Famous for its soft and warm feathers that we know and love as eiderdown
What you need to know about the Common Eider
Our Expert Says… "Female eiders are remarkably tolerant of people, and it's this characteristic that makes the collecting of the valuable down easy. The young chicks are precocious and can swim from a young age - although their thick down is very buoyant, and it can be amusing to watch them bob about like corks when they try to dive like their parents!"
The common eider is a species of duck that breeds in the arctic and overwinters further south in more temperate areas. It’s also sometimes known as Cuddy’s duck or St Cuthbert’s duck. A famous colony of eiders on the Farne Islands in the UK was the subject of the first bird-protection law in 676, when St Cuthbert decreed that they were not to be killed (“Cuddy” is a short name for Cuthbert)
Common eider ducks are famous for being the source of eiderdown - the soft under feathers from the female’s breast that are used to line and insulate their nests. Although reduced in popularity thanks to the introduction of synthetic alternatives, eiderdown is still harvested. Because it’s taken from nests after the ducklings have left it doesn’t harm the birds in any way.
One of the largest northern hemisphere duck species, the common eider can grow up to 70cm (28”) long with a wingspan of over 50cm (20”) and weigh more than 3kg (6.5lb). They have a bulky body shape and a large bill with an obvious wedge shape. Despite their large size they are one of the fastest flying duck species and have been clocked at 70mph.
In appearance, males are easy to spot with their striking black and white plumage with a green patch on the nape of the neck. Females are a much more drab brown color, but still usually easily identifiable due to their large size.
Eiders feed on crustaceans and mollusks, with mussels being a favorite food. They actually swallow the shellfish whole and the shells are crushed in their muscular gizzards. They breed in colonies anywhere between 100 and 15,000 strong and have a high degree of social co-operation, crèching ducklings together to share parenting and even laying in related birds’ nests.
There are thought to be up to 2 million eider ducks in the North American and European populations, and although not immediately threatened, there were large die-offs in the Canadian populations in the 1990s due to sudden changes in the pattern of ice floes.
Common Eider: Pictures & Videos
Spots where the Common Eider can be observed
Ahlstrandodden and Bamsebu
These two sites are at the entrance to the southern arm of Bellsund - Van Keulenfjorden. Both sites, and the area between them, are scattered with remains from the Beluga, the white whale, that was hunted for the blubber and skin. There are piles of bleached bones and upturned wooden boats that were left when the area was abandoned in the 1930’s.
Beluga can be seen along the shore here. If you are lucky to encounter them it is poignant with their bleached bones on the shore.
It is popular site for a landing and to walk across the tundra between the two sites, looking for Arctic flowers, Reindeer, Arctic Foxes, and check out some hunter’s cabins and the remains of fox traps.
Also look out for Purple Sandpipers and Red Phalaropes feeding along the shoreline.
A long narrow island of hard bedrock at the entrance to Van Mijentfjorden, the northern fjord arm of Bellsund. It is popular for a Zodiac cruise around the island and through the narrow Mariasundet, with the strong currents that attract seabirds.
There is the chance of landing to explore the geology, but with lots of scouting first to make sure there is not a hidden bear. The surrounding mountains provide some spectacular scenery and some impressive geology. But few cruise ships go further into this deep fjord, preferring to do landings in Bellsund, and to ship cruise into Hornsund.
Arrival at Longyearbyen
The transport hub for Svalbard with the airport. Once just a mining town, it is now involved with tourism and scientific research and has various services, accommodation, shops and cafés, and some interesting museums.
There is also the chance to check out wildlife within town, including Snow Buntings and even reindeer, and to walk along the road through the mudflats to the dog kennels, dodging the Arctic Terns on route. There is an Eider colony next to the kennels and Barnacle Geese and other birds on the mudflats. If you are very lucky, you might see an Ivory Gull near the kennels.
Longyearbyen is the biggest settlement in Svalbard. Seat of the Norwegian administration, it also has the best services and infrastructure in the archipelago. Located deep in the Adventfjord, a sidearm of the Isfjorden (Icefjord), Longyearbyen’s airport can be used all-year round, but its harbor is blocked by ice in winter. Most shops, hotels, restaurants and a hospital are within easy walking distance of the port.
An active Russian mining town on the hillside of Grønfjorden, that has fallen on hard times, and it can look bleak and stark.
But it is a great place to walk around with the Soviet architecture. There is a hotel, a souvenir shop, a museum, and recently, with more investment, a brewery. Most of the cruises do not visit, but it is easy to see on a clear day sailing in or out of Isfjorden. It is a popular day trip from Longyearbyen, and you could even stay overnight.
Narrow strait separating Somerset Island to the north from Murchison Promontory of Boothia Peninsula to the south, the northernmost part of mainland America.
