Tuesday and Wednesday, Nov. 1 and 2, Loie Evans identified an immature surf scoter on Evergreen Lake. No matter how good a birder you are or how sure you are of your identification, it is always a good idea to have at least one other person see and identify a rare bird.
Loie, a fine birder, was very aware of this, so she called Dave Jones and Deb Callahan, asking them to come down to see the bird and to identify it to verify her identification. Surf scoters are not really rare birds; in some places, they are quite common. But this is probably only the second sighting on Evergreen Lake.
They are not a bird one expects to see on a quiet, small inland lake as their name, surf, scoter implies, they are birds that are usually found in or near the ocean surf, and they like rough water. They can sometimes be seen south of Estes Park during fall migration in the turbulent water where the power plant discharges water back into the stream.
Bill and I used to make a trip up there almost every year to see one for his year’s list. When we lived in western New York, w used to see them occasionally in the turbulent water below Niagara Falls.
There are only three species of scoters in the world, the common or black scoter, the white winged scoter and the surf scoter. They all nest in or near fresh water ponds, pools and streams on the Arctic tundra. They are all referred to as sea ducks and spend the winter off the coast in both the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. On the Pacific coast, you can see long streaming flocks of scoter migrating southward, just off shore along the surf line. These are usually mixed flocks of the three species.
The common or black scoter is the common scoter of Europe or Asia. The white-winged scoter can easily be picked out of these flocks even at a distance because their secondary feathers are white. This large white wing patch is easily seen in flight and is even visible as a small white patch far back on their side as they float on the water.
The adult male surf scoter has a large bill that extends back into the head. It has a yellow tip with a red knob behind the tip and a large black-and-white spot at the base. The head and bill shape and size are distinctive in the three species of scoters but cannot be seen at great distances. The main population of black scoters breeds on the tundra of Asia, with much smaller numbers breeding in western Alaska and Labrador.
The white winged and surf scoters are North American birds breeding on the Canadian and Alaska tundra. Therefore, all three species are seen in the large migratory flocks along both coasts.
I have seen thousands of scoters migrating down the Pacific coast, streaming southward like a thin skein of yarn stretched out just above the surface of the waves. They can’t be separated at that distance, except for the white wings but you can tell they are scoters.
Immature birds are mostly black and cannot be separated from the females but usually by mid-winter, they begin to show some white head markings. I found the best illustrations of the three species of scoters, including females and immature, in the “National Geographic Society Complete Birds of North America.”
The highly colored bill of the males is part of their breeding display and returns by the time they reach the breeding grounds. The young are raised in fresh water, and the adults spend every summer in the same freshwater ponds. All of them migrate down both coasts and spend all winter just off shore in either the Atlantic or Pacific Ocean. Little is known as to how they adjust to this change from fresh to salt water, but it is most unusual.
Very small numbers of scoters apparently migrate over land for scattered birds turn up fairly regularly in late fall on inland lakes and ponds, after snowstorms, as our visitor at Evergreen Lake did, but it has now departed. The lake remains virtually ice free, but there has not been a large number of ducks on it this fall. This may be due to the increase in the number of boats on the lake. Migrating birds are both tired and hungry when they land. They need food and a quiet peaceful place to rest.