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White-winged Scoter

A large sea duck species with a black and white plumage, a distinctive white patch on its wings, and a preference for coastal waters and marine environments in the northern hemisphere, including North America, Europe, and Asia.

White-winged Scoter

Scientific name: Melanitta fusca

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.

Photograph © Glenn Bartley

Description of the White-winged Scoter


White winged Scoter 2 gb

Photograph © Glenn Bartley

The White-winged Scoter is a large sea duck with a large bill and rounded forehead, and white secondaries that are visible both in flight and as a small white patch while swimming.

Male/breeding plumage:?
– Black plumage with brownish flanks.
– Reddish bill with a black knob at the base.
– White patch below and behind the eye.


White winged Scoter F bartley

Photograph © Glenn Bartley

-Brown plumage.
-Whitish area between eye and bill.

Seasonal change in appearance

White area at eye of male can be less obvious in spring and early summer.


Juveniles resemble adult females but have two prominent white patches on the head.


Lakes, oceans, and bays.


Mollusks, crustaceans, and aquatic insects.


Forages by diving.


Breeds in Alaska and northwestern Canada, as well as parts of eastern Canada. Winters along the east and west coasts of the U.S. and Canada.

Fun Facts

While White-winged Scoters have a few displays that are performed during the breeding season, other scoter species are more display oriented.

White-winged Scoters reach their breeding grounds and begin nesting later than most ducks.


Generally silent. Will make soft squeeks.

Similar Species

  • Adult Surf Scoters of either gender have more white in the head and larger bills. Black Scoters are smaller with a more rounded head shape.


The nest is a down-lined depression.

Number: 9-10.
Color: Buff.

Incubation and fledging:
– Young hatch at 25-30 days.
– Young fledge (leave the nest) shortly after hatching but remain with the female for some time.

Bent Life History of the White-winged Scoter

Published by the Smithsonian Institution between the 1920s and the 1950s, the Bent life history series of monographs provide an often colorful description of the birds of North America. Arthur Cleveland Bent was the lead author for the series. The Bent series is a great resource and often includes quotes from early American Ornithologists, including Audubon, Townsend, Wilson, Sutton and many others.

Bent Life History for the White-winged Scoter – the common name and sub-species reflect the nomenclature in use at the time the description was written.

(Current AOU- White-winged Scoter)


This is strictly an Old World species which owes its somewhat questionable place on the American list to the fact that it has been recorded as a straggler in Greenland. I have never been able to understand why the birds of Greenland should be included in our North American fauna, while those of Cuba and the Bahamas, which are, both geographically and faunally much closer to us, are excluded. Greenland both geographically and faunally is but a little nearer North America than Europe; it is intermediate. If we exclude cosmopolitan species, common to both hemispheres, about three-fifths of the breeding birds of Greenland are also North American and about two-fifths are also European.

As the velvet scoter is practically unknown, as an American bird, 1 can not do better than quote its life history from one of the best of the European writers, an eminent authority on ducks, Mr. John G. Millais (1913) as follows:

Nesting: Velvet scoters arrive on the lakes of Norway and Sweden about the end of April, in fact, as soon as the Ice breaks up, and even earlier on the lake swamps of Lithuania, which seems to be about the southern limit of nesting birds. The male and female are much devoted to one another and keep close together during the early part of the nesting season. It has often been noticed that if one of the pair is shot the other will fall to the water and dive or stay close to its fallen mate.

They seem to prefer inland lakes and small ponds on which to breed. Collett has found them breeding in large numbers in the bill lakes of Gndbrnndsda, Valders, Osterdal, and north to Finmark, and I have myself seen females and young birds on the lakes of Valders and Trondhjem in September, the males having departed.

The nest is often found in a depression of the dry ground in the open; at other times sheltered by brushwood such as salix or juniper. C. E. Pearson found one nest in a ciump of marram grass amongst sand hills. Others were placed deep down in cracks of the peat, overgrown by Eotpctruot nigraot, so that the sitting duck was carefully concealed. Seebohm found several nests in the Siberian tundra far from the water, whilst Knobloch says the velvet scoter sometimes breeds in forests. The nest is usually a deep hollow lined with grass and leaves. The earliest clutches are to be met with in the Baltic, and are to be found from May 25 onward, but in Lapland it is more usual to find eggs in June, and generally in the second half of that month. H. F. Witherby took a clutch of eggs on July 22 In Russian Lapland, and Seebohm found eggs on the Petschora in July. Six to ten eggs are usually laid, and incubation is by the female alone. As to the period of incubation no data are available.

Eggs: Six to ten, as a rule, but clutches of 11 have been recorded. Simon. son says that clutches of 10 to 14 may he met witk Oval in shape, creamy white with a warm ‘ apricot’ tinge when fresh, which fades after a time. Average size of 90 eggs, 70.8 by 47.9 mm. (2.78 by 1.88 inches). Max., 76.5 by 49.5 and 71.2 by 51.5; mm., 04.3 by 46.9, and 68.3 by 44.8 mm. (F. C. B. .Tourdain).

