Surf Scoter (Melanitta perspicilatta) is a common sea duck that often socializes in large groups with Black and White-winged scoters. The male Surf Scoter’s distinctive features include a mostly black body with white patches on their forehead and the back of the neck, prominent knob on the bill, and icy white eyes. The Surf Scoter is also known as a “skunkhead” because of the white plumage on their heads.
The brightly colored and relatively enormous drake Surf Scoter bill and white head patches make it unmistakable. Females surf scoters have brown plumage with white brushed along the cheeks and underbelly and have the same “humped” bill that is light gray. The wings of both sexes are similar, with dark brown primaries and black speculum; their wings also create a whistling sound that can be heard up to half a mile away when conditions are right.
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Breeding entirely in North America, their preferred breeding areas are around freshwater systems from coastal and interior Alaska and throughout northern Canada. Population data outside of Alaska are not well-known, but the highest density is suspected to be in Alaska. Surf Scoter males are extremely territorial around their nest, while the female does not have much interest in other Surf Scoters coming near the brood. Hens will only guard the ducklings while they grow, but it is common for them to get confused in crowded areas and join different broods. Surf Scoters will separate and winter on the Pacific or Atlantic Coasts, around the Great Lakes, and scattered regions around the Gulf of Mexico. Not every individual will migrate to breeding grounds but are not necessarily residents. Immature Surf Scoter often congregate in estuaries in California or New Jersey.
Surf Scoters’ year-round diet is predominately mussels and clams, but during breeding season both adults and ducklings will indulge in freshwater invertebrates. The individuals of this species that winter along the Pacific, accompanied by Black Scoters, will feed on herring spawn during the early Spring.