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What is a Surf Scoter?

By Angie Bates
Updated May 21, 2024
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A surf scoter is a duck that lives in coastal regions or around shallow lakes. Primarily found in Canada and Alaska, these ducks migrate to both the Pacific and Atlantic coasts of the United States in the winter and can occasionally be found around the Great Lakes. They breed near freshwater lakes during the summer. The scientific name for the surf scoter is Melanitta perspicillata.

The male surf scoter is dark black with white markings on its head and a multicolored bill of orange, red, white and black. The bill is thicker at the base, appearing swollen. The female is dark brown, with smaller, less noticeable white facial patches and a green- or blue-tinged black bill. Juvenile surf scoters look much like the females but have more defined facial markings and white bellies. These are large ducks, measuring up to 23.6 inches (60 cm) and weighing as much as 4 pounds (1.8 kg), though the average surf scoter weighs about 2 pounds (0.9 kg).

During breeding seasons, the surf scoter will make a nest out of vegetation on the ground near a lake edge. Nests are hidden by brush or branches and can be difficult for humans to detect. There the female will lay six to nine eggs, incubating them for 29 days. The male leaves after the eggs are laid.

After the eggs hatch, the ducklings are mobile almost immediately, waiting only to dry before they leave the nest. The females will guard the ducklings but do not teach their young. The hatchlings are born knowing how to feed themselves, but they cannot fly until about eight weeks after they are hatched. The mother surf scoter might leave the ducklings before they can fly.

Surf scoters eat mostly freshwater invertebrates. In order to catch their food, the adult ducks frequently dive for prey located near the bottom of a lake. The juveniles feed mostly on insects and arachnids. The adults are particularly fond of herring eggs and, during breeding season, will nest near herring breeding areas.

The surf scoter is not a vocal bird. It is generally quiet except during breeding season, when the male might make guttural calls while performing a mating display. When flying, the duck's wings will make a whistling sound.

These birds have not been extensively studied, but there is some indication that their populations have been declining. Difficulty in determining their population is because of their low breeding densities and their habit of hiding their nests. As of 2010, their population had not, however, dropped to the level of an endangered species, and the surf scoter was still considered common.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is a Surf Scoter?

A Surf Scoter is a medium-sized sea duck native to the North American coastlines. It's known for its distinctive appearance, with males sporting a black plumage and a unique multi-colored bill. These birds are primarily found in marine environments and are adept divers, feeding on mollusks and crustaceans.

Where can you find Surf Scoters?

Surf Scoters breed in the boreal forests and tundra of Canada and Alaska. During winter, they migrate to coastal waters, with many found along the Pacific and Atlantic coasts of North America. They are also occasionally seen in Eurasia, indicating their broad migratory patterns.

What do Surf Scoters eat?

Surf Scoters have a diet that mainly consists of aquatic invertebrates. They dive to forage for mollusks, crustaceans, and small fish. Their specialized bill allows them to extract prey from the ocean floor, making them effective hunters in their marine habitat.

How do Surf Scoters reproduce?

Surf Scoters breed in the late spring and early summer. They nest on the ground near water bodies in their northern breeding range. Females lay a clutch of 5-9 eggs and incubate them for about a month. The ducklings are precocial and can feed themselves shortly after hatching, though the mother provides protection.

Are Surf Scoters endangered?

Surf Scoters are not currently classified as endangered. However, their populations are subject to fluctuations due to factors like habitat loss and oil spills. Conservation efforts focus on monitoring populations and protecting crucial habitats to ensure their numbers remain stable.

How can one identify a Surf Scoter?

To identify a Surf Scoter, look for a stout sea duck with a distinctive bill. Males have a black body, white patches on their head, and a colorful bill with white, red, and yellow hues. Females are brown with paler cheeks. Both sexes have a characteristic profile with a sloping forehead and a slightly upturned bill.

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