Young: The males appear to deseit the females about the time the young are hatching. E. F. von Homeyer says: I have often seen flocks of 60 to 100, consisting of old males only, in the months of July and August, and these spent the day on the high sea and at dusk came to the shallower water on the coasts in the hays of the island of Rilgen.”

According to Pleske, they nest in such numbers in the island of Rugoe in Esthiand (Russian Baltic Provinces), that the inhabitants make ornaments for their rooms with the blown eggs. All the habits of this duck, the upbringing of the young, and the early departure of the males for the sea, seem to be similar to other true sea ducks. Late in September, when the young are able to fly, the female takes them to the nearest seacoast, where she stays with them until the migration commences in late October.

Plumages: The sequence of plumages from the downy stage to maturity and the subsequent molts and plumages are so similar to those of our white-winged scoter that it seems hardly necessary to describe them here. For aï full account of the molts and plumages of the velvet scoter, I would refer the reader to the excellent work by Mr. Millais (1913).

Food: On this he says:

The food of this species consists chiefi of conchylia and crustacea, which they gain from a considerable depth. I have found their stomachs filled with large numbers of the common mussel, which seems to be their principal food, mixed with quantities of sand and small pebbles. They are also very partial to the razor shell in Orkney. I have also seen them bring to the surface quite large crabs, which they break tip before swallowing. The great blackbacked gull often waits on in attendance of feeding velvet scoters, and I have more than once seen these clever robbers swoop down and steal the crab, the duck merely gazing round in surprise when he finds his treasure gone.

Behavior: I have never found the velvet scoter a very wild bird, except in rough weather, when it is easy for them to take to wing, and this is probably accounted for by the fact that their bodies are very heavy, and they seem to experience considerable difficulty in taking to flight if there is little or no headwind. They are as a rule much tamer than either the surf or common scoter; and if a boat is carefully maneuvered so as not to press them at first, a shot is certain. They rise head to wind with the usual run-up, and can not turn away from a boat until they have traveled some 30 to 50 yards. The flight is at first accompanied with much noise and flapping, and usually performed at a very lo~v elevation. Unlike the other scoters, they usually adopt a string” formation, and seldom move about in large flocks. It is most common to see single birds or flocks of from 3 to 15, each bird following the leader at a yard or so apart, and only 2 or 3 feet above the water. In the morning and evening these flocks or single birds may often be seen coming up the tideway from the deep sea, where they have been resting, preening, or sleeping during the hours of high tide, and moving toward their regular feeding grounds. On settling they scent to sink into the water with a heavy splash and glide for some distance over the element before coming to rest.

The velvet scoter has no superior in swininmin~ anti diving. Its poxx erfimi logs and feet enable it to pass rapidly beneath the water, and reach the bottom at depths of 40 feet, and even more. They seem to prefer to search for their food in deep places, probably because mussel beds situated in such spots are far offshore, and consequently safe. I do not think they use the wings under water, at any rate to the same extent as the eider.

Both the male and female velvet scoter make a hoarse guttural cry like the words kro-kra-k-ra.” The male probably had a distinct call during courtship, but no one, so far as T know, has ever seen the mating display of these birds.

In our islands the velvet scoter is strictly a sea duck, is only very rarely killed on fresh water, and then only on migration. ~4s a rule these birds frequent the neighborhood of mussel banks at some distance offshore, apparently caring little xvhether these situations are exposed or protected, for they come with the utmost regularity to the same places year after year. Most of the places known to me in Scotland and the islands where these birds spend the winter months are more or less protected by outlying islands or headlands, but in some cases, such as St. Andrews Bay and the Tay estuary, their feeding grounds are usually exposed to north and easterly winds. They seem to be capable, however, of standing as much buffeting by wind and weather as the hardy elders und long-tailed ducks, and xviii ride out great storms at sea without coming in for protection.

Winter: Herr Giitko (1895) gives the following account of the winter home of this and other sea ducks about Heligoland:

During the severe winter all the flocks of birds which, during ordinary winters, are in the habit of slaying in the Gulfs of Bothala and Finland, and under the sheller of the west coast of Holsten, now congregate on the open sea outside of this ice field. Wherever the eye roams it alights upon sea ducks of all possible species, near and far, high and low, in smaller or larger flocks, singly or in pairs. These consist of myriads of common and velvet scoters, flights of from 5 to 50 gay-colored red-breasted mergansers, smaller companies of the beautifully colored goosander, mixed with hands of from 20 to 100 or more scaups (A. media), which tlights again may be crossed by from 3 to 5 of the brilliant white, green-headed males of the goldeneye, and the still rarer and elegant eider duck; and travelling high overhead long chains of whooper swans send forth their loud and resonant trumpet calls. The wide surface of the sea presents a scene of aquatic hird life equally rich and varied. Velvet and common scoters assemble in dense crowds near the ice, while large flocks of scaups, all keeping close together. dive and swim about among the rocks off the eastern and western sides of the Island.

