The ducks that spend the winter bobbing in the foamy surf of the Pacific Ocean from Alaska to Baja California, with large numbers occurring from Puget Sound south to San Francisco Bay, are pretty special. These so-called sea ducks are a hardy lot. They spend most of their lives at sea and in estuaries and have special adaptations for living in cold environments, like dense downy body feathers, unique veins and arteries in their legs to warm up their blood before it is circulated back through the rest of their bodies and the ability to dive strongly and deeply to obtain food.
But the Surf Scoter is unique even among the sea ducks. Unlike most others that occur also in Eurasia or that have closely related sibling species that occur in Eurasia (as in the White-winged and Black scoters), it is found only in North America, nesting along the shores of shallow lakes across the northern Boreal and Subarctic regions of Canada and Alaska. They migrate south to both Pacific and Atlantic coasts to spend the winter. Small flocks of the birds—the males jet black with a bold white patch on the back of the head and another on the forehead over a garish bright orange bill, the females more subtle with white at the base of the bill and on cheek and nape—are a regular sight along the coast throughout the winter. The Pacific Coast, in particular, hosts the largest portion of the wintering population—nearly 70% of the North American population by one estimate.
The largest wintering concentrations are in places like Puget Sound and San Francisco Bay. One reason that these places probably hold so many Surf Scoters in winter is because of the higher prevalence there of what they like to eat—clams and mussels. During late winter and spring migration the birds sometimes also opportunistically capitalize on the eggs of spawning Pacific herring to get a rich energy boost before the long journey north, and are thus linked to healthy eelgrass beds were herring spawns are concentrated.
Surf Scoters can start moving north in March although their migration reaches its peak in April and early May. Flocks move up along the coast, eventually crossing overland through mountain passes in British Columbia and Alaska to reach breeding grounds in Alaska, Yukon, northern BC and the Northwest Territories.
Satellite tagging of Surf Scoters along the Pacific Coast in winter has shown that after migrating north to breeding sites, males don’t stay long but leave just weeks later to molt—a process where they migrate to a safe place and become flightless for a time while they lose and grow new flight feathers.
In recent decades, scoter populations seem to have declined significantly, but they have been hard to monitor. Airplane based surveys have a hard time differentiating the different scoter species so they have been lumped together in counts and many of the areas where scoters breed are remote and not well-surveyed. But most evidence that is available points to a decline of over 40% over the last 50 years.
Maintaining healthy coastal waters and estuarine habitats, such as seagrass meadows, along the Pacific Coast will be important for the long-term survival of these striking birds as will protection of the large intact landscapes of their breeding grounds in the Boreal Forest region of Canada and Alaska.
Audubon is working across all the regions that Surf Scoters and many other birds need to survive. In Canada’s Boreal Forest region we support Indigenous governments and communities as they work to advance the largest new protected areas in the world, encompassing millions of acres that includes countless lakes that are nesting grounds for Surf Scoters and many other waterbirds. In Alaska, Audubon has worked for decades to protect nesting and wintering habitat of Surf Scoters and other birds at critical places across the state. Audubon Washington’s Puget Sound Program protects food and habitat for birds, including Surf Scoters, through policy, advocacy, applied research, and community engagement at priority places. And in California, Audubon has proudly worked for years to protect, restore and enhance its rich coastal environments. Audubon California operates the largest estuarine reserve in San Francisco Bay, the Richardson Bay Audubon Center & Sanctuary, which protects 900 acres of San Francisco Bay subtidal and eelgrass habitat and provides a center for community education, restoration, and celebration of the Bay.
So the next time you are at the beach or anywhere along the coast in winter, watch out for those original first surfers, the Surf Scoters, and marvel at their beauty and vitality and join Audubon in helping to ensure their survival for generations of bird lovers to come.