Surf Scoter

January 10th, 2020: Miserable weather and a handful of birds

Weather-wise, it’s been a pretty terrible week here in Vancouver. Colder than usual with snow/rain/slush falling from the sky and actually accumulating! Doesn’t mean I didn’t go birding…

I had to head to my old office at UBC anyway, so I took the scope for a look over the bay. The University of British Columbia is actually completed surrounded by old growth temperate rainforest. That stuff you picture when you picture the Pacific Northwest.

Satellite view of UBC surroundings
Satellite view of UBC surroundings

On the east and south sides, there’s Pacific Spirit Park. Lots of trails and a large amount of area. On the west and north sides, there’s a narrow band of cliff/embankment and several long, steep stairs that take you down to beaches. There’s (clothing optional) Wreck Beach to the west and Spanish Banks to the north.

The band on the west is particularly good in the spring when birds migrating along the coast stop to rest at the old growth habitat nearest their flight path. I’ve been lucky with early migrants and some less common birds there in the past (Nashville Warbler among others).

Today, I was out behind Haida House and the Museum of Anthropology (which is awesome) for a look over the cliff to the waters below.

Haida House on the right and the back of the Museum of Anthropology (MOA)
Haida House on the right and the back of the Museum of Anthropology (MOA)

Since it was raining/slushing and around zero, I was drenched and cold rather quickly and the scope was quickly getting wet. I didn’t stay long, but saw a few birds. Usually, there’s a good chance for a range of alcids–like Marbled Murrelet, Common Murre, and Rhinoceros Auklet–and a mix of other diving birds.

Looking north over the water toward Howe Sound on a rainy/snowy day
Looking north over the water toward Howe Sound on a rainy/snowy day

But today, I scoured the water below for several minutes and saw a grand total of 7 birds. 4 beautiful Surf Scoter, 2 lanky Red-throated Loons on a fly-by, and 1 lonely Mew Gull. Not a lot for the effort, but hey, it felt good to get out.

Surf Scoter are everywhere in Vancouver. You can find HUGE rafts of them into the 1000s offshore at times. And they’re often mixed or near White-winged Scoter (especially down in White Rock). The task is then picking through the rafts of Surfs to find the uncommon Black Scoter.

Out on the Sunshine Coast, sometimes the mix is the other way around: more Black Scoter than Surf Scoter.
Out on the Sunshine Coast, sometimes the mix is the other way around: more Black Scoter than Surf Scoter.

All scoters dive for molluscs, especially mussels and clams. They’ll eat other aquatic invertebrates and sea vegetation too. They breed way up in the taiga shield in northern Canada and Alaska where they nest on shallow lake edges.

Two male Surf Scoter
Two male Surf Scoter

How about that bill though? I don’t know how you beat that, except maybe if you’re an eider. I also recently learned that a nickname for these ducks is “old skunkhead.” Seems kinda mean, but I guess I see it…

Male Surf Scoter

Side note: I didn’t know Vancouver was testing wave energy, but saw this today…

A wave energy test station in Vancouver
A wave energy test station in Vancouver

This quick explanation was good. And this business-focused article and CBC overview note some of the benefits of wave energy in B.C.

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