The male king eider (Somateria spectabilis) is a bird that is guaranteed to make an impression. Gaudy or beautiful, depending on your perspective, he sports a large orange “shield” on his reddish-orange bill, boldly outlined in black. His cheeks are washed with pale green, also outlined in black, while a blue-gray cap runs from his forehead down the back of his neck. The remainder of his body, while less colorful than his face, is nevertheless strikingly high-contrast, with a buffy breast and a white flank spot against otherwise warm black plumage.
When immature, however, the male is far less noteworthy in appearance. He has three major color divisions: a dark brown head, a whitish breast, and a dusky body.
In this species, the female has a unique appearance distinct from immature birds. Her plumage is mottled, with attractive black and chocolatey barring. Her bill is dark.
Best Field Marks
- Orange bill shield on mature male.
- Black back on mature male.
- Concave bill profile of female.
Male king eiders mostly speak up in breeding-oriented situations, cooing to their mates and warning off other males with kwack calls.
The female may vocalize in a variety of settings, including during migration. Her repertoire is not the most musical, consisting of a variety of growls, croaks, and grunts. One of her most common calls sounds something like a gutteral “gag gag gag.” She may also call kwack if alarmed.
Distribution & Occurrence
The king eider is a bird of the arctic regions. Wintering birds come down from the north to spend the colder months along the Atlantic coast as far south as Virginia. Occasionally, a few may migrate as far as Florida. Some visit the Pacific Coast on a rare basis, as well.
Only one king eider has ever been reported in Kansas. This was an immature male that turned up on the Kansas River near Lawrence in the 1940s.
Although the sole Kansas record of a king eider was a lone individual, most eiders travel side by side in enormous flocks.
This duck, typically a resident of the coast, is an incredible diver, plunging down as far as 180 feet to capture mollusks and crustaceans. King eiders may also eat seaweed, as well as terrestrial insects and plants.
The king eider is not likely to be seen in Kansas. Neither birdwatchers nor hunters will have many opportunities to attract this species.
Mature male eiders should not present much of an identification problem. Immature males are trickier, but the common eider has distinctive white mottling on the back that the king eider lacks. Females present the greatest challenge. The most reliable field mark is head shape. The female king eider has a rounder head and somewhat concave bill profile, while the common eider’s forehead slants into its bill in a straight line, creating a peculiar sloping profile.
Photos, audio, and more information from Cornell’s All About Birds site.