Eiderology: the branch of knowledge that deals with eiders. Yes, branch of knowledge. Or science. And before you ask, no, eiderology doesn’t exist. Or well, didn’t exist until I invented it, two minutes ago. I’ve decided to specialize in this discipline, but more than the scientific aspect, I’m particularly attracted to the graphic aspect of those birds.
Eiders are sea ducks from the northern hemisphere, option Arctic. The most massive species is also the most common one; the Common eider (Somateria mollissima) nests as far south as France and Italy, and is very common in the Baltic Sea or along the coasts of Norway. After a year in Finland and a year in Denmark, it’s a very common sight for me. Remember, I saw this species migrating in Gedser: 1000 birds every hour 😮
It’s already quite an atypical duck: first, it’s massive, and then it has a really weird, pointy beak, some kind of a burglar’s mask, and a green patch on each side of the neck. An odd guy, but rather elegant in its pristine coat. That’s the male; the female isn’t as extravagant, but it has the same beak.
Less frequent are its Nordic cousins, but undoubtedly just as flashy. I’ll start with the King, the only one in the North: the male King eider (Somateria spectabilis) has a pink breast, a grey cap, a green cheek and a mantle of pure black and white. Oh, and I almost forgot this bulbous beak of a bright orange. Now the Common eider is defeated in style 😮
Yes, that’s a real bird. The female wears a uniform dress of warm brown, which is pretty as well. This is the flagbird of the Arctic coast, the one the local hotel uses for advertisement. However, birders know there’s a surprise for whom can detach their gaze from the King.
Common and King eiders are imposing ducks, the largest in Europe with the Goosander (Mergus merganser). At their side, Steller’s eiders (Polysticta stelleri) look incredibly tiny, even if they equal in size Wigeons (Anas penelope) or Common pochards (Aythya ferina). This said, when you look closely, you realize this species is as stunning as the other eiders: look at this orange flanks, look at these big black spots, look at this piece of broccoli at the back of the head!
Again, the female is a bit more discreet.
There’s a fourth species, but it doesn’t usually show up in Europe. As you can guess, the Spectacled eider (Somateria fischeri) is also a crazy bird (here is a picture).
The reason why I have so good pictures of those birds (there’s room for improvement, but I feel very happy to bring back such shots from the trip) resides in two words: floating hides. Arctic Tourist is a tourism company based in Båtsfjord, and they have two hides located in the harbour. They are not even in the middle of it, they are anchored barely five meters from the shore (see a picture). When I saw the Purple sandpipers (Calidris maritima), I was next to them, and I saw the eiders as well (I was focused on the waders, then I turned and saw this flock of King eiders drifting along… I froze in astonishment, the book doesn’t really do them justice!), but the real show started the day after… before 4am. I woke up at 2, geared up, was on Ørjhan’s dinghy at 3.30, and in the hide soon after. We were five people to share it, with three more in the smaller one.
The ducks, attracted by the frozen fish and molluscs that were dropped to the water for them, appeared before sunrise. Now, if you think it must have been challenging to shoot in such conditions, you’re probably making an understatement. I didn’t even have the luxury to wait for the sun, for I wasn’t even sure it would come up, and the lighting conditions, with light bulbs creating gorgeous reflections in the harbour, called for pictures to be taken. So I took my courage in both hands and pushed my camera to yet uncharted realms for me, namely ISO5000. In the hide, I was surrounded by f/2.8 lenses and full-frame bodies, but I have no such gear, the maximum aperture at 400mm is f/5.6 and I have a cropped sensor. Yet, I think noise is only annoying in the background, where it’s easy to remove.
Being in such demanding (because of the absence of light) but favourable (because we were close to eye-level, with ducks I could have touched if I had extended the hand) conditions was quite new to me, and it took me some time to appreciate the situation. In the end, though, I was most likely smiling like an idiot who couldn’t be happier.
Those 6 hours spent in a moving box were not only challenging technically speaking: lying on my belly, one hand on the trigger but the other one extended to handle the zoom ring, the neck arched to look into the viewfinder… in hindsight it looked like the perfect situation to hurt oneself. Well, I did that too! After an hour or two, during a quiet moment, I tried to move upright, only to realize I couldn’t do anything with my left arm. Strange feeling, my hand was fully functional but I couldn’t really lift the arm (let alone lift something) nor push on it without feeling incredibly weak, as if my muscles had simply surrendered. This would bother me until the end of the trip, though not to the point of being unable to lift the camera (but it was, if not really painful, at least annoying).
It is strange, how you can push aside your concerns, if you have something important to do that wouldn’t be possible if you listened to said concerns… of course I lay down again and shot ducks for three more hours! I felt strong, and I was on a mission; I couldn’t afford to let a minor injury get in my way and spoil my trip.
While Steller’s eiders mostly stayed a bit away from the hide, Common and King eiders roamed around, often in large and mixed groups. It was funny to see them pressed against each other, before they all dived at the same time. In the fray, you could sometimes glimpsed an oddball, like this young King (a Prince?).
It was a dream come true to see these birds, and this experience easily exceeded all my expectations, but it also got me thinking. 100€ to spend six hours in a wooden box, that’s not exactly cheap. Add to this all the photo gear required to make the pictures I expected (and I’m not only talking about camera and lens), and the actual cost of traveling, and you’ll realize how great it is to have a good salary.
There was a time when having a corporate job didn’t sound that appealing; all I wanted was to be a nature guide, to spend my days around birds, taking pictures of them. That didn’t happen, and I instead found an engineer position at RELEX this October. This is not my dream job, but I’m paid well, which in turns allows me to upgrade my gear dramatically, and travel. In a sense, it’s the natural continuation of all I’ve been told as a kid: study well so that you have a good job; then you can do anything.
lt did not always resonate well: so what, I grab the money now, and when I’m old I can travel? Should I let my youth burn away trying to get rich?
I think I was lucky to find a very relaxed company, one that gives me a lot of freedom, especially when it comes to working hours, and in which everyone is encouraged to be themselves. I’m not meandering in the fields from sunrise to sunset, but I’m happy. In the end, that’s the only important thing for me.
The second line of thought I followed had more to do with the usual clash between shooting continuously and enjoying the moment. This isn’t restricted to birding as a hobby, it’s a criticism we often see here and there: “people are obsessed by pictures they take to post them on social media, they do not enjoy the moment”. I spend a lot of my free time taking pictures, and sometimes, I feel like I need to take a break. Often, I see a bird quickly in the binoculars, and then try to approach it for a picture, therefore watching it only through my camera or with bare eyes. Now, no matter how expensive my photo gear is, the viewing experience is always much worse than with my ten-year-old binoculars 😮 I’d better spend some time enjoying the show than getting an average shot of a distant bird.
In Båtsfjord, I shot birds non-stop for five hours. In the end, I felt weary; I had had little sleep, the experience had been intense, and like I said, I had hurt my arm. I took a chair, opened one of the shutters, and started to look outside. Serenely seated, I actually realized I had not really studied those stunning birds. So, for the last hour, I didn’t take any pic. I only enjoyed the show, and it was great.
I think I’ll go again, one day. First, I need to improve as a photographer 🙂