Eiderdown! Eider back up!

I spent a couple of days along the northern Massachusetts coast, from Parker River National Wildlife Refuge down to Cape Ann (near Gloucester).  The weather was cold, but I braved the wind whipping in from the Atlantic to watch the sea ducks, alcids, gulls, gannets, and whatever else blew in.

Saturday morning I stopped at Halibut Point State Park.  This area was an active granite quarry from the 1840s until the 1930s, and you can still see the giant quarry pit (now filled with water).

Halibut Point SP

Halibut Point SP Quarry

Taking the trail down to the rocky shore, I positioned myself on a large slab of granite and scanned the waves.

Rocks at Halibut Point

The temperature was 27 F, and tiny icy snow pellets began forming a thin white blanket over my hat, gloves, and spotting scope.  Many of the birds were way out at the edge of my vision.  I thought of my wife, who loves the challenge of “lump identification” – figuring out what those tiny specks on the horizon really are.  Here are some ducks in the distance, as seen through my scope:

Scope view

Some of the same birds shown above were in closer, and I was able to get some decent pictures of Common Eiders, a sea duck that winters in large numbers along the New England coast.

Common Eider

You may be familiar with eiderdown, the soft breast feathers collected from eiders and used historically for pillows and comforters.  Eiderdown has largely been replaced with synthetic fibers, and this eider looks very relieved to hear that.

Common eiders eat a lot of mussels and crabs snatched off the rocky bottom, so they dive actively when feeding.  They will go down, often for 10 seconds or more, before popping back up many yards from where they went under.  Down, up, down, up.  The diving Mallard was pretty amazing, but it had nothing on these true sea ducks.

Common Eider

The two photos above show males.  Female Common Eiders are a rich cinnamon brown with fine black barring.

Female Eider

Most of the birds were jetting by on the stiff breeze, and many too far away for photos.  I saw Northern Gannets plunge-diving from great heights, and hundred of Red-breasted Mergansers streaming by a couple hundred yards offshore.  This Red-throated Loon drifted by close to the rocks, so I snapped his photo, too.

Red-throated Loon

He only has the red throat during the summer breeding season.

The last bird I managed to photograph was a fly-over Blue Goose, the symbol of the National Wildlife Refuge system.

Blue goose

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