The largest of the three scoter species seen in Kansas is the white-winged (Melanitta fusca). The species takes its name from the white secondary flight feathers, plainly visible in flight on both males and females. In some cases, these white feathers may even be seen as a thin patch or stripe when the duck is sitting in the water.
As with most scoters, the male white-winged scoter presents a strange appearance despite his largely black plumage. One of the first field marks visible is the white teardrop-shaped patch that extends backwards from the eye. Another peculiarity is the black knob at the base of his multicolored bill.
The female is a sooty color overall, other than her wing patch and two round face patches.
Immature birds look more or less like the female, but without the face patches.
Best Field Marks
- White secondaries.
- White eye patch on male.
The white-winged scoter makes a hoarse croak that is less than prepossessing.
Observers may also hear a series of low, bell-like whistles when this duck is in flight. This sound is believed to be produced by the wings rather than the voice.
Distribution & Occurrence
Out of all the scoter species, the white-winged version is the most likely to be seen inland. It may be found in nearly any part of Kansas, although it is far from common. The rare duck may pass through in the fall from October through December. The occurrence of this species increases to a casual basis at the end of winter into the spring, as late as early May. It spends the summer in Canada and Alaska.
The white-winged scoter is rather ponderous in flight. It may fly only a few feet above the water, steadily pumping its wings with heavy strokes that sometimes produce a low whistling sound, although it will typically fly higher if it is traveling a long distance. When flying together, white-winged scoters may group themselves in bunches, long lines, or V formation.
This duck often appears far more at home in the water than it does in the air. It can dive as far as 40 feet down, where it collects small shellfish on the bottom for food.
The white-winged scoter is not likely to present much opportunity to the backyard birdwatcher interested in attracting birds.
This species is of more interest to hunters, who attract it using scoter decoys. Oddly, the white-winged scoter may fly in closer when high in the air if shouted at loudly.
The most reliable field mark to look for when identifying scoters, whether male or female, is the telltale white wing patch of the white-winged scoter. However, because this indicator is not always visible on sitting birds, sometimes you may have to rely on other clues. The male surf scoter is distinctive because of his white forehead and nape. Females can be harder to separate, but the female surf scoter has a capped appearance. The female white-winged scoter, on the other hand, has two round white patches on an otherwise contrast-free face.
The defining characteristic of a male black scoter is his black plumage. A white-winged scoter, on the other hand, has a white teardrop mark on his face and a white patch on his wing. As usual, females are trickier. However, the female black scoter displays a pale wash over her cheeks and throat, as opposed to the white patches on an otherwise dark face possessed by the female white-winged scoter.
Photos, audio, and more information from Cornell’s All About Birds site.