A raft of eider ducks — hens and ducklings — swims near the Kittery coast after an orphaned duckling was added to the group by the Center for Wildlife. Courtesy of the Center for Wildlife

It’s really hard not to write about eider ducklings at this time of year. It is one of my favorite signs of impending summer to see the flotillas of multiple moms surrounding numerous fluffy chicks.

Watching them herd into tidepools to feed and then float out to clumsily practice flight is a stark contrast to seeing them confidently navigate winter’s waves once they have matured. But I recently learned that not all sea ducks stay in salt water all year the way that eiders do.

“They’re so weird,” said a friend of mine who was visiting Maine last week. “Did you know they breed in the boreal forest?” This is not an unusual phrase to hear from her, as she is quite the avid birder and could tell you all about the behavior and habitat of most any bird in North America and many beyond. But it is unusual for a small duck that spends most of its life floating on salt water to find its way to forested ponds to breed.

The specific duck she was referring to is the surf scoter (Melanitta perspicillata). Its Latin name aptly describes it — melas is Greek for “black” and netta for “duck.” This black duck that is mostly nondescript, save for its orange bill that oddly comes up the front of its face in a somewhat flattened shape. The white patches on either side of its head (perspicillata is Latin for “appearing to have spectacles”) also help to distinguish it from the myriad other sea ducks that have various combinations of black and white and give it the sometimes nickname of “old skunkhead.”

The common name, surf scoter, also aptly describes this scrappy duck that is able to surf among the waves and then dive beneath them to feed. They typically feed on invertebrates and shellfish and can dive as deep as 30 feet to get them. Then they use their large bills to crunch up their catch.

Scoters are also particularly scrappy as they are more commonly seen along the Maine coast in the winter. That’s because rather than flying south to breed, scoters fly north, departing around this time of year to fly up to Canadian forests and tundra. They often travel in large flocks and their wings, all beating together, are known to make whistling sounds. They also do this on the West Coast, traveling up and down along the Pacific — same species!


Their regular vocalizations can range from croaking to gurgling to popping or an alarm call that some birders have likened to the sound of a crow cawing. Here, they nest in small well-camouflaged nests built in depressions in the ground near wooded lakes, the female typically laying six or seven eggs in one clutch.

After breeding, they’ll gradually make their way back south, but not before molting along the way, which renders them somewhat flightless until their winter plumage fully comes in. Apparently, they aren’t entirely scrappy, as they also use freshwater lakes during other times of the year when there are particularly strong storms as a place of refuge. That’s certainly easy to understand after this winter’s storms and the havoc they wreaked along Maine shores.

As I watch the baby eiders grow and complete their life cycle so publicly along the Maine shores, it is neat to think of this other species that finds its way north to breed in hidden-away lakes and ponds, only to return to Maine waters when it can fully display its scrappy prowess as it surfs the winter’s waves.

Susan Olcott is the director of operations at Maine Coast Fishermen’s Association.

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