Over the last couple of years, I’ve gotten hooked on bird watching. Island County is a wonderful place to go birding and my eBird account tells me I have seen 175 species within its boundaries. This time of year, one of my favorites is the surf scoter. The male’s jet black feathers and massive yellow-tipped orange bill make it stand out in mixed flocks of waterfowl and if you get close enough, you’ll see that its eyes are white. The colorful bill and white facial markings are sometimes described as clown-like and an elongated white patch on the nape has earned it the nickname “skunk head”. A little research shows that surf scoters actually have quite a number of descriptive designators including “blossom billed coot”, “skunk duck”, and “horse head coot”. Females are not as flamboyant as their male counterparts. Their feathers are brownish black with diffuse whitish patches at the base of the bill and behind the eye and sometimes having a light patch on the nape. She shares the oversized bill but it lacks the bright coloration and is instead dark greenish black.
Surf scoters are diving ducks and they plunge headfirst into the water with their wings partially extended then use their feet to propel them as they dive down as far as 25 meters in search of food. Here in the Puget Sound region research has shown that they feed mainly on blue mussels, polychaetes, softshell and macoma clams, crustaceans, fish, and herring eggs. A study published in 2012 (https://www.int-res.com/articles/meps2012/467/m467p219.pdf) looked at surf scoters as they started the winter feeding on small mussels in Penn Cove and progressed to polychaetes as numbers of small mussels decreased. Later in the winter, numbers of scoters in Penn Cove dropped but increased in Padilla Bay where pea crabs, isopods, and snails in the seagrass meadow habitat became their predominant prey. The study focuses on how prey size drove the dynamics of the birds’ feeding strategies and it was a fascinating look at the complexities of the food web. Interestingly, other studies have found that surf scoters have started incorporating the nonnative purple varnish clam (first found in the Puget Sound area in the 1990s) into their diet. Surf scoters fall prey to bald eagles, river otters, mink, orcas, and sea lions.
Late spring sees surf scoters heading to the far north for the breeding season. They spend summers near shallow lakes in the tundra areas of northern Canada and Alaska.
Be sure to take your binoculars when you go to the beach and keep your eyes peeled for surf scoters and other great birds and wildlife that call our Puget Sound area shorelines home!