feature at a distance.