By Russ Chappell
A juvenile Surf Scoter was recently spotted at Watson Lake along the shore northeast of the boat dock near Arizona 89. This surface-diving duck is classified as an accidental, winter visitor in Carl Tomoff’s “Birds of Prescott, Arizona Checklist.”
“Surfers” migrate from Canadian and Alaskan breeding grounds to the coasts of North America during the winter feeding on mollusks, crustaceans, aquatic insects, small fish, and vegetation like aquatic weeds, wild celery, musk grass, and seeds. They usually feed in water less than 10 meters deep, near breaking waves, with flocks diving in a synchronicity fashion. Dive duration varies depending on prey density, season, and water depth.
Adult male Surf Scoters weigh about 2.3 lbs and average 19 inches in length, with females 2 lbs and 17 inches. Males are a velvet black with white on their foreheads and napes, with thick bills that appear orange at a distance but have white, red, and yellow spots, with a black spot near the base. Females are brownish, becoming lighter towards their bellies. There are paler patches below their eyes and occasional white markings on their nape. The bills of females are black with shades of green or blue. Juveniles appear similar to females but are paler with whitish breasts and bellies.
Displaying little vocalization, males make a gurgling call and a sharp puk-puk while courting. Females make a crow-like call while protecting their young.
Annually, Surf Scoters experience a complete body molt, becoming increasingly vulnerable to predators as they lose flight feathers around late July through early August.
Most Surf Scoters are faithful partners and meet prior to arrival at the breeding grounds. Females build bowl-shaped nests in the ground, lined with debris and down, and lay five to nine creamy white eggs. Incubation is about a month. Immediately upon hatching, fledglings begin feeding themselves. Abandoned before they are able to fly, fledglings congregate in small groups. During migration, they travel as a group separate from adults. Many young don’t return to breeding grounds until reaching breeding age.
Their large range and population of between 250,000 and 1,300,000 earns Surf Scoters the status of Least Concern by the International Union for Conservation.
This is a good time to visit Watson Lake, say hello to this rare visitor, add it to your “list,” and perhaps take a photo to share at a PAS meeting. Or, in the meantime, you may enjoy several related videos via the Prescott Audubon website.
[Editor’s Note: Additional editing for this article provided by Walt Anderson, of Prescott College.]
Visit Prescott Audubon Society at PrescottAudubon.Org. Contact them at Contact@PrescottAudubon.Org.
Russ is a member of the Prescott Audubon Society and enjoys photographing and studying the large number of species in our region, and learning to be a better steward of our beautiful natural resources.