Rare Bird Alert: King Eider in Ottawa

King Eider

King Eider

On the morning of Wednesday, November 14th, three female King Eiders were discovered at Andrew Haydon Park. This is a rare bird in Ottawa; the last one seen here was in 1993! My email inbox and Facebook feed were full of reports of the three eiders all morning long, until they flew south and a fourth one was discovered at the end of Scrivens Street later that morning. The last I heard of the eider, she was sleeping on the water at the east end of Andrew Haydon Park at dusk. Chances were good that she would still be there in the morning.

That night I dreamed of going to the river to look for her. And when I woke up earlier than usual, I decided I would take a quick look before I had to go to work. It was just getting light when I left at 6:40 am, and as soon as I arrived I started scanning the flocks of geese at the east end of the park. There were lots of other birds on the river, including some Common Goldeneye, scaup and a Surf Scoter, but I saw nothing that looked like the bird I’d seen in the photographs. Then I spotted another birder, Aaron, scanning the water from the middle of the shoreline. We met up to compare notes. Like me, he only had limited time to look for the bird before work and hadn’t found her. Just as I was about to tell him I had to leave, I spotted a lone duck with a distinctly sloping profile swimming away from the shore. I took a quick look through my scope and confirmed that it was the female King Eider – a lifer for me!

The views were not very satisfactory as the sky was still dark and all I could see of her was her back end as she swam off to the western end of the park. I decided to try and take the afternoon off work and go back if she was still there.

Fortunately she was, and I couldn’t have chosen a better afternoon to go birding. I didn’t have the car and had to walk in from Bayshore Station, but the sun was out and there was no wind. It was a balmy 7°C.

I entered by the eastern pond and stopped to check out the birds. The pond was half frozen, and several gulls were standing on the ice in the middle of the pond. A large number of Lesser Scaup and Hooded Mergansers were swimming in the open water.

Lesser Scaup

Lesser Scaup

This male Lesser Scaup looked like he had something to say:

Lesser Scaup

Lesser Scaup

With the higher zoom on my new camera I was able to get a nice shot of one of the male Hooded Mergansers swimming away. I usually find it difficult to get close to these birds, especially the males. I think they look more striking with their crests raised:

Hooded Merganser

Hooded Merganser

The juvenile Brant with the injured neck was still present, this time in the eastern pond. He was initially resting on the island with a flock of Canada Geese; when they swam off, he followed.

Brant

Brant

I was hoping that the Dunlin was still present in the inlet on the western pond, but when I saw that the entire pond had frozen over I quickly abandoned hope that he was still there.

I met two birders who told me that the King Eider was still present, sleeping in the small bay at the western end of the park. I headed over there next, where I found Suzanne watching the eider through her scope. The female eider was sleeping in the mouth of the creek fairly close to the shore, right in the same area that hosted three American Coots back in October and November 2010. A couple of Lesser Scaup were also sleeping nearby. I managed to capture a couple of photos as she spun in slow, lazy circles.

King Eider, female

King Eider, female

Although the male is spectacular with his crisp black, salmon, and white body, pale blue hood, greenish face, and large reddish-orange bill, the female has a subtle beauty evident in the scaly reddish brown pattern and the extensive black barring along her sides and flanks. Her head is a warm cinnamon-brown colour and finely streaked with black, while her wings are dark above with a thin white strip along the tips. The pale buff-colored eye ring was plainly visible even though her head was tucked against her back. However, the downward-curving eye stripe (a feature that helps distinguish her from the female Common Eider) was not. I also wasn’t able to see the dark, upturned gape line that gives her a smiling expression.

The King Eider breeds in the Arctic and spends its winters along the Pacific and Atlantic Coasts. In the east, its winter range extends from northern Labrador to Virginia. Although they are regularly seen in Lake Ontario, particularly the western end between St. Catharines and Toronto, they rarely stop over in Ottawa…it’s been 20 years since the last one was found here. Clearly a King Eider is an awesome bird!

King Eider

King Eider

I decided to walk around the ponds again in the hope that she would be awake by the time I made it back to the western end. I found the Brant feeding on the lawn and spent some time photographing her. When she wasn’t feeding, she spent a lot of time preening, particularly the feathers at the base of her neck. She didn’t seem to mind me watching her as long as I kept my distance.

Juvenile Brant

Juvenile Brant

Juvenile Brant

Juvenile Brant

I heard a couple of chickadees, a Golden-crowned Kinglet, and a Downy Woodpecker as I walked around the park. A chipmunk sitting on a rock beside the bridge between the two ponds was a nice surprise.

Eastern Chipmunk

Eastern Chipmunk

When I reached the western pond I found a lot more gulls standing on the ice, including two adult Herring Gulls among the smaller Ring-billed Gulls. The easiest way to spot a Herring Gull among a flock of preening, squawking Ring-bills is to look for the bright pink legs amongst all the yellow legs.

Herring and Ring-billed Gulls

Herring and Ring-billed Gulls

Herring Gull

Herring Gull

I thought the ice formations along the shore were quite striking and couldn’t resist taking a few photos:

Ice Formations

Ice Formations

Ice Formations

Ice Formations

I returned to the western end of the park only to be told that the King Eider had flown off toward the marina at Dick Bell Park. I waited for almost half an hour while the sun sank lower and lower in the sky to see if she would return, as some of the birders thought she would return to spend the night close to the shore. However, she hadn’t returned by the time I had to leave.

On my way out I stopped to say good-bye to the Brant:

Juvenile Brant

Juvenile Brant

I had a fantastic time at Andrew Haydon Park. It was a thrill to see the female King Eider up close (even though she was sleeping) and to talk with some birding friends who showed up. And it was great that so many birds were so cooperative for my camera!

The King Eider is the only life bird I’ve had in Ottawa this year; my life list now stands at 294. I wonder how long it will take before I get my next lifer?

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2 thoughts on “Rare Bird Alert: King Eider in Ottawa

    • Hi Sue,

      It really is. It’s right on the Ottawa River where it widens into Lake Deschenes, so it brings in all kinds of waterfowl. In the fall, when the water levels drop, a large expanse of mudflats develop which attract migrating shorebirds. There are fish in the ponds which attract diving ducks and herons. Most of the park is manicured lawns; we used to get good numbers of geese, including Cackling Geese, in the fall until the city decided there were too many and allowed people to walk their dogs in the park.

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