12344503661?profile=RESIZE_710xA king eider takes flight in the ocean off Boynton Beach Oceanfront Park; it’s the first king eider recorded in Palm Beach County and only the sixth in Florida. Photo provided by Kenny Miller

By Rich Pollack

Marcus Kelly should have been Christmas tree shopping with his wife and family.

Instead, the avid birder put that task on hold, dropped what he was doing so he could rush to the ocean in search of an elusive white wing scoter — a type of duck hardly ever found off the coast of Florida — that another birder thought he might have seen.

If there was a white wing scoter off Oceanfront Park, Kelly never got to see it.

What he did see, however, was even more difficult to find in Florida’s coastal waters. The duck he spotted in early December, hanging out in a raft of black scoters bobbing in the waves, was a female king eider.

“It’s a ‘wow’ bird,” says Kelly, an attorney whose commitment to birding has taken him to far-off places across the globe. “I’ll probably never see one here again.”

How rare was Kelly’s discovery of this mostly cold-water duck, whose breeding range is along the edge of the Arctic ice cap and which would be a more common sight in New England and northward this time of year?

Consider this: There were only five previously recorded sightings of a king eider in Florida and none in Palm Beach County. This is the farthest-south reported sighting, local birders say.

“This bird should not be here,” says birder Kenny Miller.

Of the previous Florida sightings of the king eider, the most recent was more than a decade ago, Kelly says, and some were as long ago as the 1970s.

“Three of the five reports were from before I was born and I’m 37,” he says.

To get to South Florida, the young female king eider had to have traveled quite a ways from where it should be.

“This bird is about 2,000 miles out of its typical winter range,” says veteran birder Carl Edwards, a common sight himself along the shoreline with his scope in hand.

While no one knows for certain how the bird got here, Edwards surmises that she had been feeding with other ducks, probably black and surf scoters, and took off with them when they launched their migration.

“In many species, when they’re out of range, it’s often an immature bird,” Edwards says.

That may also explain why two long-tailed ducks that usually spend their winters in the northeast, from Virginia to parts of Canada, are here. Those ducks, both juveniles, are a rare sighting as well, but a long-tailed duck was seen in the area last year.

What brings the eider, the long-tailed ducks and scores of black scoters as well as surf scoters to the area off Ocean Ridge is likely a good food supply. These ducks all eat mollusks and crustaceans while in our area.

King eiders can dive as deep as 180 feet in search of food, while black scoters usually dive about 30 feet.

At one point, Edwards estimates, there were more than 500 scoters forming several rafts off the park. It is unusual for scoters in such numbers to stay as long as these birds have.

The king eider also attracted birders from as far away as Georgia, and perhaps farther, who had never seen the bird. Edwards estimates more than 100 birders came to catch a glimpse. “It’s a very rare bird, most people don’t usually get to see,” he says.

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