Scoter Surprise

From a distance Black Scoters are simply small to large flocks of black blobs with flashes gold, but close up they are are interesting and delightful creatures with their own distinctive personalities. The flashes of gold are the 24 carat gold ornaments on the top of the male bill.

Feb. 27 - Normally, by Feb 27 many of the ducks in the Salish Sea have congregated in preparation for the annual herring spawn. A herring spawn was reported near Denman Island on Feb. 24 so I had no expectation of seeing Black Scoters at Qualicum Beach. I only expected to see the multitudes of gulls that have gathered for the spawn, but to my surprise the Qualicum Black Scoter flock was there. It was high tide, and they were diving close to shore for varnish clams. I quickly pulled over, set up my camera, and slowly walked to the beach. I waited until they all dove before making my final approve onto the gravel.

When the ducks surfaced I was ready to shoot. The ducks weren't disturbed by my presence and continued diving for the clams while I did my best to record their activity.

Like most ducks scoters are definitely social birds. The only time I've ever seen a scoter on its own was at Deep Bay many years ago when I encountered a White-winged Scoter lying on the beach. It was either sick or hurt but still alive as it got up and swam away when I got within a meter of it. Otherwise they were always with the main flock or small groups just like the small group at Qualicum Beach. As mentioned they dove in unison, and as a group of pedestrians on the sea wall stopped to watch, they headed for deep water in unison. I was disappointed, but it was quite a pleasant day and I was in no hurry. I decided to wait.

The Black Scoters return from their Arctic breeding grounds around late October. They are generally shy and wary birds and prefer to keep their distance from humans. I have enjoyed visiting and photographing the Qualicum flock from close range many times over the years. The trick is to catch them at high tide when they come in to feed on the invasive varnish clams, a scoter delicacy. It's like you or I going to a Japanese restaurant. As mentioned in the past, the varnish clams were imports from the orient and have only been in the region for about 30 years. Since they inhabit the highest substrate of the beach the scoters can only access them at high tide.

Once the scoters locate a fertile area for the clams they will return until the patch is depleted. After they have retreated to deeper water they will return if they don't perceive any danger. If I am still and patient and no other beach walkers appear, they will usually return within the half hour. It's fun to watch them waffling in the distance wondering if it's safe to head back in. Finally one of the males takes the lead and starts heading in. The rest follow like a flock of black sheep.

Once they reach the clam area they all dive at the same time like a synchronized swim team. You have to be ready with your camera because when they surface they take a second or two to orient the clam in their bill and then swallow it.

Occasionally, a scoter will find an extra large clam. It'll take take a few extra seconds to juggle the clam into the right position, and that's when you can get some good shots.

Most of the Black Scoters are black which means they are males. The females are brown. The males outnumber the females by quite a margin. I'm not sure why, but it's the same with the Surf Scoters.

The females also need their nourishment. Unlike the males they don't have the flashy 24 carat gold ornaments on their bill. They do have a semblance of the golden knob, but it is never as shiny. I wonder if it just needs polishing?

The majority of the Qualicum flock is Black Scoters, but the occasional Surf or White-winged is not unusual.

The distinctive clown-coloured bill of the Surf Scoter is unmistakeable.

The Surf Scoter seemed right at home with the Black Scoters. The nearest Surf Scoter flock is usually a kilometer north close to the Little Qualicum River estuary.

If I make a sudden movement or a pedestrian or dog gets too close, the scoters head for deeper water. They usually swim, but sometimes they take flight. Even if there is no sign of danger they will retreat intermittently.

While waiting for the scoters to return a pair of male Buffleheads provided a pleasant distraction.

Although my focus was on the pending herring spawn I couldn't resist taking a drive towards Rhodo Lake to look for the Northern Pygmy Owls reported by Guy and Donna a week earlier. The sun was shining and there was no wind. The most abundant birds were juncos, but Varied Thrushes were also common. I was lucky to hear an owl at the 8 km. mark. I had trouble locating it as its call seemed be far away, but it was right in front of me about 6 meters up in a fir tree. It didn't stay long. I was surprised at its quickness as it darted low through the bushes after a towhee.


March 2 - The shallow waters along the Qualicum shorelines started turning turquoise blue on March 1 betraying the sperm of the male herring. Last year I missed the spawn because I was in California. I wasn't going to be denied this year. I arrived at Surfside at 9 a.m. the next morning. The bird activity was electric.

Scoter-Mania! The partyís on! Billions of Pacific herring have been spawning since the last week of February. As of March 6 there was 43 kilometers of milky, south sea blue waters along the shorelines from Comox to Parksville caused by milt from the male herring. Some researchers believe that pheromones from the milt signal the females to deposit their eggs on eel grass, seaweed, rocks, and debris on the shallow ocean floor. Each female can lay up to 20,000 eggs, but only one in 10,000 survives the gamut of predation and destruction to become adult herring.

Like the Brant, scoter ducks also rely on the herring for that extra nutritional boost to prepare them for their migration north and a successful reproductive season. Unlike the Brant, the scoters double dip and get twice the benefit from the herring.