Breeding range: Northern Europe and Asia, from Norway eastward to northeastern Siberia (Marcova and Gichiga) and on Nova Zembla.

Winter range: Temperate Europe and Asia, south to Spain, Morocco, Egypt, northern Persia, and Turkestan.

Casual records: Accidental in the Faroe Islands and Greenland. Egg dates: Lapland: Five records, May 25 to July 22. Norway and Sweden: Two records, June 18 and July 4.



Spring: The northward movement of scoters on the New England coast begins early in March, but the main flight comes along during the first half of May and continues in lessening numbers all through that month. It has long been known to gunners that a local westward flight of white-winged scoters takes place on the south coast of New England in May, consisting wholly of fully plumaged adult birds, recognized by the gunners as “May white wings.” This undoubtedly indicates an overland migration route to their breeding grounds in the Canadian interior. I have seen several thousand of these birds gathered in large flocks in the waters about Seconnet Point, Rhode Island, early in May, preparing for this flight.

Mr. George H. Mackay (1891) refers to this flight as follows:

This movement is a peculiar one, in as much as it takes place about the middle of May, and after the greater portion of the migration of this group has passed by, as also ignoring the coast route accepted by all the rest. My attention was first directed to this unusual movement during the spring of 1870, while shooting at West Island, off Seconnet Point, Rhode Island, and It has occurred regularly every year since that date, as was undoubtedly the case earlier. These birds are apparently all adults and do not seem to heed the regular migration to the eastward of many of their own kind, which has no effect in hastening their own departure for the north. When the time arrives for them to set out on their migration, and the meteorological conditions are favorable: for it must be clear at the westward: they always start late In the afternoon, from 8 to 5 o’clock, and continue the flight during the night, passing by Marthas Vineyard, Woods Hole, Seconnet Point, Point Judith, and Watch Hill, quite a number frequently going over the land near the coast, they being very erratic at such times in their movements. This flight lasts for from three to seven days, according to the state of the weather. I have never heard of their starting before the 7th of May, which is unusually early; the customary time being from the 12th to the 15th, and the latest the 25th. They usually fly at a considerable altitude, say, from 200 to 300 yards, fully two-thirds of them being too high to shoot. They prefer to start during calm warm weather, with light southerly, southeasterly, or easterly winds; though they will occasionally fly when the wind is strong. They never fly in the forenoon; but when once they have determined to migrate they leave in large flocks, some of which number from five to six hundred birds, while as many as 10,000 have been estimated as passing in a single day, I have never heard of, or seen, any similar flight to the eastward after this western flight has taken place. A few of the other two scoters are seen with the white wings during this western movement. No perceptible difference Is noted in their numbers from year to year, and I have never heard of a year when such a flight as above described did not take place.

On the south coast of Labrador we saw migrating flocks of scoters flying eastward all through the month of June, but probably some of these were not breeding birds. Flocks of nonbreeding scoters are frequently seen in summer on the coast of New England and from California northward. Probably the bulk of the breeding birds arrive on their nesting grounds early in June, although the nesting season does not begin until the middle or last of the month.

What becolnes of the vast hordes of scoters that migrate along our coasts has long been a mystery to the gunners. Although they are widely distributed over an extensive breeding range, they have never been found breeding abundantly anywhere; probably their main breeding grounds have never been discovered. On the south coast of Labrador we saw no evidence of their breeding, and Audubon found them there but sparingly. Judging from what I saw and what I learned from other observers on the northeast coast of Labrador in 1912, I am inclined to think that this species breeds more or less commonly in the interior of that great peninsula. Among the vast flocks of scoters, seen all along that coast in summer, numerous flocks of this species were observed, but they were not nearly as abundant as the other two species. These flocks were composed almost entirely of adult males, which probably meant that the females were incubating or tending their broods of young in inland ponds. I was told that they breed far inland and at long distances from any water.

Nesting: In the Devils Lake region, in North Dakota, Herbert K. Job found white-winged scoters breeding quite commonly; on June 27, 1898, he found several nests of this species on some small islands in Stump Lake, containing from 1 to 14 fresh eggs and one empty nest. I visited these islands with him in 1901, and on May 81 we did not find a single egg, although we saw a few of the birds flying about in pairs; evidently they had not yet laid. On June 15 we again explored the islands quite thoroughly, finding only one incomplete set of 5 eggs, cold and fresh. This nest was in the center of a small patch of rosebushes, where a hollow had been scraped in the ground and the eggs buried under a lot of dry leaves, sticks, soil, and rubbish, so as to be completely concealed from view. No attempt had been made to line the nest with down which is generally added after the set is complete. The scattered clumps of rosebushes on these islands, where they grew tall and thick among masses of large boulders, formed excellent nesting sites for the scoters and doubtless concealed several nests. One nest we certainly overlooked, which on June 22, was found to contain 12 eggs.

