Last winter, we sent photographer Olivier Born to the archipelago to discover the wintering ground of our favorite duck, the work done locally by volunteers, and the stark beauty of this little piece of France in the North Atlantic. Here are a selection of his photos, a few words about his trip, an update on the conservation status of eiders.
The eider ducks on Saint-Pierre-et-Miquelon are doing fine
Saint-Pierre-et-Miquelon isn’t a very popular destination, so before you left, what did you expect to find there? And how did you feel when you discovered the place?
I have to confess I couldn’t point to the French archipelago of Saint-Pierre-et-Miquelon on the map. And if it weren’t for this assignment, I’d surely never have gone there, but I’m delighted to have discovered these two bits of confetti in the middle of the North Atlantic – it’s an incredible place!
What do the day-to-day activities of the NGO’s members involve?
They all have jobs, and only volunteer for the NGO in their spare time. During the winter season, which lasts until April-May, they observe and count populations of eider ducks, which like the coasts of the archipelago as they’re relatively quiet.
How would you describe the islands’ climate? The ducks winter there, but the weather’s hardly pleasant, right?
You can say that again – and I was there in the spring! Over nine days, I think I only saw the sun twice. The temperature rarely rose above freezing-point and the winds were particularly strong. The feeling of cold was hard to deal with – especially when you have to stay still when carrying out ornithological observations.
Shoots in hostile natural habitats are always a bit complicated. Got an anecdote that sums up your trip?
The observations are done by the sea, and besides the fact that it was bitterly cold and you had to be very well equipped in terms of apparel and footwear, the main problem was the sea spray. Between each shot, I had to cover my camera to stop the lens getting wet. Salt and photo gear don’t mix…
What did you like most about the trip? What touched you the most?
I’d say the people, definitely. Their living conditions are difficult but they’re particularly warm-hearted. They were very generous with their time, helping me explore their islands. They welcomed me with open arms and were very curious to find out where I’d come from and what I was doing there.
The common eider is on the Red List of Threatened Species published by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). It is the largest duck in the northern hemisphere. Sought after for their meat, eggs, and high-quality down, eider populations have been overexploited in the course of history. Now they also face many other threats such as habitat degradation, sea pollution by oil, disruption of colonies by often invasive predators, the development of certain diseases, and global warming.
The archipelago of Saint-Pierre-et-Miquelon is home to the largest wintering population of eiders in France. Weather conditions are favorable and food is easily available, while predation and disturbance are minimal. During the period from October to April, the NGO SPM Frag’îles has for a number of years been conducting monthly monitoring of the population of “Moyaks” – the American Indian name for the species. The NGO’s many volunteers, all passionate naturalists, carry out twice-monthly counts at the various eider staging sites that have been identified. These estimates make it possible to regularly assess the number of eiders that frequent the archipelago; to ensure the efficiency of conservation actions; and to help monitor the species’ status worldwide.
Although populations vary regularly during the wintering period, but also from year to year, observations and monitoring of the species have shown a clear increase in the number of eiders around the archipelago since 2000. The eider is a popular trophy among the islands’ hunters, and these encouraging results are due in part to the creation of a game sanctuary, which provides the species with an area of tranquility, coupled with conservation measures and awareness-raising among the archipelago’s hunters and residents about best observation practice. In 2015, 8,325 eiders were counted.