The 2km (1.2 mi) wide and 25 km (16 mi) strait connects the Gulf of Boothia, Prince Regent Inlet, and Brentford Bay to the east with Peel Sound and Franklin Strait to the west. It became a strait on ‘one’ of the NW passage routes. On a map of the Canadian Arctic, unless you look in detail, it is easy to assume the Boothia Peninsula and Somerset Island is one peninsula. In many ways, with Bellot Strait locked in ice much of the year, it is like the peninsula. Since it is so narrow, it can be a place to look for Narwhal, and, along the shore, Polar Bear, or even wolf.
In northwest Greenland in Melville Bay, the ice sheet comes right down to the coast, separating the very northwest part of Greenland from the rest of western Greenland.
Cape York is one of the first locations on this northwest coast that has tundra and lakes to explore. The mountains and icebergs match this remote location that, in many ways, has far more of a link with the Canadian Arctic, rather than Greenland.
It is one of the most important locations in NW Greenland for breeding seabirds and it can be good for marine mammals. Including traditional hunting ground, whalers and explorers have also visited the area, and the family of Admiral Robert Peary's family placed a monument in honour of his explorations on the cape.
Nice area to explore the tundra and enjoy the magnificent views.
Daneborg and Clavering Island
Daneborg, on the south coast of Wollaston Foreland peninsula, is the location of the Danish Sirius Patrol that patrols NE Greenland and the vast national park.
Cruise ships check in here coming in from Svalbard then explore nearby fjords, making sure ice coming south along the Greenland Sea does not trap them in! Across Young Fjord is Clavering Island, were Clavering and his crew of the Griper encountered a band of twelve Inuit in August 1823. Later explorers to the region found no evidence of inhabitants in NE Greenland. There are the remains of settlements and it appears, as European explorers turned up, the small population was already dying out or moving on, possibly the combination of cold conditions at the time, and Muskox hunted out in one of the harshest areas to survive, even for the Innuit - NE Greenland. There was also a weather station on the island.
Disembark in Longyearbyen
Longyearbyen is the biggest settlement in Svalbard. Seat of the Norwegian administration, it also has the best services and infrastructure in the archipelago. Located deep in the Adventfjord, a sidearm of the Isfjorden (Icefjord), Longyearbyen’s airport can be used all-year round, but its harbor is blocked by ice in winter.
Most shops, hotels, restaurants and a hospital are within easy walking distance of the port. One of the most prominent buildings in town is the UNIS center, where several Norwegian universities have joined forces to operate and offer the northernmost higher education to both Norwegian and international students. Adjacent to UNIS, and well worth a visit, is the Svalbard Museum, covering the natural history and exploitation of Svalbard. Remnants of the former mining activity can be seen all around Longyearbyen and even in town.
A range of wildlife can be seen around the town and the mudflats on the road to the dog kennels. There is an Eider colony here and Ivory Gulls can sometimes be seen. If you can dodge the diving Arctic terns, the mudflats attract birds like Barnacle Geese, and a range of waterbirds and shorebirds that are scarce in other parts of Svalbard.
At the very northern end of Baffin Bay and the very northwest of Greenland, Etah looks across the Nares Strait to Ellesmere Island, the area usually frozen from October to July.
The area was the crossing point to Greenland for cultures 4,400 and 2,700 years ago, the Thule culture migrants less than a thousand years ago, and the point of the last migration of the Inuit from Baffin Island reached the coast of Greenland in 1865 Etah was also a starting point for various expeditions attempting to get to the North Pole.
Today the channel, when frozen, continues to be a crossing point for wildlife from Canada to Greenland, even Wolverine get across. Etah used to be the most-northerly populated settlement in the world, but it was abandoned (Inuit moving south to Pituffik) due to the harsh conditions.
Festningen and Russekeila
There is some great tundra to explore along the flat coast on the SW side of Isfjorden, to the east of Kapp Linne.
Festningen, quite close to Barentsburg, is well known for the fossils, including the footprint of a dinosaur in sediments that have been forced by the Earth’s forces into a vertical position. Russekeila is a cultural site from the time the Russian Pomors carried out trapping in this area.
The 14th of July bay and glacier, named by Prince Albert I of Monaco on the Princesse Alice on his oceanographic expeditions to Svalbard from 1898 to 1907.
It is one of the highlights in Krossfjorden, often combining a landing with a Zodiac cruise. Cruising along the impressive glacier front, there are regular calvings with bergs in the bay that attracts birds like kittiwakes. And nearby there are bird cliffs with a colony of Thick-billed Murres (Brünnich’s Guillemot) that also includes Atlantic Puffins. Options for landing (being careful of potential Tsunami waves from calvings) include one of the best spots in the whole of Svalbard for flowers, and even the chance to walk on the side of the glacier.
Sheer sided fjord on the south side of Milneland. Great ship cruising, often as part of the circumnavigation of Milneland.
