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Identification of White-winged Scoter

Pair of White-winged Scoters

White-winged Scoter  —  Length: 21 inches,  Wing span: 33 inches

The large sea duck known as the White-winged Scoter in North America for the large, obvious patches of white in its wings is known as the Velvet Scoter in Europe, for the satiny-black plumage of the males. White-winged Scoters migrate mostly by day over land, but may travel either at night or by day over water.

White-winged Scoters typically begin breeding at age two or three. Females often return to the same general breeding area in subsequent nesting seasons. Gulls are major predators of young chicks, but those that survive may live a long time. The oldest known White-winged Scoter lived over 18 years in the wild.

Young birds resemble adult female.

Males are distinctive with the white check mark around the eye. Sides browner than chest and back. Pink and orange on the bill with knob at the base.


Male White-winged Scoter

Adult male. This photograph clearly shows the multi-colored bill with the knob at the base.  The Nike Swoosh around the eye is diagnostic.  Photograph by Glenn Bartley.

White-winged Scoter

Adult female. Amount of white on the face variable. The head is generally a uniform black with the white cheek patch. The females of the other two scoter species have the appearance of a dark crown contrasting with a lighter face. Photograph © Glenn Bartley.

White-winged Scoter juvenile

First winter female. The amount of white on the head is variable. Adult females generally show less white on the head.  Photograph © Glenn Bartley.

White-winged Scoter

The small oval white patch on the base of the bill and the hint of white on the cheek are indicative of adult female White-winged Scoter.  In winter, scoters are sometimes seen some distance off shore.  The distance and bobbing in the waves can make identification very difficult. Photograph © Greg Lavaty.

White-winged Scoter

Photograph © Greg Lavaty.

The center bird has the uniformly dark head of an adult White-winged Scoter. But what about the other two birds? The bill shape and color say scoter but which one? First winter females of both Surf and White-winged Scoters have 2 white face patches that vary in size and shape and are very similar in appearance. And all three scoter species can be found in mixed flocks. There are subtle differences in head and bill shape but it takes a lot of experience to tell them apart when the birds are far away and moving up and down with the waves.

White-winged Scoter

Adult female. Wing linings pale. Photograph © Glenn Bartley.

White-winged Scoter in flight

The white wing patch is distinctive and present on all ages on both males and females. Photograph © Glenn Bartley.

White-winged Scoter in flight

In poor lighting conditions the white secondaries may appear dark. Photograph © Glenn Bartley.

White-winged Scoter stretching

The white wing patch and overall shape of this bird identifies it as a White-winged Scoter. Photograph © Greg Lavaty.

About the Author

Sam Crowe

Sam is the founder of He has been birding for over 30 years and has a world list of over 2000 species. He has served as treasurer of the Texas Ornithological Society, Sanctuary Chair of Dallas Audubon, Editor of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology's "All About Birds" web site and as a contributing editor for Birding Business magazine. Many of his photographs and videos can be found on the site.

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