Take on nature: The eider duck, alone in the storm

A male eider duck (Somateria mollissima), common to the north of Ireland on coastlines from Strangford Lough to Streedagh in Co Sligo
A male eider duck (Somateria mollissima), common to the north of Ireland on coastlines from Strangford Lough to Streedagh in Co Sligo A male eider duck (Somateria mollissima), common to the north of Ireland on coastlines from Strangford Lough to Streedagh in Co Sligo

ALL of us at some time are visited by difficult periods in our lives, occasions when we must navigate turbulent waters, travel tough journeys, often with uncertain outcomes. Such experiences test our resolve, resilience and well of resources.

Recent storms recalled in my memory an especially stormy November afternoon spent at Co Antrim’s Ballintoy harbour a few years back, an occasion which demonstrated the powerful capacity for survival in our natural world, something which we, as part of that world, no doubt also possess.

It was there I watched an angry, swelling sea crash against the rocky outcrops just offshore sending its spray skywards, while other waves broke through narrow rock channels and plunged on to the beach below me. It provided spectacular viewing.

Onlookers watched in the gusting winds, admiring this raw force of nature unleash itself. Some just looked on in awe while others, wanting to engage more closely found precarious positions among the rocks to capture the moments of collision and spray on camera.

Scanning the scene, I became aware of a solitary male eider duck (Somateria mollissima) way out in the swell, a tiny speck in a vast unforgiving sea. I followed its progress, trying to make sense of the bird’s ability to negotiate and survive such violent waters. I marvelled at its calmness as it either rode the massive swells by rising to the top and over before they broke, or dived through the water at the base of breaking waves to avoid their unfurling power.

It seemed as though the eider had no fear of this storm and that some ancient line of ancestral genes had prepared it for such passing trouble. The sturdy duck of northern coasts simply and gracefully played the angry waters rather than fight or struggle with them.

The ‘Éadar’ or ‘Colc’ (quilt) in Irish, is a beautifully coloured sea duck famed for providing soft feathers for our quilts and ‘eiderdowns'. Part of its scientific name, mollissima, comes from the Latin meaning ‘soft’, a reference to its down feathers.

The male is especially colourful, largely white with a black cap, rear and wing. It is also tinged with a light green on the back of the neck.

Eider ducks nest colonially on offshore islets and along low lying coastal areas where the threat of mammalian predation is reduced. In Ireland they are resident all year along our rocky north and north-western coasts and can been seen from Strangford Lough in the east all the way round to the western shores of Streedagh estuary in Co Sligo.

Folklore tells us that as small flocks of eiders shelter in Atlantic coves during extremely cold weather, some of the birds will move to the outside of the group to prevent the water from freezing and also that non-breeding females known as ‘aunts’ care for young eider nestlings. In Northumberland and around north-east England, the bird is affectionately known as the ‘Cuddy duck’, named after St Cuthbert who gave eiders special protection on his monastic island of Inner Farne.

Some days later after the autumnal storm had abated, I returned to the cove where the waters were now much calmer, relieved of their anger. There too, closer to the shore was, I presumed, my male eider diving for crabs or shellfish, serene and unaffected by the battering waves from days earlier.

The bird’s presence represented the power in 'acceptance’ of life’s challenging trials and their inevitable passing. A symbol for all of us on the innate capacity we share for surviving.