The male Surf Scoter has a solid black body and black head with white patches at the back of the head and on the forehead above the eyes. This distinctive pattern has earned this bird the nickname ‘skunk-head coot.’ The bill of the adult male is large, swollen at the base, and yellow-orange with a white and yellow splotch on each side and a black spot on the splotch. The female is mostly dark gray. Her bill is shaped like that of the male, although slightly smaller and mostly gray in color. The female has white patches at the base of her bill and white smudging at her ears and back of her head. Both sexes have white eyes. Juveniles are similar to females but have black eyes.
Scoters spend the non-breeding part of the year in large rafts on the ocean or in open bays and inlets. They forage almost exclusively by diving, taking prey from the ocean floor and also taking mussels from man-made structures. They are strong flyers but must get a running start along the water to get airborne. Males actively defend their mates, keeping other birds at bay.
Surf Scoters nest on freshwater lakes and wetlands in the Arctic, in sparsely forested and semi-open regions. They winter in open coastal environments, favoring shallow bays and estuaries with rocky substrates.
Continent-wide (Nearctic), Surf Scoters may have gone through a serious decline early in the 20th Century, but now appear to be numerous with a stable population. There is evidence of a long-term decline in the West, and large die-offs were observed in the early 1990s at coastal reefs in southeastern Alaska. The cause of these die-offs is unknown, but pesticides or other contaminants are the suspected cause. The population is vulnerable to oil spills on the wintering grounds and disturbance and habitat destruction as a result of oil drilling on breeding grounds.
During winter, mollusks and crustaceans are the most common food items. During the breeding season, aquatic insect larvae become a predominant part of the diet. Surf Scoters also eat other aquatic invertebrates and pondweeds.
This species has a large range, with an estimated global Extent of Occurrence of 1,000,000-10,000,000 km². It has a large global population estimated to be 400,000-600,000 individuals (Wetlands International 2002). Global population trends have not been quantified, but the species is not believed to approach the thresholds for the population decline criterion of the IUCN Red List (i.e. declining more than 30% in ten years or three generations). For these reasons, the species is evaluated as Least Concern. [conservation status from birdlife.org]
Surf Scoters probably form pair bonds on the wintering grounds in their second or third year. Nests are built on the ground, hidden by dense brush or low tree branches. They are usually located close to water, but can be some distance away. The nest is a well-concealed, shallow depression on the ground, lined with vegetation and down. The female typically lays 5 to 9 eggs (usually 7) and incubates them for about 28 to 30 days, although the incubation period is not well known. The pair bond dissolves, and the male leaves soon after incubation begins. The young leave the nest shortly after hatching and can feed themselves, although the female tends them and leads them to food-rich areas. In dense breeding areas, mixing of broods may occur. The female abandons the chicks before they can fly (at about 55 days), and multiple broods often join to form crèches.
Migratory. Winters Pacific coasts from Aleutian Islands and south-east Alaska to Baja California, and in Atlantic from south Newfoundland and Gulf of St Lawrence to Florida.
- spanwidth min.: 77 cm
- spanwidth max.: 85 cm
- size min.: 45 cm
- size max.: 56 cm
- incubation min.: 28 days
- incubation max.: 30 days
- fledging min.: 21 days
- fledging max.: 23 days
- broods 1
- eggs min.: 5
- eggs max.: 8
- Conservation Status