With the forecast calling for cloudy skies for most of New Year's Eve, I took another sunrise trudge down along the beach to go bird watching in an attempt to seize good light. My morning effort took me to Sea Bright, a barrier island community in New Jersey with the Atlantic Ocean on one side and the Shrewsbury River on the other, and located just south from the entrance to New York Harbor. Even as the people in this town rebuild after a devastating blow from Super-storm Sandy, there is access to the beach (which is always a good thing) where one can find beauty, affection, and great coastal wildlife watching.
First thought on my mind upon arrival, except for more than a few gulls, it seemed odd that the ocean seemed so empty for a late December day. This may be year's end for humans, but it's only the beginning for winter wildlife. Conspicuous by their absence were any winter ducks, loons, gannets, sanderlings, even cormorants.
I thought my time here was a complete waste, then there it was. Out of nowhere, about 30 yards from the edge of the beach was a large, heavy built water bird. The bird must have been at least two feet in length. Yet, it was tricky to get a good look. The bird kept diving in and out of the cold ocean water to catch a meal of either Spider Crabs or Lady Crabs.
With binoculars in hand, I noticed the bird was dark cinnamon-brown and soft white in color. The bird also had a very unique profile. Its bill was distinctive, long and sloping, dull yellow in color. What was this strange looking bird?
Although the bird had the profile and shape of an eider, it didn't have any of its beautiful showy and flashy feathers. Adult male Common Eiders are eye-catching birds with a long bill and bright white and brilliant black downy feathers.
Instead, this bird's feathers were kind of dim to match the overcast day. Whatever it was it was uncommon to the Lower New York Bay environment.
A quick review of The Crossley ID Guide to Eastern Birds showed the bird to be a juvenile eider, a first-year Common Eider in fact. Wow, that changed everything. What a great sight to see this rarity, and swimming and foraging so close to the active waters of New York Harbor. Although a first year bird, I still felt lucky to have been able to see and photograph this sporadically seen eider.
This young eider must have recently flew in from where it hatched over the summer. The "Atlantic Eider" population of Common Eiders, which are seen along the coast of New Jersey and New York in the winter, usually nest on rocky coastlines or on offshore rocks in the tundra along much of the north Canadian mainland, including the coast of Hudson Bay, on Canada's Arctic islands, or along the coast of Greenland or Iceland. It was almost certainly an over two thousand mile journey for this young eider to reach the Jersey Shore in rain, snow, and strong winds.
The eiders are pushed south come autumn by advancing sea ice. Most will winter near the coast to forage in shallow waters from Labrador south to Virginia. Young birds sometimes venture as far south as Florida.
This immature eider will most likely stay along the coast of Sea Bright for a bit to take a break. Then off it will go, maybe to try to re-group with its family or other eiders somewhere in maritime waters. Eiders are hardy migrants that love rough, cold water. The rougher and colder, the better for these birds. Eiders are the most maritime of all waterfowl. Except when breeding, eiders will spend their entire time on cold northern waters diving deep to the ocean bottom for food. They will use their lengthy, strong bills to catch mollusks, with a fondness for mussels, or crustaceans, or even an occasional sea urchin.
What keeps the eiders from freezing in cold waters and wintry weather are their soft, fluffy down feathers found beneath their tougher external feathers. Down feathers are one of the best heat-insulating materials made by Mother Nature. The loose form or structure of down feathers helps to trap body heat in, which helps to insulate the bird against heat loss and also contributes to the bird's buoyancy.
Unfortunately, this "eiderdown" is also highly prized by people to make sleeping bags, blankets, pillows, or any other product used to fill a feather/down item. Common Eiders have suffered greatly because of their downy feathers for more than a century. The population we see during the winter time in New York and New Jersey was nearly wiped out by market hunters.
Although it's a good sign to see a young healthy Common Eider, these large beautiful water birds still face an array of challenges. According to the Conservation of Arctic Flora and Fauna, a biodiversity working group of the Arctic Council, which consists of National Representatives assigned by each of the eight Arctic Council Member States, including the United States, Canada, Russia, and Greenland, many eider populations have declined in recent decades. Some populations are thought to have declined by 50% or more since the early 1970s, and several formerly large colonies in western Greenland may have almost disappeared. Yet, quantitative information is too scarce to estimate an overall decline and trends for the species are difficult to trace, since the birds nest in remote places in the Arctic.
The most notable global threats to eiders include hunting for down collection, especially in areas where there is a longstanding hunting tradition, such as in Labrador and Newfoundland. Mortality in commercial fishing is also a major threat, as are oil contamination and lead contamination, which follows to reproductive failure. Work needs to be done by many countries to minimize adverse effects of commercial activities on eiders and to protect the bird's aquatic and nesting habitats to ensure the continued viability of eider populations.
But why wait for countries to act. Some of the things you can do as an individual to help protect Common Eiders from population decline include: First, reduce or don't buy products with down. Second, write to companies that manufacture down products, like sleeping bags, jackets, blankets, and pillows, to ask them to provide the origins of down feathers on all their products. As of today, many companies refuse to provide information about the origins of their down and feathers. Why? Perhaps the origin was done by illegal hunting or harvesting.
I will keep my eyes open to see if another Common Eider can be spotted again along the coast of Sea Bright. It would be wonderful, though, if someday this beautiful duck becomes abundant for all to see throughout the winter in the busy waters of New York Harbor and down the Jersey Shore.
For more information, pictures and year-round sightings of wildlife in or near Sandy Hook Bay, please check out my blog entitled, Nature on the Edge of New York City at http://www.natureontheedgenyc.com