Bird Lore: Black Scoter

Photo by LeRoy VanHee
Photo by LeRoy VanHee

Simple elegance in evening dress. The Black Scoter male (drake) always sports his black suit, accented by the yellow nob on his bill. Scoters (Surf, White-winged, and Black) are dark sea ducks that spend most of the year on the ocean in large flocks. On our inland marine waters, Surf Scoters are most abundant and seen most regularly, followed by White-winged Scoters.

Black Scoters, seen much less frequently, winter in Edmonds waters. There is a small flock, five to twenty birds, that is usually seen on the water from Sunset Avenue or from Water Street. This scoter occasionally can be seen flying by the public pier. Edmonds might be the most reliable site on Puget Sound to see this duck.

The Black Scoter feeds by diving in fairly shallow water, at a depth of 30 feet or less. When at sea, it eats mostly mollusks such as mussels and other bivalves. It also eats crustaceans and marine worms. Underwater it propels itself with its feet and keeps its wings folded or partly open. In summer, where it breeds on freshwater, it eats aquatic insects, small fish, and some plant material.

Summer breeding locations include coastal tundra and lakes in northern forests. The scoters we see in Washington breed across northern Alaska to the northwestern corner of Canada’s Northwestern Territories. The nest, built by the female, is a shallow depression lined with soft plant materials and down. It is on the ground, usually near water, and hidden by grasses or low scrub. The 8-9 eggs are incubated for nearly a month. The female tends to the hatchlings and broods them at night, but they feed themselves. They take their first flight at 6-7 weeks of age.

All three Scoter species are fairly quiet. The Black Scoter vocalizes the most. Although there are relatively few recordings of this bird, you can hear flight calls of the male at this link.

– By Carol Riddell

Carol Riddell, author of our new “Bird Lore” feature, manages the bird education displays, on behalf of Pilchuck Audubon Society and Edmonds Parks & Recreation, at the Olympic Beach Visitor Station.

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