Surf scoters are named for their propensity to forage in ocean surf and dive through the foam of breaking waves. A flock of surf scoters will often dive in unison to confuse the gulls waiting on the surface to steal their catch. They eat mollusks, mussels, and crustaceans. They also feed along rocky shores and shallow-water inlets.
If you’re in Santa Cruz, California, look for these birds from the wharf – out beyond the kelp forests near the breaking surf. They can be seen sitting on the surface, diving for food or flying in disorganized flocks in a straight line with steady wing-beats.
The adult male surf scoter (Melanitta perspicillata) can be easily spotted by its large bright orange and white bill. The female, as is typical in the bird world, has no orange and is generally much less flashy. The bill is oddly-shaped and has earned the scoter nicknames such as goggle-nose, horse-head coot, and mussel-bill.
Their range is along the Pacific Coast. They nest and breed in the summer from Alaska to northern Canada and can winter along the coast anywhere from Alaska down to Baja.
The males are about 17 inches long with a short wing-span, a velvety all-black body with white patches on the forehead and the back of the neck, a whitish-gray eye, and orange feet and legs. The female has a plain, dark grayish body with a dark top of the head and pale white patches under the eye, on the side of the head, and on the back of the neck. The bill isn’t as large as the male’s and is a dark green. The legs are an orange-red, not as bright as the male’s, and the webs on the feet are black. An immature male scoter looks much like a female.
Male scoters are well-known for their aggression toward other male scoters. They bicker, peck and splash to discourage rivals. They breed in wetlands and areas of sparsely-wooded small trees or shrubs, or on the tundra. In late May-early June they build hidden nests on the ground. They are so well-hidden in vegetation that they weren’t even studied until the early 1900s. The pair scoops out a depression under cover, fills it with down, and the female lays 5 to 8 pinkish-brown eggs. Both parents sometimes leave before the chicks are fully fledged.
There was a sharp decline in the population into the early 1900s, due to pollution and oil spills. An oil spill in San Francisco Bay in 2007 also caused a large die-off. The current population numbers are not well-known but are generally believed to be on the decline.
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- Birds. National Audubon Society Birds Website. http://birds.audubon.org/.
- Birds of North America. Whatbird.com Website. http://identify.whatbird.com/mwg/_/0/attrs.aspx.
- Natural History of the Waterfowl: Surf Scoter. http://www.virtualbirder.com/vbirder/ibis/SUSC/SUSC401.html.
- Surf Scoter. Seaduckjv.org. Sea Duck Information Series.