Denmarkøya, on the south-east side of Milne Island, is the location of a group of small islands with landing potential at the end of Føhnfjord, at a position between the deeper fjord systems and the open ‘bay’ of Scoresbysund. The popular landing here is Hekla Havn, named after the expedition ship used by Carl Ryder when the expedition explored NE Greenland from 1891 to 92. As well as the hut remains from the expedition, there are older Innuit remains, as well as good tundra walks, wildlife, and some great geology.
Fort Ross is an abandoned former trading post on Somerset Island. First established in 1937 by the Hudson's Bay Company, it was only operational to 1948, as severe ice conditions in the surrounding waters made the site hard to reach and economically unviable.
It is interesting to visit a Hudson’s Bay Company hut and to contemplate the location. It is situated at the eastern end of Bellot Strait on a south-eastern peninsula of Somerset Island, a key location in the northwest Passage. Also good for a rage of high arctic species.
Popular landing in Hornsund with spectacular scenery including towering bird cliffs with thousands of breeding Black-legged Kittiwakes and Brünnich’s Guillemots and all the noise (gnål means “nagging” in Norwegian), that attracts Arctic Foxes at the base of the cliff. Geese and reindeer also occur and it is a good location for plants.
Trappers called it Fuglefjell, the location being very popular as a base for hunting bears coming into Hornsund from the key breeding grounds around Hopen in SE Svalbard. The hunter’s cabin at the base of the cliff is famous as the place where the first female trapper stayed, Wanny Wolstead. Even today, staff need to carefully check for bears before going ashore, and sometimes a landing cannot occur if there is a bear on shore.
This is the sound between Spitsbergen and Barentsøya and a second way to reach Hinlopenstretet instead of Freemansundet.
However, with the extremely strong currents few captains go this way, and usually later in the season, when there is less chance of ice floes hurtling through on the current, and at the right stage of the tide. It is a spectacular ship cruise, often with lots of feeding seabirds. There is a nearby passage that is far too narrow to sail through, but there is the option to go through this narrow passage by Zodiac whilst the ship goes through the main channel and picks up the Zodiacs on the other side. A really exciting and fun Zodiac cruise!
The sound between Spitsbergen and Nordaustlandet in the high Arctic, in contrast to the milder coast of western Spitsbergen. Early in the season it is locked in ice that slowly clears from the south.
The northern end can be blocked by the pack for a while, varying from season to season. Once open, it enables circumnavigation of Spitsbergen, although ice can still drift in on strong currents and block Hinlopenstretet. When Hinlopenstretet is open, but the northern end is still blocked, ships will come into the area, typically sailing along Freemansundet between Edgeøya and Barentsøya, then return.
The area is superb for Zodiac cruises and landings, and can be superb even as a ship cruise. There are plenty of seabirds, the sound can be good for whales, there are various fjords to explore, like the surprisingly arid and desert-like Wahlenbergfjorden, various island groups to explore, like Wahlbergøya, and the chance to experience what is described as the polar desert. Three locations stand out as highlights in whole of Svalbard, the ice cliff Bråsvellbreen, the Walrus Haul out at Torellneset , and the bird cliff at Alkefjellet.
The fjords in the inner part of Hornsund is superb to explore by ship with the spectacular rugged scenery, including the distinctive and towering peak known as Hornsundtind. The geology is impressive, and make sure to look out for birds, seals, and even Polar bears.
Deeper in the Fjord, there is the impressive and long glacial front of Hornbreen, and there are glacial fronts in Burgerbutka to the north, and Samarinvågen to the south. These locations are also excellent for Zodiac cruising to get close to the glacial fronts (at a safe distance) and look for wildlife.
Amongst the ice floes is a great place to look for Ringed Seals, Bearded Seals, and the Ivory Gull.
Located on the NW corner of Edgeøya at the entrance to Freemansundet, Kapp Lee is the location of a Walrus haul out that is also a good location for Reindeer, the chance of Arctic Fox, and great tundra vegetation.
It is also a site of cultural significance with the foundations of a Pomor dwelling and several hunters cabin including a hexagonal shaped hut that is right next to the Walrus haul out. Just above the shoreline on nearby beach are the remains of a Bow Head Whale where the carcass must have drifted ashore long ago. Now, with isostatic rebound (the land slowly rising up after being pushed down under the weight when the whole of Svalbard was under an ice sheet) the bones are a short distance above the shoreline.
Kongsvegen and Kongsbreen
The inner part of Kongsfjorden is popular for ship cruising and especially Zodiac cruising with the mountain scenery, some impressive glacier fronts, and the chance to explore the ice floes looking for wildlife, and the chance of a bear.
Also keep a look out for Long tailed Jaegers, one of the few places they breed in Svlbard is on the island of Ny London in the middle of Kongsford. A number of lakes and pools in the region can attract a range of waterbirds.
