For the Birds Radio Program: King Eider

Original Air Date: Oct. 29, 1990

Two years ago, Laura took her children to Grand Marais on a wild goose chase. This time, the King Eider showed up.

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Birding is a sport of diminishing returns. Every bird added to a lifelist is a bird that can never be added again, until eventually new birds become as rare and as valuable as diamonds.

That’s how I justified burning a third of a tank of gas to drive 110 miles from Duluth to Grand Marais and back again last Monday just to see a duck. A group of birders had found a King Eider in the harbor two days before. It’s not like King Eiders drop in every day—the last one to visit Minnesota was in 1988. I drove up then, too, but that bird was last seen—I am not making this up—exactly 15 minutes before I got there. Before the 1988 bird, the most recent sighting of this accidental duck was in 1976. There are more records in Wisconsin, where they’re classified as rare and irregular—a step up from accidental. They breed on the Arctic Ocean, and normally winter in the Pacific Ocean down to southern Alaska, and in the Atlantic Ocean down to Massachusetts.

I’d never seen an eider anywhere, so the moment I had a chance, I lit out up the shore. It took me three hours to get to Grand Marais—I had to go 45 miles per hour the whole way because Snow Buntings were fluttering and swirling all along the highway like giant snowflakes. Like the King Eider I was chasing, Snow Buntings breed on the tundra. These fragile creatures weigh just over an ounce, yet they nest further north than any other land bird, all the way up to northernmost Greenland and Ellesmere Island. No matter how urgently I wanted to hurry, it would have been the height of rudeness to run over one of these little tourists. So it was well after noon when I finally made it to Grand Marais.
After my 15-minute disaster two years ago, I was getting nervous and doubtful about seeing the eider. I missed the turnoff to the recreation area where it was supposed to be and ended up in the business part of town. There was a lone duck swimming off a rocky beach behind a Standard station, with parking spaces nearby, so I decided to start there and work my way back to the recreation area.

As I got out of the car, I saw that this duck was the color of a female Mallard, but much plumper, with a short, thick neck. As I shut the car door, I caught a glimpse of her wings opening up as she suddenly dove under. Eiders do that.

So I waited for her to come up. And waited. And waited. She stayed down longer than any diver I’ve ever seen. I didn’t have a watch, but I’d estimate the dive’s duration to be just shy of an eternity, with me scared to death that she was going to come up on the far side of Lake Superior. But she finally popped up not far from where she went down.

Her streaked breast was much more delicately marked than a Mallard, and her sides were etched with pretty crescent markings. She had a thick bill, but the shape didn’t appear as odd as I’d expected. She opened her wings and flapped a couple of times just to show off her white wing linings. Then she dove again, and again stayed down for an improbably long time. She came up even closer to me—she pretty much filled up my 10-power binoculars so I didn’t even need my spotting scope.

I watched her preen, but her outer feathers were too thick to expose the eider down feathers worth $400 an ounce which keep her cozy at 50 below. She looked comfortable swimming there in Lake Superior, and not at all surprised by the freshwater food. Eiders usually eat mussels and starfishes and such fare, which is in short supply in Lake Superior, but she apparently figured out that Grand Marais is a place to expect the unexpected as she swam there right below Sven and Ole’s Pizza Parlor.