In the Crane Lake region in southwestern Saskatchewan we found a few pairs of white-winged scoters breeding in 1905 and 1906, but only one nest was found on June 28, 1906. While walking through an extensive patch of wild rosebushes near a small slough the female was flushed from the nest almost underfoot and shot by my companion, Dr. Louis B. Bishop. The nest consisted of a hollow in the ground under the rosebushes, profusely lined with dark-gray down; it contained 9 fresh eggs. All of the nests that Mr. Job and I have seen were placed under wild rosebushes or other small deciduous shrubs, but others have found them in somewhat different situations.

Macoun (1909) records a nest found by Walter Raine as follows:

On June 26, 1893, Mr. G. F. Dipple and myself found a nest contaIning 9 eggs on an island at the south end of Lake Manitoba. The nest was built between loose bowiders and consisted of a hollow in the sand lined abundantly with dark down. The eggs were very large and of a deep, rich, buff color. The bird sat very close upon the nest and did not fly up until I almost trod upon her. It appears to be a late breeder, nesting late in June on the Islands of Lakes Manitoba and Winnipeg. Mr. Newman sent me an egg of this bird which he took from a female he had shot at Swan Lake, northern Alberta, on June 25, 1897.

The nest down of the white-winged scoter is larger than that of the American scoter; in color it varies from “clove brown” to “olive brown,” with small and inconspicuous whitish centers.

Eggs: As this scoter is a late breeder, probably some of the smaller sets referred to were incomplete. I think that the normal number of eggs in a full set varies from 9 to 14. The eggs are elliptical ovate in shape. The shell is smooth but not glossy; in some eggs it is very finely granulated or minutely pitted. When first collected, even after being blown, the color is a beautiful “pale ochraceous salmon~~ or “sea shell pink,” but this color fades to “pale pinkish buff” or “cartridge buff” in cabinet specimens. The pitted eggs are minutely dotted with “pinkish cinnamon,” giving them a darker appearance; The measurements of 71 eggs, in various collections, average 65.3 by 45.7 millimeters; the eggs showing the four extremes measure 72.5 by 47, 68.5 by 49, 55.4 by 37.7, and 58.9 by 35.7 millimeters.

Plumages: The downy young of the white-winged scoter is thickly covered with soft, silky down. The upper parts, including the upper half of the head, down to the base of the lower mandible and a space below the eye, are uniform “clove brown,” shading off to “hair brown” on the flanks and into a broad collar of “hair brown~~ which encircles the lower neck. The chin and throat are pure white, which shades off to grayish white on the lower cheeks and the sides of the neck. The under parts are silvery white, and there is an mdistinct, tiny white spot under the eye. The feather outline at the base of the bill is much like that of older birds. Doctor Dwight (1914) mentions a “white patch of down, foreshadowing the white wing patch,” but I can find no trace of it in my one specimen.

In the juvenal plumage the sexes are alike, dark brown above, lighter and more mottled brown below; there are conspicuous whitish patches on the lores and on the auriculars, varying in intensity and extent; the white secondaries, forming the speculum, are tipped with dusky, which often invades much of the inner web. This plumage is often worn without much change all through the winter and into the spring. But usually in December, or a little later, the sexes begin to differentiate by the growth of black feathers in the male and brown feathers in the female, starting in the head, obliterating the whitish head patches, and spreading to the back, scapulars, and flanks, the latter being dark brown in both sexes. The bill in the young male now begins to show color, about as in the adult female, but not the swollen shape of the older male.

A complete postjuvenal molt takes place during the next summer, July, August, and September, at which the black plumage of the male is assumed, with the white eye patches and the pure white secondaries; the flanks are still dark brown in this and in all subsequent plumages that I have seen; the bill now becomes highly colored and approaches the adult bill in shape. The bird is now practically adult, at an age of 14 or 15 months, but the full development of the bill and highest stage of plumage will not be perfected for about a year more. The iris, which is brown in young birds, becomes white at this age. The female also assumes a practically adult plumage, at this molt, which is uniform dark brown; and she will be ready to breed the following spring.

Adult birds have an incomplete prenuptial molt in early spring1 involving the head and body plumage and tail, and a complete postnuptial molt in late summer, at which time they become incapable of flight. There is no real eclipse plumage, but the appearance of one is created by the mixture of old, worn, faded feathers with fresh, new ones. There is also no marked seasonal change in any of the scoters.

