Surf scoters

 

With fall come the rafts of surf scoters (Melanitta perspicillata) off the beach. There are usually several dozen of them, perhaps as many as 100 or more. They are always too far from shore for my 250mm lens, but this year I realized that a couple dozen of them hang out near the pier, fishing in the shallows for what look llke sculpin (small, chunky fish that live in the shallows), and diving under the pier to pluck mussels off the pier supports. They appear to swallow the mussels shell and all. They are such odd looking ducks…I always think the males look like someone played a mean prank on them by plastering their faces with bright orange plastic. Combined with the males’ pale blue eyes it’s quite a strange look. I initially thought that some of the smaller groups were family groups, but I’ve since learned that the male plays no part in rearing the chicks, and in fact although the female shows the chicks where to find food, she also abandons them before they are ready to fly, and the chicks then all gather together.

male surf scoter scratching his head

female surf scoter in mid-dive

female surf scoter diving

Even tho the low tides this past week weren’t much lower than the high tides, I went to the beach and walked out on the pier with a plan to capture a few images of these weird-looking visitors. The wind was blowing so hard that there were actually small white caps, and I was being buffeted so hard that I couldn’t keep my camera still. Not only that, but it was hard to keep my lens clear…there was a very very fine mist…not visible and most of the time not noticeable, but the water kept gathering instantly on my lens. The images of the male scoter were captured on a different day, but I observed the female for a while. She was diving for mussels and as each wave was about to break over her when she was on the surface, she would dive. But she was bringing to the surface quite large mussels and she was struggling a little to get them down the hatch. So she had just got one particularly large mussel down her throat when a wave snuck up on her. She turned to face it at the last minute, too late to dive, and I captured her as she came through the crest of the wave. The images aren’t as sharp as I would like, but I think the look on the scoter’s face is priceless!

female surf scoter with large mussel

female surf scoter swallowing a large mussel

female surf scoter being buffeted by a wave

male surf scoter swimming

In spite of not staying with their chicks through migration, these surf scoters seem quite sociable, fishing together in groups, and most of them heading underwater around the same time. They don’t seem particularly aggressive, merely extending their necks with clear intent towards other scoters who are crowding them, and all in all I find them shy but very endearing.

 

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