Birders take to the surf to spot scoters

Posted Nov. 12, 2008, at 6 p.m.

In November, not everybody wants to go out on the ocean, but birders do! There are birds out there in the icy, windy surf.

An Audubon trip went to Washington County to survey birds that live among the islands of the Roque Island archipelago. It was a cold, yet sunny and beautiful day. Everybody was well-dressed for the cold and spray.

The scenery was spectacular as we cruised among the many different islands. There are long beaches of fine beige sand, backed with beach grass. There are cobble beaches and boulder beaches — that is, beaches of rounded rocks that could not fit in a kitchen sink. The boulder beaches are steep, showing the force of the storms that created them.

Our boat was small and open. We all looked for birds flying over the water and swimming in the water. We were not disappointed.

We saw many surf scoters fly by with all their colors showing, and it was a treat. Several flew close to the boat. Surf scoters are a flashy kind of duck. The name came from the old English word “scoot.” Scoters do tend to scoot away over the water when hunters show up. Scoters winter around the small islands of Scotland and Ireland, but not surf scoters. They only live in and around the continent of North America.

Hunters call them skunkheads, because the males are black, but not just an everyday black: They are a rich, glossy black. On that glossy black color, imagine a big white forehead and a white stripe down the back of the neck. That gives them the name “skunkheads.”

To top it off, their big, thick bill looks as though it were painted a bizarre design of mostly bright orange with a white circle and a smaller black circle placed centrally.

The female’s plumage is less flashy. It is a muted black-brown with a few light spots on the head. The female has a dark-colored, thick bill.

The thick bill evolved from eating mussels, the main food for surf scoters in the winter. The scoters use their bills to pull out and crush the smaller mussels that they come up with when they dive. They also dive for crabs, marine worms and eelgrass when they are staying off the Maine coast.

The colors on the bill and patterns of black and white on the males have a sexual purpose; that is, the females find the colors and patterns sexy.

In Maine, surf scoters can be seen all winter off the surf of beaches or the surf of rocks. Next April, they will fly to Labrador or west of Hudson Bay in Canada to reproduce.

http://bangordailynews.com/2008/11/12/news/bangor/birders-take-to-the-surf-to-spot-scoters/ printed on December 28, 2014