Food: The food of the white-winged scoter includes a varied bill of fare, differing greatly in the various localities which it visits. On the New England coast, where it is so abundant in the winter, it is strictly maritime and seems to feed mainly on small mussels and other small mollusks which it obtains by diving about the submerged ledges, often to a depth of 40 feet, tearing, with its powerful bill, the shellfish from the rocks to which they are firmly attached. I have seen the crop of one of these birds crammed full of musseb nearly an inch long, and have often wondered whether the tough shells were ground up in their muscular stomachs or chemically dissolved; probably both actions are necessary. Some of our fishermen have claimed that scoters are injurious to the shellfish interests on our coast, accusing them of feeding on young scallops and clams but I doubt if they do much damage in this way; they certainly could not obtain many clams, which are usually buried in the sand. Sea clams, which are sometimes found on the surface of a sand flat, are probably more often taken by these birds. J. C. Cahoon (1889) recorded an instance where the clam was too big for the scoter, which was found floating on the water with a large sea clam firmly clasped on its bill; probably the weight of the clam had kept the bird’s head under water until it was drowned. On inland lakes and ponds they live largely on crawfish, slugs, snails, and mussels. They have been known to eat, according to Dr. F. Henry Yorke (1889), small fishes. frogs, tadpoles, fish spawn, and the larvae of insects. On the western sloughs and marshes they evidently feed largely on vegetable food, such as flags, duckweed, pondweed, and pickerel weed. Doctor Yorkc reports the following families of plants as identified among their foods: Lemnaceae, Naiadaceae, Selaginellaceae, Salviniaceae, Glatinaceae, Gentianaceae, Lentibulariaceae, Pontederiaceae, and Mayaceae; also the following genera: Iris, Myriophyllum, Calhitriche, and Utricularia.

Behavior: The flight of the white-winged scoter is heavy and apparently labored; it seems to experience considerable difficulty in lifting its heavy body from the surface of the water; except when facing a strong wind, it has to patter along the surface for some distance, using its feet to gain momentum. But, when well under way, it is much swifter than it seems, is strong, direct, and well sustained. Migrating flocks, in all sorts of irregular formations, fly high under favorable circumstances; but when flying against the wind or in stormy weather (northeast storms seem to be particularly favorable for the migration of the scoters) they fly close to the water and in rough weather they take advantage of the eddies between the waves. The flight is usually along the seacoast, following all the large indentations of the coast and crossing the smaller bays; but, where considerable distance is to be gained they often fly across capes or necks of land, usually all at about the same place. There is a regular crossing place on Cape Cod, Massachusetts, from Barnstable Harbor to Craigville beach, a distance of about 3 miles; this is one of the narrowest points on the cape and it saves them many miles of flight around the horn of the cape. Gunners take advantage of this confirmed habit and assemble there in large numbers to shoot at the passing flocks; when flying against a strong south wind here they usually fly low enough to shoot, but, if not, a loud shout from the gunners often brings them scurrying down to within range.

Edwin S. Bryant (1899) describes an interesting flight habit of this species, as follows:

This bird has some habits unlike those of other ducks. The most prominent habit is the morning flight. This does not occur so regularly as at first I supposed. But if a person is so fortunate as to be present when a great flight Is in progress, he will witness what I consider to be a fascinating picture of bird life on the prairie.

Imagine if you can a body of water some 6 or ‘7 miles long and 2 miles wide where it leaves the main lake, extending northward, bounded on both sides by undulating prairie. Take for a background the steep hills on the far side of the lake, or the heavy timber of Grahams Islands: let the time be sunrise, with the dewdrop jewel accompaniment that the poets rave about. Fill the air with hundreds of scoters, circling and quartering after the nianner of swallows, most of them fanning the weed tops In their flight. Flying by pairs, side by side, and in companies of pairs, they often circle about a person several times, within easy gunshot range; and if one is so disposed, he may shoot a pair with one discharge of the gun, so closely do they keep together. As would be supposed, the white wing patch is very conspicuously displayed as the birds glide around. In half an hour the performance is at an end.

In two minutes time the scene changes as if by magic. All the birds are making offshore together. With a glass I follow them. Their dark bodies stand out in contrast with the whitecaps, and the flash of a wing patch against a green wave is the last seen of them as they settle down far out In the lake. Later in the day they will swarm along shore or congregate on the numerous sandy points.

A. D. Henderson has sent me the following notes on the habits of this species in northern Alberta:

These birds are much esteemed by the halfbreed Indian population, and up to a few years ago residents In the northern part of the Province were allowed to kill them at any time for food by a special provision in the game act. They make the best wing shooting of all the ducks, as they seldom swerve from the gunner. They seem to be the most amorous of the ducks, readily decoying to a wounded female and chasIng her on the water within easy range of a canoe In the breeding season. In spring they fly from daylight until about 9 o’clock, and it is then they are shot as they round the points on the lake or pass between narrows. Small flocks can be seen on the water, the males pursuing the females; thea they will make a short flight and alighting again resume the sport with much splashing on the water. At this time they make a sound like tinkling Ice, but whether this is made with their wings or voice I do not know. When flying during courtship their wings whistle like a goldeneye’s, but much louder. They also utter a short croak while flying. Though hundreds of them breed here, I have never found a nest, but have heard of several being found, usually at quite a distance back from the large lakes and near smaller ones. It is said that Lac LaNoune takes it name from these ducks owing to the resemblance of their black and white coloring to the garb of the nuns.

