The male surf scoter (Melanitta perspicillata) is a peculiar-looking duck, not readily forgotten. He is known as the “skunkhead” due to the white patches on his crown and nape, which contrast sharply with his mostly black body. Additional contrast comes from his white eyes, his largely orange feet, and his enormous orange bill patterned with white and set off with a round black disk. This heavy bill, combined with his flat forehead, gives him a profile similar to that of the canvasback.
Females and immature surf scoters are somewhat less remarkable in appearance given their brown plumage, although they almost always have two pale, blended patches on the sides of their face, and sometimes a pale patch on the nape of their neck, as well. The effect of these relatively low-contrast patches is to create a capped appearance that can be seen from a great distance. Also of note, female and immature surf scoters have a greenish black bill.
Best Field Marks
- Flat, sloping facial profile.
- Uniformly dark undersides of wings.
- White patches on head and neck of male.
- Distinctly capped appearance of female.
The surf scoter is generally silent. Sometimes, however, it may emit a variety of throaty grunts and croaks.
Distribution & Occurrence
This species generally breeds in Alaska and the northern reaches of Canada, then spends the winter along the coasts.
While surf scoters have probably always passed through Kansas during the migration season, it appears that they have been lingering more often in recent decades due to the many reservoirs of modern date. Surf scoters are still rare in Kansas, although they have been reported from mid-October to late November. They also occur on a casual basis around mid-April. Kansas surf scoter sightings are restricted to the eastern and central parts of the state.
The wary surf scoter generally migrates at night. It must get a running start to take off, but once in the air it moves rapidly and directly, typically flying with other ducks in a straight line.
This is a diving duck. Its primary food is mollusks, but it will also eat crustaceans, small fish, aquatic plants, and seeds.
Given the preference of this species for large reservoirs, attracting a surf scoter is not a project in which the backyard birdwatcher is likely to succeed.
Hunters have a variety of effective tools for attracting surf scoters at their disposal, not least of which is the preference of this duck for the color black. The sportsman typically hunts from a black boat and may snap a black flag back and forth to attract the attention of the ducks. Additionally, he can set out surf scoter decoys, preferably during a breeze just strong enough to provide some chop on the water. A short, loud whistle call can also be effective.
The males of these two species can be sorted out fairly quickly by attention to the “skunkhead” pattern of the surf scoter and the white wing patch of the white-winged scoter. The females can be a little trickier if the distinctive white wing patch of the white-winged scoter is not visible. The white-winged scoter has a clearly defined white patch on the rear of her face as opposed to the two smudgy patches on the face of the surf scoter. Likewise, the former is not as distinctly capped as the latter.
When telling scoters apart, the name of the black scoter says it all. The male black scoter has no head pattern, while the surf scoter is justly nicknamed “skunkhead.” Similarly, the female black scoter is uniformly pale on the face and foreneck, presenting only mild contrast, while the surf scoter displays two blended face patches and a capped appearance.
Photos, audio, and more information from Cornell’s All About Birds site.