The two split fjords that form the inner part of Krossfjorden are popular for ship cruising and Zodiac cruising to enjoy the scenery, the glacier fronts, and to look out for wildlife and the chance of a bear.
There are also several options for landings including Möllerhamna, with a hunter’s cabin painted orange that is known the ‘Lloyds Hotel’. Many cruise ships have visited the site for over 100 years, leaving behind mementoes like signs, graffiti (no longer allowed), and a bar. Sigenhamna is another location where there was a German weather station in World War II.
This island, and the associated smaller islands, is off the NW coast of Nordaustlandet. Lågøya means ‘low island’, and it is the site of a Walrus haul out and is great for bird life, with the chance of Sabine’s Gulls that are attracted to the lagoons on the island.
Part of the island is sea¬so¬nal¬ly pro¬tec-ted and off limits and landings are often thwarted by the presence of a bear, or bears. It is an area where there can be loose pack ice when the pack, further to the east, is still too compact to sail though. It means this location very popular for Zodiac cruising with the wildlife that can be encountered. There is at least one old hunter’s cabin on the island, but conditions were particularly harsh on Lågøya, some perishing on the island, making hunters reticent of over wintering here.
Prince Leopold Island
This island is in a key location in Lancaster Sound at the junction of Prince Regent Inlet and Barrow Strait, off the northwest coast of Somerset Island. It has some really impressive and steep seabird cliffs that is one of the most important sites in the Canadian Arctic and a bird sanctuary.
Also good area to look for marine mammals and other Arctic wildlife.
Further around the Northwest coast of Spitsbergen, further to the east, this fjord is often blocked off by the pack ice in the early season before, but is the first area to become free as the pack ice retreats from the NW corner of Spitsbergen.
The mountains in this area are rugged and the coast here may have been the land that Barents saw when he came up with the name of Spitsbergen. The name, ‘red fjord’ comes from the red sandstone in the south and east areas of the fjord. There is a hunter’s wooden cabin at Bruceneset and a cairn for a pioneer that died of scurvy whilst overwintering in 1907/08. The name is for the explorer William S. Bruce, the area named by Prince Albert I of Monaco on the Princesse Alice on his oceanographic expeditions to Svalbard from 1898 to 1907.
Ship and Zodiac cruising
With the myriad of islands and channels, and the ice, there needs to be a lot of flexibility of where to explore within the Franz Joseph archipelago. But there is the chance to see a range of Arctic wildlife, such as the Polar Bear and Walrus, plus species like Bowhead Whale and Narhwal that are scarcer in Svalbard waters.
Many of the ships that head up to the north pole pass through the islands.
This extensive fjord system has impressive scenery and numerous glaciers that is great to explore by ship whilst being on the watch out for bears. It is also an area with lots of history.
Smeerenburg was the base for the Dutch whalers that was known as ‘blubber town’, with the remains of the blubber ovens for those that get ashore. There is also a Walrus haul out that can be observed from the shore, or from a Zodiac if there is a bear nearby (quite often the case here in the NW). Close by is Virgohamna, the site where Andrée set off his ill-fated trip to the North Pole by balloon in 1897, and where Wellman attempted to fly to the pole in the early 1900’s. Today there are the scattered remains of the balloon shed and the aircraft hangar. Special permission is required to land but the remains can be seen from a Zodiac offshore. Smeerenberg was also the location where the Fram appeared after drifting across the Arctic Ocean, stuck in the ice for three years!
Tasiilaq & Kulusak
Tasiilaq is the largest town in south-east Greenland, close to the mouth of the rugged and long Sermilik Fjord. With the ice sheet just to the west the Sermilik glacier carves numerous icebergs. Kulusak is nearby and with an airport is popular with the short flight from Iceland.
Area good for the landscape, whale watching, the wildlife, and the flora.
Town on small island of the same name with a prominent peak at the entrance of Uummannaq Fjord.
Photogenic location for the town, the largest north of Ilulissat, with a museum and the chance to experience a Greenland community. The fjords great for the scenery and icebergs and whale watching. In the region is Qilakitsaq, where there is a site with Innuit burial remains.
This large fjord, and the associated Bockfjorden and Liefdefjorden in northern Spitsbergen, becomes accessible as the pack retreats. It is great for ship cruising, enjoying the scenery, and to look out for bears along the extensive coastline.
Flexibility is key with the chance of bears and changing weather conditions, but with plenty of choices in this large fjord complex. Zodiac cruises are popular, including Monacobreen glacier at the end of Liefdelfjorden, and the islands of Andøyane, a great area for a range of birds, including King Eider. There are also options for landings. The large and impressive wooden hut at Mushamna on the NE side of Woodfjorden. The small hunter’s cabin known as the Texas Bar in Liefdefjorden. The ‘thermal spring’ at Jotunkjeldane in Bockfjorden.