The word scoter is often used to define northern sea ducks. There are six different species of scoter, all of which are monotypic and three of which are confined to North America. The Common Scoter like the Velvet Scoter can only be found in Europe and Asia whilst the Stejneger’s Scoter is a native of Asia alone.
Family:Ducks, geese and swans
44cm to 54cm
79cm to 90cm
650g to 1.3kg
The common scoter is a large billed, slim necked, social, sea duck. During the non-breeding season the adult male has an all black body with a purplish hue to the upper parts and dark grey tips to the primary and secondary flight feathers. The tail is long and often seen raised whilst the bird is in the water. The head is rounded and the large pointed bill is predominantly matt black with a yellow patch on the ridge of the upper mandible, commencing behind the nostrils and extending forwards towards, but not meeting, the tip. Legs and feet are a matt black or dark grey and the eyes are a very dark brown. During the summer breeding season the upperwing areas are more brownish in colour. Adult females are a similar basic shape to the male although smaller and with a less pronounced base to the bill. They have a predominantly sooty brown coloured body with a black crown and cap extending across the forehead and to just below the eyes, ending at the nape of the neck. The cheeks, lower facial area and neck are greyish white morphing into the dark brown body mid way down the neck. The bill is slate grey and lacks the male’s yellow nasal patch. The eyes are a lighter brown than the male and both feet and legs are a dark matt grey. The plumage of juveniles is similar to the female although generally paler, particularly across the underparts.
A Common Scoter
The sexes vocalise differently with the female using a deep growling or guttural noise whist the male issues a medium pitched repetitive whistle. Both birds will call with a sound similar to,’kyoo’ and large flocks will frequently vocalise together, particularly when taking off from water.
Female Common Scoter call
Stanislas Wroza, XC488103. Accessible at www.xeno-canto.org/488103.
Female Common Scoter
Diving down from the surface of the water, common scoters eat crustaceans, molluscs, worms, shellfish, small fish and occasionally aquatic plants and insects.
Common Scoter calling in the water
Breeding takes place in Southeast Greenland, Iceland, northern regions of the United Kingdom, across Scandinavia and east as far as north central Russia. Whilst many birds will remain year round within their breeding regions others migrate south to the United Kingdom and European Atlantic coasts down as far as West Africa. Vagrants have also occasionally been recorded turning up in North America.
A flock of Common Scoter
Whilst breeding takes place on land, generally close to water, the scoter can also be found in woodlands and inland treeless landscapes. Rivers and freshwater lakes will often attract a mother and ducklings but common scoters spend much of their time at sea frequently choosing sheltered bays where they can be seen riding the swells or sheltering from storms further out at sea. They are extremely social and congregate in large flocks. The male common scoter is more easily identifiable than the female being the only male species of scoters without any white markings. The large, wide yellow and black bill is also an obvious identification guide.
Common Scoter swimming in the water
The breeding season extends from May to July and courtship often begins prior to this. Nests are hollows in the ground close to water, frequently located on islands free from predation or below overhanging undergrowth, where they are lined with vegetation and feathers. Normally the female will produce one clutch of 6 – 9 plain, cream coloured eggs, annually which she alone incubates for up to a month before hatching takes place. The male leaves the female early on during the incubation period, never to return. Fledging takes place after forty five to fifty days.
The life expectancy for a common scoter is between ten to fifteen years.
The Eurasian wigeon is a medium dabbling duck that commonly breeds across northern Europe, and winters further south, including in the British Isles and occasionally in North America. Rare vagrant breeding pairs can be found in the United States, and small breeding grounds have also been established in northern England and Scotland.
This large bird arrives on our shores from Iceland to overwinter in late September, returning northwards to breed from mid March onwards.
Greater White-Fronted Goose
One of several similar wildfowl species in the Anser genus, Greater White-fronted Geese live up to their name with a distinctive white patch on the front of their face. The species is extremely widespread, although there are several sub-species, each with different breeding and overwintering ranges.
Larger than the Common Scoter this elegant European diving duck spends much of its time at sea and is often seen in company with mixed flocks resting on the water’s surface far out from land.
Tundra Bean Goose
The tundra bean goose is the most common species of bean goose, and breeds on Russian tundra landscapes. Winters are spent grazing on open fields, marshes and agricultural land in western and central Europe and East Asia.
The Tufted Duck is the UK’s most common diving duck and a familiar sight on lakes and ponds across the country. Known for their long, hair-like tufts, these small waterfowl are fairly easy to identify but may be confused with other ducks from the Aythya genus.
Fast and erratic in flight, the Teal is the United Kingdom’s smallest wildfowl species. Despite occurring year-round in low numbers, birdwatchers are most likely to spot these tiny ducks in the winter when large numbers arrive from abroad.
Taiga Bean Goose
Taiga bean geese are a common sight on northern taiga marshes of Siberia and northern Scandinavia in spring and summer, before heading south into Europe each winter. Several hundred individuals spend winters in the UK, with rare vagrant visitors occasionally reported in North America.
One of seven American goose species, the Snow Goose is a noisy migrant that visits the Lower 48 states each winter. These beautiful birds have increased dramatically since the second half of the 20th century.
