by Jeff Sinker
A large black sea duck with a colorful bill, sometimes initially mistaken for a puffin, the Surf scoter is common in winter along the Pacific Coast in shallow water close to the coastline. The strong head pattern of the male has earned it nicknames like “skunk-head coot” and “old skunk head”.
Foraging for benthic invertebrates – those sea creatures that live on or near the sea bottom – Surf scoters feed on mollusks, crustaceans, small fish, marine worms, and herring spawn by diving and swimming underwater.
Pair bonds are formed during the winter and several males may attempt to attract a single female at the same time. Displays include rapidly swimming back-and-forth with neck stretched upward, flight displays, or exaggerated bowing.
Surf scoters nest in northern Canada and Alaska where the boreal forest blends with the tundra in a patchwork of wetlands, forests, meadows, and lakes. Utilizing wetland edges on medium-sized shallow lakes, the female constructs a shallow depression on the ground and lines it with mosses, downy feathers, twigs, and bark. She incubates the clutch of 5-9 eggs for 28-30 days and the young leave the nest shortly after hatching. The young eat plant material like sedges, crowberries, and pondweeds in addition to aquatic insects. Females will utilize multiple adjacent water bodies when available for brood rearing.
Surf scoters are common on their winter range along the coastlines of Deception Pass State Park and Washington Park in Anacortes where they are often seen just off the beach. Like other sea ducks, these birds are vulnerable to oil spills and other forms of marine pollution.
Sources and more information can be found at: www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Surf_Scoter and www.audubon.org/field-guide/bird/surf-scoter.
Photo credit: Matt Davis, Macaulay Library, www.allaboutbirds.org