J. M. Edson has sent me the following interesting notes:

This species Is found at all seasons in the Puget Sound region, being particularly abundant during winter. Like 0. perspiciflate, this species has a habit of leaving, the water and taking a daily flight off over the land, during the summer season. These flights are particularly noticeable in pleasant weather and in late afternoon. The birds rise in considerable flocks to an elevation of 200 or 300 feet, stringing out in line, or in converging lines, sometimes forming a V. The whistling of their wings can be beard for some distance. Often this sound is punctuated by the slapping together of interfering wings. They sometimes fly considerable distances Inland before returnlag to the water. So far as known they do not nest in this region, although birds in the full adult plumage are frequently seen throughout the summer.

An instance of peculiar behavior of birds of this species came under my notice not long ago. Watching the sea birds from a bluff overlooking Bellingham Bay, on a calm evening in December (the 24th), my attention was attracted by unusual activity in a little group of white-winged scoters. They were about 50 yards from the beach. Ten of these birds were bunched together and actively swimming and plunging about within a circle of perhaps 10 or 12 feet in diameter. I was unable to distinguish the sexes with certainty, and have no knowledge to the effect that December Is their courtship season. It looked like a game of tag of some sort. At the center of the group two birds would assume a pose as if billing and caressing each other, one with its head elevated, the other’s depressed, the bills coming in contact. The pose would last only two or three seconds, till some other bird would approach one of them from behind, when the latter would suddenly turn upon it and chase It away, the pursued bird taking a circular course around the flock. Sometimes both the posing birds would be simultaneously approached, and each would turn upon his assailant. The other birds would hover close about, watching for a chance to tag the posers from behind. The two main actors would again come to the center and resume their pose, only to be promptly interrupted again with the same result. So far as I could observe, the same pair took the central part all the time. I watched them for perhaps half an hour, and the game was still in progress when I left. On February 11 I saw the same performance enacted at a greater distance from shore. There were about the same number of birds in the group and the play was as before. Although there were numerous other birds of the same species scattered about in the near vicinity, these paid no attention to the game.

Like the other scoters, this species is a strong swimmer and an expert diver. It dives to considerable depths for its food when necessary, though it prefers to feed at low tide when the mussel beds are nearer the surface. When wounded it can swim for such long distances under water that its pursuit is almost useless.

I have never heard any vocal sound from the white-winged scoter, but Dr. Charles M/. Townsend has sent me the following notes from E. P. Richardson:

In regard to the bell note of the white-winged scoter, I have only as much as thts to say: On still nights in the fall, xvhen we might be listening for black ducks, we would occasionally hear the rush of a flock of ducks overhead, with an occasional bell-like, low whistle, recurring at intervals in series of six or eight notes, entirely distinct from the rush of ~vings. The old gunner who took charge of our place at Eastham used to say that these birds were old white wings, and would add, “some call them bell coots.” The sound is rather more slowly repeated than the usual wing beat of the black duck, but the impression that it always gave me was that it ~vas produced by the wings and not by the voice of the fowl. At any rate, it is a very clear and distinct sound, a series of low, bell-like sounds which might occur repeated two or three times and then be lacking. These birds were crossing Cape Cod on their fall migration. I have not heard it for some years now, but it used to be a frequent experience. As I said, these birds were going over in the night and we could never, of course, identify them.

Game: The time-honored sport of coot shooting has for generaLions been one of the most popular and important forms of wildfowl hunting on the New England coast Next to the black duck, which undoubtedly stands first in the estimation of our sportsmen, there are probably more scoters killed on our coasts than any other of the Anatidae. Aside from the fact that the scoters are not of much value for the table, coot shooting has much to recommend it; it is a rough and rugged sport, testing the strength, endurance, and skill of an experienced boatman; the birds are strong fliers and hard to kill, requiring the best of marksmanship, under serious difficulties, and hard-shooting guns; during good flights game is almost always within sight, giving the sportsman much pleasant anticipation; and chances are frequently offered to show his skill at difficult and long shots. I was born and bred to be a coot shooter, inheriting the instinct from three generations ahead of me, and I only wish that I could impart to my readers a small fraction of the pleasure we have enjoyed in following this fascinating sport.