First of all, scoters are large, dark ducks and probably the most abundant ducks in the Salish Sea. They are comprised of three species; Surf Scoters, White-winged Scoters, and Black Scoters. Surf Scoters are by far the most abundant and dominate the huge rafts of ducks seen during the herring spawn. The males of all three species are black but can be easily identified. The Surf Scoter has an over-sized multi-coloured white, orange, black, and red bill; the Black Scoter has a golden knob on the top bill, and the White-winged Scoter has a white comma under the eye. The females are less distinctive and mostly brown in colour.

For most of the winter the scoters are often seem in scattered flocks just offshore where they dive for mollusks and crustaceans. At high tide they often come close to shore to forage for the invasive varnish clams that reside in the highest substrate of the beach. Thatís my favorite time to photograph them. However, as soon as it is herring spawn time all the scoters in the Salish Sea magically show up in huge rafts in the spawn areas. Iím not sure how they all know when itís time. Is it in their DNA or do they have a way of communicating? In any case, tens of thousands of scoters arrive for the exotic banquet, and they join the other ducks, Brant, gulls, and even the occasional Trumpeter Swan to form huge rafts that often over a kilometer long.

The first few weeks of the spawn is caviar time. Although most of the eggs are glued in a sticky mass on the sea floor, a significant portion is dislodged by wind, wave, and tidal action. The floating roe is easy pickings for the birds, and literally the first part of the double dip as they simply dip their bills in to gather the roe. Even crows get into the action when the roe is swept onshore by the wind, waves, and tides.

The second part of the dip occurs after the second week of the spawn. By that time the fertilized eggs develop into larvae which are still attached to their yolk sac. The larvae have very little ability to swim and are at the mercy of the currents and predators. It takes another five or six weeks for the larvae to develop into smolts that have the ability to escape to deeper water. Meanwhile, the rafts of ducks continue to feed on the larvae for several weeks until itís time for them to head north to the tundra lakes and ponds for their nesting season.

The reponse of the ducks to the spawn was amazing. Flocks were flying back and forth and everywhere jockeying for the best location to scoop up any loose herring roe floating in the water.

The majority of birds were Surf scoters, but many other species were present like the pair of White-winged Scoters coming in for a landing.

I'm sure it was just a coincidence to catch a male and female White-Winged together in the previous photo, but I also lucked out with a mixed pair of Surf Scoters. Maybe it was time to buy a lottery ticket.

A perfect two-point landing. Notice the milky turquoise water.

With all the hectic action it was difficult to decide where to point the camera, but another pair of White-wingeds passed close by.

Getting close-up shots of scoters is normally very difficult but this was almost like shooting ducks in a barrel.

Surf scoters dominated the scene but notice a couple of Black Scoters in the background.

By some mysterious signal the flocks would take off and relocate in a different area while others flew in to take their place.

Greater Scaup were also part of the action. It was interesting to see them stick together in their own flocks.

Gulls were also everywhere. Some of them joined the offshore flocks of ducks, but the majority preferred the easy pickings near the shoreline. Most of the menu was herring roe, but the occasional herring was a bonus.

That's not shaving cream. It's the frothy foam of the whipped milt.

March 5 - The large flotilla of ducks is always one of the most impressive sights of the herring spawn.

As usual every sandbar was covered with gulls resting in between their feeding sessions.


Herring time is also a critical time for Bald Eagles to bulk up for their migrations to their various summer locations.

Hundreds of eagles congregate along the shores waiting for any sign of a healthy or wounded herring near the surface. It's a mad dash to beat the sea lions and seals to the casualties from the fishnets, but the eagles seem to get their share.

Happiness is a bountiful herring harvest as witnessed by two eagles jumping for joy.

The abundance of eagles attracts many photographers all hoping for the perfect shot. It was not surprising to run into Pete C. and Wayne D. everywhere I went.

Unfortunately, I only spent one opportunity focussing on eagles. I planned on doing more, but the weather turned to overcast for the next few days and the spawn was much shorter than usual. I'm not concerned about getting more pictures but I am concerned about the eagles and ducks not getting enough food for their migrations. According to the DFO reports only 70,000 tons of herring have been assessed in the Salish Sea, and they have set the quota for the combined gill net and seine fishery at 29,000 tons. Do the math - THAT'S 40% of the assessed stocks which would be herring genocide if they got their quotas. If they took 29,000 tons that would only leave 41,000 tons. So far their reported catch is about 13,000 tons which leaves 57,000 tons to try to survive for another season. Time will tell, but levels seem to be getting close the extinction possibilities when you consider the biomass required to survive all various predators and conditions for the next year. Are these the same people who managed the Atlantic cod?



Bird Poster

My poster is on display at: Victoria - Swan Lake Nature House. (Note: This poster has been produced in a more manageable size and is now available for $20 unlaminated and $32 laminated.)














NANOOSE - PERKS (Nanoose Medicine Centre)


Port Hardy - MUSEUM


Comments, questions, or book orders?

admin AT vancouverislandbirds DOT com