30 November 2020
This fall has been surprisingly good for seeing scoters (Mellanitta) in the Pittsburgh area. Though they are sea ducks, all three North American species visited our inland rivers over the Thanksgiving weekend. Surf and black scoters were seen on the Ohio (Leetsdale Boat Launch) and white-winged on the Allegheny (East Deer Recreational Park).
Here’s a quick visual guide to the three species in case you encounter them. Males are black with flashy highlights. Females are brown with subtle markings.
Surf scoters (Melanitta perspicillata) have been the easiest to find this fall. I saw eight of them at the Head of Ohio on Halloween, all of them dull brown like those pictured above and at right below.
Field marks in The Sibley Guide are: “Heavy triangular bill distinctive, forming wedge-shaped head. Female shows two distinct pale patches on face, the forward patch tall and narrow.” Note the shape of the forward patch!
White-winged scoters (Melanitta deglandi) aren’t as flashy but they’re the only ones with white wings (secondaries).
Field marks in The Sibley Guide are: “The largest scoter, with long bill and concave forehead. White secondaries unique and usually visible even on swimming birds. On female, compare shape of pale loral-patch with Surf Scoter.”
The forward patch on females (loral patch between eye and beak) is oval rather than tall and narrow as on the surf scoter. Compare indeed!
The males have a distinctive white patch below their eyes as seen in this selection of views from the Crossley ID Guide to Eastern Birds.
Black scoter (Melanitta americana) females aren’t black. They have pale face patches like ruddy ducks but their heads and necks are a different shape.
Field marks in The Sibley Guide are: “The smallest most compact scoter, with relatively small bill and rounded head. Female has a pale cheek contrasting with dark crown. Throws head downward when exercising wings, a distinctive motion.”
As you can see in this excerpt from the Crossley ID Guide to Eastern Birds, the male is more colorful.
And finally, here’s an audio treat from the black scoter. During courtship the males sing a one-note song which I have never heard. I will have to go to Canada or Alaska in the spring to hear it.
(photos from Wikimedia Commons; click on the captions to see the originals)