One of many highlights from Gullfest 2012!
When Martin asked me to pick out a species that was a particular highlight from our recent trip to the first ever Arctic Gullfest on the Varanger Peninsula, I had to think hard. There were so many birding highlights! However there was one species that for me stood out above the rest, this was of course the iconic bird of the Varanger Fjord, the Steller’s Eider.
I started birding at a very young age and I remember at about age eight flicking through my Birds of Britain and Europe with North Africa and the Middle East (Heinzel, Fitter & Parslow). Now there were obviously many amazing birds contained within the pages of this book, however the one that stood out to my infant imagination was the Steller’s Eider! This bird looked liked nothing I had ever seen, it almost looked like a creation of a very imaginative cartoonist. Having locked onto this species I began to read where it came from, it came from the Arctic! The Arctic was of course an exciting place for any small child to dream about, I of course day-dreamed of becoming an Arctic explorer! However in reality as I grew older and older I never had any real anticipation of actually going to the Arctic or seeing this enigmatic Steller’s Eider!
How life and expectations can change! Fast forward to April 2012. I was in the Arctic and on the Hurtigruten travelling up the mighty Varanger Fjord. Soon watching Steller’s Eider would be a reality! Some of our group located some Steller’s Eider in Kirkenes Harbour, I was secretly pleased to have missed them; after all I wanted to locate my own! As we passed the epic Hornøya Bird Cliff and moved towards Vardø my eyes focused on a group of four small ducks flying in the wake of the boat. The distinctively striking plumage of the drake made these ducks instantly recognisable. BOOM I had seen my first ever Steller’s Eider! I was in the Arctic AND I had seen Steller’s Eider, this was nothing short of emotional!
When we settled into our hotel rooms (Vardø Hotel ) I was astounded to see that I could see Steller’s Eider from my room! Every morning when I woke up I looked out the window and got my early morning fix of the iconic species!
Once the excitement of seeing my first ones had slightly (only slightly) calmed, there was ample opportunity to actually watch these birds in detail. Vincent van der Spek pointed out a very nice feature shown on the drakes; the isolated black spot on the side of the breast is a unique shape on each individual bird, sort of a Steller’s Eider fingerprint! Whilst watching a group of Steller’s Eider; Martin Garner and Nils van Duivendijk indicated to me how to age the females. Once I got my eye in, this was fairly straight forward; the key was the speculum, lacking the bright colouration in immatures.
Some of the immature drakes were fairly obvious showing the progression from brown duck into the white plumage of an adult. However Martin & Nils pointed out that there were a proportion of drakes that were still predominantly brown only separable from the females by their head shape and the tone of their tertials. Is there more to ageing Steller’s Eiders yet to be discovered?
So my experience of seeing my first Steller’s Eider was not only superficial excitement of the realisation of a childhood dream, but it had great depth and was also a fascinating learning experience! You’ve got to love Varanger