Despite being only a rare winter visitor to the British Isles, the Smew is one of the countrys most unmistakable and easily identified duck species. Breeding across Central Asia and returning to Western Europe during winter months, smews begin to turn up on inland lakes as well as in coastal regions from November onwards.
One look at the bill of a northern shoveler should be enough to provide you with an accurate species identification: their flattened shovel-like bills are unique among waterfowl and allow them to feed on tiny plankton by sweeping their heads across the water’s surface.
A large colourful duck, often found in coastal areas, the shelduck, is an established breeding waterbird in the UK. British wetlands are also a major wintering ground for the species, hosting up to 30 percent of Europe’s shelduck population each autumn.
A medium-sized diving duck, the greater scaup is known simply as the scaup in Europe, and locally as the ‘bluebill’ in North America. Only a handful of scaup breed in the UK, making it the rarest breeding duck in the British Isles.
A striking and fascinating little diving duck with an unusual courtship display, the Ruddy Duck is a widespread migrant in North America.
Colourful and instantly recognisable diving ducks, red-crested pochards are present in the UK in small numbers, believed to have initially been introduced into the wild from private wildfowl collections. Some breeding does occur in Britain, although the best chance of a sighting comes with the arrival of several hundred migrants each winter.
A speedy migratory wildfowl with a hardcore hairstyle, the Red-breasted Merganser is widespread in coastal and estuarine habitats across the Northern Hemisphere.
During the winter the population of this rare resident breeding duck increases by 55 times to that of the summer, with the influx of many thousands of others overwintering, having arrived from Russia and Eastern Europe.
Widespread in the Northern Hemisphere, Northern Pintails are distinctive migratory waterfowl. Drakes in breeding plumage are particularly attractive, although the drabber females and non-breeding males are still identifiable by their long necks and graceful form.
Although the pink-footed goose does not breed in Britain, it is a common winter visitor, with over half a million migrating individuals arriving each autumn from breeding grounds in Iceland, Greenland and Norway’s Svalbard peninsula.
One of the world’s heaviest flying birds, and one of the most beautiful too, the Mute Swan is a majestic waterfowl with a mean reputation.
Sightings of wild Mandarin Ducks in the United States cause quite a stir, and it’s easy to see why. These small but eye-catching waterfowl are, in fact, native to the Far East of Asia, although their popularity as an ornamental species has resulted in their introduction to many parts of the world, including the United Kingdom.
Instantly recognizable, the Mallard is a medium-sized dabbling duck that is familiar to people all over the world. These adaptable waterfowl are the ancestor of the modern domestic duck and are found everywhere from remote wilderness lakes to suburban backyards.
One of the most distinctive duck breeds, thanks to their extended streaming tail feathers, the long-tailed duck is a coastal waterbird that spends winters at sea, foraging for crustaceans in marine waters, after breeding on Arctic tundra landscapes.
The Greylag goose is the largest grey goose from the Anser genus of the Anatidae family of waterbirds. A stout, robust and heavyweight bird, the Greylag goose is the closest wild relative and ancestor to the domestic goose. Greylag geese are distributed across much of Europe and Asia, extending into eastern Russia and China. Most populations migrate, but some are sedentary, including in much of Northern Europe.
Widespread throughout the northern hemisphere, the common merganser is the largest of the saw billed fish eating ducks. There are three sub-species with the Eurasian variant frequently known as the Goosander.
Goldeneyes are distinctive diving ducks that thrive in cold environments, breeding in boreal forests across Canada, northern Scandinavia and northern Russia. Only when the lakes and coastal areas on their summer territories begin to freeze over as fall approaches do they begin to head south to milder regions where they spend winter months foraging on inland lakes and around sheltered bays.
The Gargeney is a dabbling duck, slightly smaller than a mallard, and considered a rare breeder in the UK, with just over 100 pairs recorded. A fully migratory species, all garganeys spend winters in southern Africa, leaving breeding grounds as early as July, so your window for spotting one on British waters is only a very brief one.
The Gadwall is a widely distributed dabbling duck of the Anatidae family that breeds in the Northern Hemisphere. This hardy duck breeds as far north as Siberia, Alberta, Saskatchewan, and coastal Alaska and is found across both the Americas, Europe, and Asia.
The common eider (Somateria mollissima) is a large and widespread sea duck that is perhaps best known for its valuable insulating down feathers.
Regarded as being sacred by early Egyptians, this native goose of the African continent was introduced into Europe and elsewhere as an ornamental wildfowl species in the late seventeenth and eighteenth century.
Once decimated through overhunting and habitat destruction, the Canada Goose has rebounded to become one of North America’s most abundant and familiar wildfowl.
A small goose species with a short, stubby bill, the brent goose (or brant, as it is known in North America), breeds in the high Arctic regions of Canada, Greenland, Siberian Russia and northern Europe’s Arctic islands. Brant spend winters along North America’s Pacific coast, part of the east coast of the US, and in north-western Europe, from the British Isles to Denmark.
A subspecies of the North American tundra swan, Bewick’s swans breed in Siberia and arrive in the UK each autumn. Worrying declines have been observed in the European population in recent years, and today only around 4,350 individuals migrate to the UK each winter.
Brighten up your inbox with our exclusive newsletter, enjoyed by thousands of people from around the world.