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A royal is visiting us from the Arctic

King Eider
King Eider

You probably haven’t seen anything in the news about it, but I have reliable intel that a royal has quietly taken up residence on Cape Cod. In the Sagamore area, away from the gaze of paparazzi, a prince is spending some time along the canal and trying to blend in with the locals. Perhaps inevitably, photographers and slack-jawed gawkers eventually found him and have been hounding him ever since. The “prince” in question is a young male King Eider, a rare sea duck recently discovered by birders and photographers among the huge rafts of Common Eiders at the east end of the canal.

King Eiders breed in remote Arctic tundra, and even in winter most never venture south of the Bering Sea where they feed on shellfish up to 80 feet below the pack ice. If you can get yourself to Point Barrow, the northernmost point in Alaska, you might see hundreds of thousands of King Eiders returning to breed in spring – someone counted 360,000 passing the point one day. Around here we see one on occasion, mostly in the big Common Eider flocks in the canal, like this one, but sometime other places and sometimes solo, or among other sea ducks like scoters.

Adult male King Eiders are photographer favorites because they are spectacular and odd, with gaudy powder blue, orange, green, and red on their bulbous heads, a white breast infused with peachy pink, and two jaunty, pointed feather “horns” on their jet black back. The females sport the standard mottled brown of a female duck, function over form to keep them camouflaged from Arctic foxes while they incubate their tundra nests. Young males like this bird currently in the canal are sort of in between an adult male and female, fairly drab but with an orangey bill and pale breast – enough to stand out from the Common Eider crowd but not the showstoppers their dads are.

I’m not sure what it is about the east end of the canal, but it has been a magnet for oddball, out-of-range birds in recent years, with super rare songbirds like Townsend’s Warbler, Ash-throated Flycatcher, and multiple Western Tanagers along with interesting waterfowl in the canal itself. So if you go see this eider, who knows what else you might find - when birders descend on an area to see the latest marquee find they often find other strange birds that would have been otherwise overlooked.

This rare bird has not been without controversy. There’s some question about whether this canal “prince eider” is really still there, with murmurs of doctored photos and a royal cover up, some even claim there are two. But luckily, in the case of this royal mystery, you can head down to the Sagamore Recreation Area to see for yourself. Don’t forget your camera, but no Photoshop, please!

Mark Faherty writes the Weekly Bird Report.