Speaking of Nature: A feisty feast for a common eider

  • This female common eider, floating off the shore of Sachuest Point National Wildlife Refuge in Rhode Island, captured a rather feisty crab that gave her a painful pinch before she subdued it and swallowed it whole. For the Recorder/Bill Danielson


For the Recorder
Published: 4/22/2019 6:00:18 AM

The conditions were absolutely perfect when I arrived at Sachuest Point National Wildlife Refuge at about 6:15 a.m. in search of ducks. The high winds of the day prior had died down to the gentlest of breezes and the sky was crystal clear. All I needed was a little luck and a lot of cooperation from the birds.

Sachuest Point is a small peninsula of rock that juts out into the Atlantic Ocean just southeast of Newport, R.I. Because of this particular configuration, the light of the rising sun is at the ideal low angle to illuminate anything in the water on the western side of the peninsula. So, I parked my car, grabbed my gear and headed down the trail to my right.

Within minutes I came across song sparrows and northern mockingbirds that were basking in the warmth of the morning sun (more on those birds some other time), and I literally had to tear myself away from them to get myself into position for ducks. I was wearing dark gray pants and a gray-green insulated shirt that I hoped would allow me to blend into the rocks along the shoreline. The most important thing, however, was getting into position before any ducks showed up.

So I hustled along, ignoring the siren song of the little birds that were clearly on orders to distract me if possible; an obvious test of my determination by the photo god Nikonus. The path was lined with rose bushes and other thicket-like vegetation on both sides, which made it resemble some sort of hallway. Occasionally, a small path down to the water’s edge broke the wall of vegetation, and it was at just such an access point that I struck gold.

A lone female common eider (Somateria mollissima) was floating only feet from the water’s edge and she had not responded negatively to my arrival. In fact, she appeared to be in the process of foraging, which meant that she was making repeated dives down to the rocky bottom below her. This gave me an outstanding chance to move into position while she was otherwise engaged.

With catlike precision and grace, I dashed across the sharp rocks and nestled into a small depression while she was underwater. I had passed the test put before me by Nikonus and was rewarded.

When she surfaced, the duck seemed to be content with the situation. I have no delusions that I blended in so perfectly that she didn’t see me. I can say, however, that she didn’t seem particularly perturbed. As a photographer, I can tell you that it is a bird like this that makes the difference. There was less than 100 feet of distance between us and she was willing to actively come toward me while she was foraging. Then, after surfacing from yet another dive, I understood her motivation.

She came up with a crab in her bill, and I was enthralled as she methodically dismembered and subdued her prey. Her lack of teeth meant that she wasn’t able to bite and kill the crab before swallowing it whole. Instead, she was forced to grab it by a claw and shake it until the claw came off. Then she repeated the process with the other claw, shaking it and ripping off the appendage. Occasionally she lost her grip on her victim and had to make a small dive to grab it again, but in no time she was ready.

With the skill of someone who had been doing this all her life, she flipped the crab around in her bill, tilted her head back, and swallowed the de-clawed creature whole — and still alive. Disarmed, the crab was destined to be digested by powerful stomach acids in the tight confines of the duck’s muscular stomach. I’m sure it struggled to get free (an odd sensation for the eider, for sure), but without it’s large pincers there was no escape.

Again and again the eider dove for crabs, and in the time I was there I saw her surface with four of them; each dealt with in the same manner. One of the crabs managed to put up a fight; grabbing the corner of the duck’s mouth (the fleshy part) with what looked to be a painful pinch. That is the photo that I have shared with you, and I did notice a particularly aggressive response by the duck. I couldn’t blame her, though. I’d be angry with my breakfast if it fought back, too.

Bill Danielson has been a professional writer and nature photographer for 21 years. He has worked for the National Park Service, the U.S. Forest Service and Massachusetts State Parks, and currently teaches high school biology and physics. Visit speakingofnature.com for more information, or go to Speaking of Nature on Facebook.

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