Surf Scoter

Melanitta perspicillata
Surf Scoter Melanitta perspicillata, Adult Male, Photo Credit: Lynn Blumin
Surf Scoter Melanitta perspicillata, Adult Male, Photo Credit: Lynn Blumin

The Surf Scoter is a large, migratory, diving sea duck, primarily found in large single or mixed flocks along North America’s ocean coastlines. The black and white head pattern of the male has given it the nickname “skunk duck”. 

Description: The male has a large, heavy, multi-colored bill, patterned with orange, black, and white that slopes off a square-shaped head that has two distinct white patches.  One on the forehead and one on the nape.

The female’s bill is greenish-black, sloping and equally large.  Females are dusky brown with a dark crown.  Her head has two light patches on the sides and a pale whitish patch on the nape.  In-flight, the wings are dark and have no pattern.

Surf Scoters fly in straight-line formations with rapid, direct strong wing beats.

Length: 20 inches

Wingspan: 30 inches

Weight: 2.1 lbs

Voice: Generally silent.  Male makes a gurgling call during courtship displays.  Female’s call is a harsh crow-like call and used when defending her young.

Both sexes' wings produce a whistling noise in flight.

Similar Species:

  • Black Scoter - The male sports all-black plumage the black bill is thinner with a yellow-orange knob. The Female has a dark cap with clean whitish cheeks-not patches.
  • White-winged Scoter – female with similar whitish face patches, but has large white wing patch and sloping forehead. The Male has a red, white, and orange bill with a black knob at the base and “teardrop” of white near his eye, and a distinct white wing patch.

Habitat: In Tennessee, Surf Scoters can occasionally be found on freshwater lakes. Rarely dives in water that exceeds 30 ft.

Diet: Mollusks, freshwater invertebrates, and insect larvae

Nesting and reproduction: There are no known records of this species nesting in Tennessee.

Status in Tennessee: The Surf Scoter is an uncommon migrant in early spring and late fall, occasionally found in winter in Tennessee.

Fun Facts:

  • Surf Scoters form pair bonds on their wintering ground
  • Native to North America

Obsolete English Names: Skunk-Duck, Skunk-headed Coot, Horse-headed Coot, Bottlenose Diver, Snuff-takers, Mussel Bill

Best places to see in Tennessee: Nickajack Dam, Paris Landing State Park, Big Sandy Unit of Tennessee NWR, Radnor Lake, Percy Priest Lake, TVA Lakes