A King Eider had been present near St. Joseph, MI for about a week. I did not figure it would hang around, but I wanted to try for it anyway. Friday night, I drove up and grabbed a cheap room for the night in St. Joseph. Saturday morning, I got bit by ignorance and a misbehaving cell phone.
The other draw for the day was a chance to shoot with some friends and fellow birders. Mike Bourdon, Shari McCollough, and Jason Jablonski were all going to be there that morning, too. The short version of my gaffe is that my phone would not send out messages; so, I did not realize I was in the wrong place. I was at the beach instead of the pier. Since the area in front of the beach was entirely frozen, I sent a message stating that I was heading to Tiscornia, where I knew I could walk out on the pier. In the end, I spotted Mike and Shari from the other side. My messages never sent. A phone call finally went through, and I decided to head back over to Silver Beach (the pier this time) to meet up with them. Why was this a big deal? I missed the King Eider flyby while moving back across to where I should have been in the first place....
We started a long day of waiting, after that. The crazy thing is that I probably saw the flock of scoter it took off with. They flew right past me as I was walking up the sidewalk, but I did not notice the odd bird in the flock. We hung out and birded a bit. Among the ducks were: both Scaup, Common Goldeneye, Redhead, a Canvasback, and a few Mallard. We also had a few Great Black-backed Gull among the numerous Herring Gull.
We also had looks at all three scoter!
By this point, Shari was up to 5 life birds for the day. Congrats to Shari!! The day was also starting to get a bit long. Instead of waiting for the eider to come to us, we decided to go look for it up channel.
No luck, but Mike spotted a nice comparison of Greater and Lesser Scaup swimming in the area.
Some quick tips, in case you are not overly familiar with differentiating the species. 1) Head color is not reliable. So, while the Greater Scaup appears to be more greenish and the Lesser appears more purple, they do not always look this way in all lighting. 2) Head shape is much better. The Greater Scaup has a rounder, fuller shaped head. The Lesser Scaup has a little tuft to the top of the head. 3) "Nail" size. The tip of the bill on both of these birds has a black "nail". On a Lesser Scaup, this is wider then the Greater Scaup, which is pretty much a fat line. This can be hard to tell unless you have both to look at. Unfortunately, this photo does not show this feature. 4) An even harder thing to differentiate is by using the flank coloration of the birds. Greater Scaup have a cleaner/brighter white. Lesser Scaup, due to some mottling on the flanks, have a dingier white. This, again, can be difficult. The best method for identifying them, for me, is the head shape.
While we had a lot of scoter and other ducks, including some cute little Bufflehead, we did not have a King Eider. After looking around for a bit, we headed over to Tiscornia. There, we found what I was looking for. Very, very, distantly, an immature King Eider was floating around with a raft of scaup and goldeneye. Shari, Mike, and I hung out and chatted for a while and waited to see if the bird would come closer. I got a little bit in flight shot practice, but my battery was nearly dead. I did remember to bring a spare battery this time. I just was not smart enough to have it on me.... Baby steps to victory, I guess.
We chatted and joked around a while before finally calling it a day. It was nice to see the bird. It is only the third King Eider (all imm.) that I have ever seen. So, it made for a great day. Honestly, just hanging out with good people and birding would have been great anyway. The eider was just icing on the cake.
Thanks for reading,