||June 2008 issue||
Down, with love
Harvesting the down of the eider duck is helping biologists preserve its habitat on Île aux Lièvres
By Lindsay Borthwick
Aboard a small passenger vessel in the harbour of Rivière-du-Loup,
Que., I spot my first eider ducks. They’re clustered together, gently bobbing
in the surf off the rocky shore of Île aux Lièvres (Hare Island). This densely forested
island astride the St. Lawrence Estuary is my destination and will be my home for
the next three days.
In the town of Tadoussac, at the nearby junction of the Saguenay and
St. Lawrence rivers, beluga whales attract visitors from all over the world. But here
at Île aux Lièvres, the common eider is the main draw. North America’s largest
duck is at the centre of an unconventional and far-sighted conservation effort to
protect the fragile ecosystem of the islands of the Lower St. Lawrence. Together, the
islands boast a remarkable biological diversity, populated with large numbers of waterfowl, seabirds, marine mammals
and fish. And, like a link in a chain, Île aux Lièvres — the largest and most central
of the group — is essential to the region’s ecological integrity. Hundreds of species
thrive in its varied habitats, including (as the name suggests) the snowshoe hare.
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I’ve actually made this journey once before: the four-hour drive from Montréal
to Rivière-du-Loup, checking in with La Société Duvetnor Ltée, the non-profit
organization that owns the island, followed by the river crossing. It was 1998, and my
boyfriend and I had picked Rivière-du-Loup as a pit stop during a road trip to the
Gaspé Peninsula. We’d discovered Île aux Lièvres on the internet. Not only did it
seem like an ideal place to camp and hike for a few days, but it was owned by an
enterprising group of biologists. To a couple of nature-loving science graduate students, it promised to be the perfect prelude. It was.
The island was breathtaking, dwarfed by the Charlevoix mountains to the
north and partially protected by a trio of small islands to the immediate south,
on which a restored 19th-century lighthouse stood watch like a sentinel for new
arrivals. But it was the rare blend of the island’s beauty, natural spoils, maritime
heritage and scientific pedigree that made it unforgettable.
Now, as I ease myself out of the boat, unstable under the weight of my camping
gear (this time, I’m camping solo), I wonder, Will this visit be as magical?
As I wave goodbye to the captain, I see the man behind it all, retired Université
Laval biologist Jean Bédard, striding toward me. Another summer season is
coming to an end, and Bédard has stopped over for the day, camera in hand.
He moves across the rocky shore with ease; after all, this has been familiar terrain for
more than 30 years, beginning in the early 1970s, when he was studying the
unusual eider behaviour of crèche formation. (A kind of extended family
of ducklings and females from different nests, a crèche can range in size from a
few birds to more than 30. Bédard showed that crèches form spontaneously when the
eiders come under threat of a predator, and that duckling mortality declines as
the size of the crèche increases.)
How do you get through the waning weeks of winter?