“Wintering Scoters”

a_blog_malescoterflightThere are so many species of duck that belong to the Anatidae family of birds; Dabbling Ducks, Stiff-Tailed Ducks, Sea Ducks, Whistling Ducks, Diving Ducks, that it’s hard to know them all, especially the identity of ducks we don’t see in our area very often. Some ducks live and breed far removed from the U.S. as far as the north of England or Scotland and only pass this way during winter migration. The coast of North Carolina has been a good choice for wintering Scoters for many years. They gather in tightly packed, large flocks that take off together when they choose to move either in a straight line or in a V formation. A group of Scoters is called a ‘Mooter’ or a ‘Scooter.’ Avid bird watchers have also discovered that freshwater rivers and lakes are not off limits to wintering Scoters. Recently, a wildlife enthusiast in Emerald Isle noticed a rather stocky brown duck who seemed to be having trouble getting lift off to fly. After it appeared flight wasn’t going to happen, he managed to scoop up the duck and transport her to the Outer Banks Wildlife Shelter in Newport for a check-up. The little, diving sea duck turned out to be a Common Scoter, which are also called Black Scoters, depending upon gender. The scientific name of the Common Scoter is ‘Nigra,’ which means black. Our juvenile Scoter patient had pale cheeks, a milk chocolate body with a whitish belly and a dark brownish-black, wide bill which we assessed as female. An adult male has glossy black plumage with a shiny black bill adorned with a colorful yellow or orange bulbous knob at the base. Both have dark brown eyes. Their legs are brown to black and their webbed feet, are also black. Generally speaking, this is a dark, cold water duck (but not so cold it doesn’t head south for the winter!). Her examination revealed no injuries, but she was underweight. Since there was a covered swimming pool in the area where she was found, our theory is she landed on the cover thinking it was a body of water, and did not have the water source required to maneuver her usual run across the water for take-off. a_blog_femalescoter3She basically grounded herself. A sea-duck’s legs, such as a Scoter’s, are situated a little farther back than those of a Mallard, Muscovy or Pekin, so they don’t walk upright on land very well. It’s not known how long she’d been sitting there with no food or water, but we do know she hadn’t eaten in some time because she was very, very hungry. A Scoter is a coastal duck that usually breeds in the sub-artic and has not been studied extensively in North America. Only a few nests in our country have ever been found. The common Scoter is a highly sociable species and is often seen in large groups, especially during the winter. For this reason, we knew rehabilitation timing would be an issue. She needs to pack on weight quickly so we can return her to her own kind before she succumbs to severe depression or the stress of captivity. A Scoter is a bulky little duck who weighs on average 2 to 2 ½ pounds with the male typically heavier in weight, wingspan is 28 inches and their height, bill to tail, is 18 to 20 inches. They have a long, pointy tail they hold straight up while sitting on water. This duck species dives for food, so it was a little tricky getting her to eat fish, shrimp, worms and insects in a hospital setting, but her rumbling tummy won out. It won’t be long now! In the wild, she will add crustaceans, mussels, fish eggs and duck weed to her diet. Scoters swallow mullosks whole and crush the shells in its gizzard. An interesting factoid regarding this diving duck is that they literally spread their wings under water and fly through the water to catch their prey! The Common Scoter is a fairly quiet bird, so we don’t hear much from her, but when we do catch a rare vocalization, it’s a harsh, raspy quack and just one. During courtship the male Scoter gets a little noisier with some high, shrill whistles and is known to be the most vocal of all waterfowl year’round. In their native territories, (Europe and Asia) male and female Scoters build a nest during April or May which is nothing more than a hefty scrape on the ground near water, lined with a grass/down mix and hidden by vegetation. a_blog_scoterf7The female will lay 6 to 8 off-white to pinkish buff eggs which hatch in about 30 days. The ducklings are born eyes-open, dark brown and able to swim and feed themselves soon after hatching, although they are not able to fly until around 45 days old. The youngsters then head out on their own, and the parents return to their flock to molt, which will render them unable to fly during the time they are losing and growing in new feathers. The Common Scoter is found all over the world, depending upon the time of year, but in their native countries, numbers of Scoters have fallen by 47% over the past two decades and although the reason is not pinpointed, the huge decline in population has been attributed to a number of factors such as oil spills, offshore wind farms, disturbance by boat traffic, hunting, climate change, pollution, development, natural predation, commercial exploitation and possibly, lower breeding success. England has placed the Common Scoter on their “Red List” which means they recognize urgent conservation action is needed for this stocky, diminutive, community oriented duck. We hope our “plumping” Common Scoter continues to thrive and is able to return to her flock. We aren’t sure what country she’s from, but we think we’ve heard a wee bit of an English accent in her quack!!

best always,

Linda Bergman-Althouse

Author of “Save Them All

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