Rudely awakened at an unseemly hour, soon after midnight it seems, the party of gunners are given an early breakfast before starting out. It is dark as midnight as we grope our way down to the beach, heavily laden with paraphernalia, launch our boats in a sheltered cove among the rocks, and row out onto the ocean. The crisp October air is cool and fresh, as the light northeast wind comes in over the ledges, fragrant with the odors of kelp and rockweed. There is hardly light enough at first to see the line of boats, strung out straight offshore from the point, but soon we find our place in the line, anchor our several strings of wooden decoys, and then anchor our dory within easy gunshot of the nearest decoys, which if correctly placed are the smallest and most life-like; the largest decoys are merely to attract the birds from long distances. Perhaps before our decoys are set we have seen a few shadowy forms flitting past us in the gloom, or heard the whistle of their wings in the dark, the beginning of the morning flight; occasionally the flash of a gun is seen along the line and the day’s sport has begun. As the gray of early dawn creeps upward from the sea we can clearly distinguish the long line of boats, perhaps a dozen or fifteen, anchored at regular intervals, a little less than two gunshots apart so that birds can not slip through the line, and extending for several miles offshore, an effective barrier to passing flocks. Every eye is turned northward, looking up the coast and straining to discover the minute specks in the distance, as the first flock appears several miles away. “Nor’ard,” the warning signal is passed along the line, as some keen eye has made the longed-for discovery, and every gunner crouches in his boat to watch and wait and hope for a shot. Soon we can make them out, an irregular, wavering bunch of black specks, close to the water and well inshore. The boom of distant guns tells us that other gunners up the coast have seen them and perhaps taken their toll. On they come, now strung out in a long line headed straight for us, big black birds with flashing white wing patches, “bull white wings,” as the males of this species are called; we shall surely get a shot. But no, they have seen us and swerved, flying along the line seaward; a shot from the next boat drops a single bird and they pass through the line beyond, dropping two more of their number. A bunch of young surf scoters, “gray coots,” is headed for the next boat, and we try to attract their attention by imitating the whistling of their wings; they turn and swing in over our decoys, dropping their feet and preparing to alight; four barrels are fired in quick succession and three of them drop in the water. Two of them will die as they are lying on their backs with feet kicking the air, but the other has its head up and is swimming away. We throw over our anchor buoy and give chase, but cripples are hard to hit in the water and xve have a long pull and plenty of shooting before we land him. Meantime we have missed a magnicent shot at a large flock of “skunk heads,” surf scoters, which circled over our decoys and escaped through the gap, and on our return we find only one of our “dead” birds.

A temporary lull in the flight gives us a chance to rest and admire the beauty of the scene around us; the delicate blush of dawn deepens and brightens as the gorgeous hues of sunrise spread from the eastern horizon over the broad expanse of sky and sea, a rapidly changing, play of colors until the sun itself appears over the water and bright daylight gilds the ocean. Bird life is not lacking in the scene; herring gulls are flying about on all sides, often coming near enough to tempt us to shoot at them, but never quite near enough to kill; they seem to know just how far a gun will shoot. Occasionally a black-backed or a few kittiwake gulls are seen. Loons are frequently passing, generally high in the air, with long outstretched necks, flying swiftly in a straight line, their bodies propelled by rapid wing strokes; they often fly within gunshot, but are tough and hard to kill. Large flocks of oldsquaws make interesting shooting, as they twist and turn and wheel in compact bunches; they are swift of wing and not easy to hit; their weird cries add a tinge of wildness to the scene. On rare occasions the sport is enlivened by a shot at a flock of brant, and our pulse runs high when we see a long line of big black birds with white bellies headed for our boat, flying close tb the water; we are lucky if we get any for they are very shy.

The little “gray coots,” the young of the American and the surf scoters, give the best shooting and are the best for the table; they decoy well, particularly when in small flocks, and are easily killed; a pair or a single bird will often circle about the decoys again and again, giving plenty of chances for long single shots. “Butter bills” and “skunk heads,” the adults of these two species, decoy well in small flocks, but large flocks are usually wild and either pass the line high in the air or circle out around the end of it. Fifteen or twenty birds is considered a good day’s sport, but as many as 135 birds have been killed in a day by two gunners in one boat, or over 90 by a single gunner. Although they are thus persecuted year after year throughout the whole length of their migration route, they do not seem to have diminished materially in numbers since the time of our earliest records, and vast numbers of them still migrate along our coast.

Fall: The fall migration on the New England coast begins in September, a few early flocks sometimes appearing in August; the main flight is in October when, under favorable weather conditions, it is very heavy; before and during northeast storms large flocks of scoters are almost constantly in sight migrating southward; the flight is prolonged in lessening numbers during November, and by the end of that month they have reached their winter quarters.

