Arctic Species: Common Eider

The Common Eider is the largest and most common species of duck on Spitsbergen. The drake has a largely black and white plumage, with a pinkish hue on the breast and a green patch on the back of the head. The female is more uniformly brown coloured and can be very hard to distinguish on the tundra.

Female Eiders with ducklings

Common Eider – Somateria mollissima
Length: 60 – 70cm, wingspan: 95 – 105cm
Large, heavy built duck. Male with black and white plumage, females brown

Most people visiting Spitsbergen in summer will see separate groups of females with ducklings and others with males. This looks weird, why don’t the males help with raising the ducklings, but it is actually brilliant. In Eiders, the ducklings can feed for themselves shortly after they hatch, so they don’t need both parents around to feed them.  With the males feeding in large groups in open water, there is more food for the ducklings in the more sheltered waters close to shore. Often we even see large rafts of ducklings, the so-called creches. They are only accompanied by a few experienced females, with the other females feeding elsewhere. This way, the ducklings can have the best start in life.

Sometimes things apparently don’t go as planned in the early stages of the breeding cycle. Once I saw a Barnacle Goose family with one duckling. Clearly, this duckling had hatched in the wrong nest and now thought he was a bit a weird-looking Barnacle Goose.  However, as Barnacle Geese feed on grass and Common Eider on small crustaceans in tundra ponds or the sea, there was a mismatch in feeding preferences. As soon as they found a small lake on the tundra, the duckling cheered up and started feeding fanatically, but the rest of the family didn’t wait and continued to the tundra to feed. The duckling tried to stay as long as possible in the pond but had to join the family at some point. How these ducklings end, we don’t know. We’ve never seen a duckling older as a few days in a Barnacle Goose family, so either they die (of starvation?) or they join an Eider creche…

Arjen Drost

Arjen is a Polar ecologist, nature photographer and full time expedition guide on expedition cruise ships in both Polar regions. With his pictures and stories he likes to show the beauty of these very fragile and threatened places.

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