Common Scoter

Melanitta nigra

44-54cm

Appearance

This is a distinctive duck, mostly because it lacks any striking pattern. Its proportionately long and pointed tail is also a good signifier. The male is the only all-black duck in the region, and in the right light, his head has a sheen. He has a bulbous shape at the base of his bill and a yellow ridge along the top. Females are dark brown with an even darker crown, and she has well-defined pale smudges on the cheeks and upper neck. Juveniles are similar to female adults. When flying, the wings of both birds are uniformly dark and plain, though flight feathers can appear lighter.

Habitat

When in breeding season in Britain, these birds prefer inshore waters such as northern lochs and lakes. At other times of the year it is usually in coastal areas, particularly ones with sandy seabeds.

Character

When not in breeding, this is a highly social bird, rarely seen in solitude. It swims high in the water, often with its tail slightly raised. Birds in flocks often seem edgy, flapping their wings and standing on their tails. They fly often and can be seen in long, trailing lines, usually low over water.

Food

Primary food is molluscs, particularly the blue mussel. Diet also includes cockles, clams and other shellfish, crabs, insects, small fish and plant material.

Breeding

Pairs begin to unite while in their winter flocks; they then move to their breeding grounds. Tends towards nesting sites proximate to water, such as islands or lake vegetation. The male protects female until she lays her eggs (6-8 of them), and he then deserts. Incubation lasts for over 30 days; young can swim and feed themselves soon after hatching and can fly after 45 days.

Population

There are a small number of birds that breed in Ireland and northern Scotland. Winter populations spend winter around British and Irish coasts, especially in Wales and the north-east coast of Scotland. The birds have been in rapid decline and there are now only about 50 pairs in the UK and up to 100 in Ireland. In winter, the population in UK is over 100 000 individuals and over 23 000 in Ireland.

Observation Tips

Often easier to see in flight rather than on ground; its typical for them to fly in long straggling lines that stretch across the horizon. A largish flock is usually found from November to March on the Moray Firth and Carmarthen Bay.

Voice

When displaying, the male utters a piping or whistling call.
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