Winter: Their winter range extends from the Gulf of St. Lawrence southward along the Atlantic coast to South Carolina, and on the Pacific coast they winter from the Aleutian Islands to Lower California. White-winged scoters are particularly abundant in winter on the waters of Long Island and Vineyard Sounds, the center of their winter range, where they find an abundant food supply in the beds of shellfish which abound in this region. Great rafts of them may be seen bedded on the water way offshore where they sleep and rest. At certain stages of the tides, when the water is not too deep over their feeding grounds, they fly i~ regularly, day after day, to the same spot to feed on the mussel beds on the submerged ledges and sunken rocks along the shores and even in the harbors. Scallo~ fishermen are often guided by their movements in locating their quarry. Gunners soon learn to locate their feeding grounds and take advantage of their regular flights.

Winthrop Sprague Brooks (1915) described, under the subspecific name, diwoni, a subspecies of the white-winged scoter, the type of which was collected by Joseph Dixon at Humphrey Point, Alaska. He assumes that all of the white-winged scoters, which breed in Alaska and migrate down the Pacific coast, are referable to this subspecies, which he characterizes as “similar to degla’ndi, with the exception of the size and shape of bill, which in dixoni is shorter and broader in proportion to its length and more blunt at the tip, with the angles from its greatest width to the tip more abrupt.” He says further: “On examining a large series of whitewinged scoters from both sides of the continent there is no difficulty in separating Atlantic and Pacific birds by means of this character of the bill.”

In order to establish a winter range for this subspecies I wrote Dr. Joseph Grinnell for his opinion on the status of California birds. He replied as follows:

I know nothing about Oldemia de~4andi diaroni. I have not used this name for any of the birds in this museum, because the authenticity of the alleged race has not been verified by anyone else. I have just looked at our birds, with Brooks’s drawings of bills before me. I see every sort of variation from the narrow extreme to the broad extreme among birds taken in California. There are only three eastern birds here, and each of them finds a counterpart among California-taken specimens.

From this statement I should infer that the subspecies is untenable and that the characters ascribed to it are due to individual variation. The study of more specimens from the supposed breeding range of dixoni might establish a local breeding race, which mingles in its winter range with the coma~ioner form. A careful study of a large series from many localities is necessary to settle the question.

Dr. H. C. Oberholser and I have recently made a careful study of the large series of white-winged scoters in the collections of the and the Biological Survey, containing birds from many different parts of North America, and find that the characters on which dixoni are supposed to be based can be matched in many birds from the Atlantic coast, and that they are no more prevalent in birds from the Pacific coast or the interior than elsewhere. We therefore came to the conclusion that these characters represent merely individual variation and should not be regarded as establishing a subspecies.

Breeding range: Northern North America. East to the Labrador coast (Hamilton Inlet and Nain), occasionally in Newfoftndland (Gaff Topsail). South to the north shore of the Gulf of St. Lawrence, southern Manitoba (Shoal Lake), central North Dakota (Devils and Stump Lakes), and northeastern Washington (east of the Cascade Mountains). West to northwestern British Columbia (Stikine River) and sparingly to northwestern Alaska (Kotzebue Sound). Seen in summer and perhaps breeding in the Aleutian Islands as far west as Tanaga Island. North to the barren grounds of northern Alaska and Canada.

Winter range: Mainly on the seacoasts. On the Atlantic coast from the Gulf of St. Lawrence southward to South Carolina and rarely to Florida. On the Pacific coast from the Commander, Pribilof, and Aleutian Islands southward to Lower California (San Quintin Bay). In the interior on the Great Lakes and irregularly or casually as far west and south as southern British Columbia (Okanogan Lake), Colorado (9 records), and Louisiana.

Spring migration: Northward along the Atlantic coast to Labrador and northwestward from the coast to the interior; also northward in the interior and along the Pacific coast. Early dates of arrival: Ontario, Toronto, April 13; Ohio, Lorain, April 27; Kentucky, Bowling Green, April 6; Minnesota, April 5; Manitoba, Aweme, April 15; Alberta, Alix, May 10; Mackenzie, Fort Simpson, May 18. Late dates of departure: Connecticut, May 15; Massachusetts, May 25; Ontario, Ottawa, May 4, and Toronto, May 26; Pennsylvania, Pittsburgh, May 13 Ohio, Lorain, May 3. The main flight up the Pacific coast and across British Columbia to the interior is in May.

Fall migration: Apparently a reversal of spring routes. Early dates of arrival: Massachusetts, September 6; Maryland, Baltimore, September 12; Ontario, Beamsville, October 8; Minnesota, Heron Lake, October 11; Colorado, Loveland, October 11; Idaho, Coeur d’Alene, October 22; Utah, Bear River, October 8. Late dates of departure: Mackenzie, Nahanni River, October 14; Ontario, Beamsville, November 26; Idaho, Coeur d’Alene, December 1.

Egg dates: North Dakota: Thirteen records, June 18 to August 10; seven records, June 29 to July 19. Arctic Canada: Nine records, June 14 to July 10. Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Manitoba: Seven records, June 21 to July 6.

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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