Speaking of Nature: surf scoters
Bill Danielson photo
A pair of surf scoters pauses for a moment at the crest of a wave. Note the muted plumage of the female.
Bill Danielson photo
A male surf scoter turns his head and gives us a view of the pattern of bold colors on his bill. Also note the very top of one of his bright-red legs.
As is always the case at this time of year, the weather is on our minds. In the past two weeks, we’ve seen rainy days in the 50s followed by heavy snows and temperatures below zero. Then, just in time for the Patriots game on Sunday, the rains returned and temperatures crept up toward 50 again.
The players in that game looked cold and the fans in the stands seemed to be happy and miserable at the same time. The elation of victory can warm the heart and temporarily distract the mind from discomfort, but can you imagine what it would be like to live in those conditions year round? To be ever wet despite the temperature? To have the wind driving cold water into your face with no real hope of it ever stopping?
Well, there are animals that live such lives and thrive despite the kinds of conditions that would quickly kill a human. Most amazing, however, is the fact that these animals are not hidden in far off places. Some are as close as the coast and in just a couple hours, you could be standing on the shore of the Atlantic ocean and looking at them through binoculars while the phrase, “what on Earth am I doing here?” repeats over and over in your head.
I have made many such visits to the ocean at this time of year and I am always impressed by how many birds can handle such terrible conditions. They were out there when the temperatures fell so low. They were out there when the snow started to fall. They are out there at this very moment. They are ducks and they amaze me every time I see them.
One species that is particularly beautiful is the surf scoter (Melanitta perspicillata). I can count the number of times I’ve been lucky enough to see surf scoters on one hand. In almost every situation, I was standing on the shore looking far out into the surf and seeing distant dots floating on the surface. As long as you can see patches of color, you can usually identify birds at a great distance, but getting good photos is quite another thing indeed.
To get good photos, you have to get close. You have to see the pupil in the birds’ eyes and you have to be able to see drops of water beading up on feathers, or hanging from the tips of bills. To get that close you often have to experience a little of the duck’s world, which is definitely uncomfortable for the body and terrifying for the protective mind of a photographer with expensive equipment at risk of exposure. Such was the case on the day I took these photos.
I was visiting Sachuest National Wildlife Refuge near Newport, R. I., and I was definitely putting myself out there. I was wearing heavy winter overalls and a heavy hunting jacket with one of my mother’s handmade wool caps on to keep warm. The clothing was all water resistant and quite well insulated, but any exposed skin was uncomfortably cold.
I was hiding in the rocks on the shore and I was lucky to have found a spot where I could stand almost to my full height while still being screened by the rocks in front of me. This allowed me to remain fairly well hidden and fairly comfortable while I could also rest the camera on a motionless surface. The ducks were being tossed around enough by the water and I simply didn’t need the camera jiggling around as well.
Despite all my efforts to put myself at the water’s edge, I still had difficulty seeing the scoters as they moved parallel to the shore, but there was no mistaking what they were. The surf scoter is a smallish duck with two distinctive features. The first is the bold coloration of the adult males. No other duck has a black body with bold white patches on the forehead and the nape of the neck.
As the duck gets closer, you can start to pick out the beautiful colors of the bird’s bill, which is decorated in goldenrod yellow, peach pink, brick red and titanium white. As the bird moves even closer, you can see that the male surf scoter also sports bright white eyes that stand out in sharp contrast to the jet-black feathers of the head. If you get really lucky you might even catch sight of the bird’s bright red feet as the waves toss it to and fro.
In sharp contrast to the male is the muted, rather drab plumage of the female. Instead of jet black, her body feathers are a dark charcoal gray. She also lacks the bright-white patches on her head and neck and the brilliant colors on her bill. Finally, her eyes are as black as her feathers. But the distinctive shape of the bill, with what appears as a swelling at the base, is still visible. Take the dark gray coloration, the distinctive bill and a couple of smudges of chalk-dust white on the side of the face, and you’ve got yourself a female surf scoter.
As the ducks drift offshore, one’s mind drifts to contemplating the life of these beautiful birds. What are they doing out there? Well, the diet of a scoter is all the explanation you need. The surf scoter is particularly fond of shellfish and will concentrate its foraging behavior in areas where rocks can be found just outside the surf zone. Scoters are particularly fond of mussels, but will eat anything they can get hold of.
To reach their food, the scoters will dive down as far as 30 feet. To propel themselves to such depths, they kick and paddle with their webbed feet and they also flap their wings underwater. Their primary feathers are not fully extended, as they would be in flight. Instead the tips of the primaries are tucked back toward the tail and the wrist joints of the ducks are used like paddles. This gets them through the water quickly, which is a necessity since they can only hold their breath for about 30 seconds.
Finding dark-blue mussels anchored to rocks 30 feet underwater is impossible at nighttime, so scoters are only able to forage during the day. Once found, the mussels have to be ripped of the rocks on which they are growing and then swallowed whole. One bird was found with 212 small mussels in its gizzard.
What may be particularly surprising is the fact that a duck that seems so specialized for a life in the ocean is in fact a freshwater species in the summertime. Scoters, like mallards and any other puddle ducks, prefer to nest next to quiet ponds and marshes. While in these very different surroundings they feed on aquatic insects, aquatic plants and seeds. I also have no doubt that they are more than capable of handling the odd snail that they might cross paths with.
All of this was floating in my mind as I hid behind my rock, but then I noticed a pair of surf scoters floating closer to me than any had before. I swiveled my camera to the left and started snapping photos as quickly as I could. The biggest challenge was timing my photos so the birds were at the crest of a wave and momentarily still. I realize that I put myself in the right place at the right time, but I still got lucky. The photo gods smiled upon me once again.
The erratic winter weather has just started. It may be warm and sunny, or it might be cold and snowy, but whatever happens we always have the option of retreating into the warmth of our homes. But the next time you snuggle into your favorite robe and sip on a mug of something warm and delicious, remember that the surf scoters (and all of the other coastal ducks) will be diving for their dinner.
Bill Danielson has worked as a naturalist for 16 years. In that time, he has been a national park ranger, a wildlife biologist and a field researcher. He currently works as a high school chemistry and biology teacher. To contact Bill, or to learn more about his writing, visit www.speakingofnature.com