Black Scoters, Misplaced Sea Ducks in the South

Jay V. Huner
Journal Correspondent

• Louisiana Ecrevisse

Dr Huner shows Black Scoter, now living in Southwest Louisiana
If you pay attention to wildlife, you'll quickly notice something out of the ordinary. Birders know what to expect, depending on the season. So, if an odd bird shows up, it's quickly noticed.

Black Scoters are reported from time to time each winter but, to the best of my knowledge, they're normally reported from Louisiana's coastal waters, generally a good distance from the piney woods. However, some individuals have been reported from the north shore of Lake Ponchartrain in the vicinity of Mandeville where the piney woods border the lake! Heck, some would argue that the lake is "coastal".

So, what's a Black Scoter? It is a reasonably large diving duck. The drakes are black with a somewhat odd shaped, bulbous bill whose base is conspicuously yellow. The hens are a drab mottled black with gray faces and dark crowns. Their bills are much more duck-like than their mates.

I was making what, of late, for me, a rare duck hunt in a marsh pond adjacent to Holly Beach in southwest Louisiana on the Gulf of Mexico this past January (2018). Didn't shoot much but I did shoot a duck. I took it to be a hen Lesser Scaup, dos gris to Cajuns. It drifted away from our decoys and Charles Williams, my host, went out to pick up the few ducks we had shot.

When he got back, Charles handed me a Lesser Scaup and then a scaup-like duck. He didn't know what it was, but a light-bulb came on in my head, and I realized that it was a hen Black Scoter.

So, I added a new duck species to the list of waterfowl that had been "harvested" at the lease. There are three species of scoters the name originated in the 17th century but the origin is unknown! These include Black, Surf, and White-winged scoters with the Black Scoter being the one most likely to be reported in our coastal region.

In his discussion of scoters in "Louisiana Birds", the late Professor George H. Lowery, Jr. noted the scarcity of these interesting ducks in the state in recent times. However, the great artist John James Audubon who spent considerable time in Louisiana in the early 1800s stated that he found "American Scoter Ducks" (Black Scoters) at the Mouth of the Mississippi River.

Thus, the species has not recently arrived in the region although it was still rare in Audubon's day.

Because scoters are sea ducks, they depend on invertebrate animals, mostly shellfish, for food. As a result, they surely have a flavor far different from marsh dwelling puddle ducks like mallards, gadwalls, pintails, and teal. What became of the Black Scoter I "harvested"? I donated it to the LSU Museum of Natural Sciences and is now one of the few scoter specimens in the museum's collection. Black Scoters nest in the arctic tundra. The ducklings feed on whatever invertebrates they can find including insects, mollusks, and crustaceans.

All scoters are well adapted to diving for food. Their legs are set well back on their bodies and propel them quickly below the surface to food organisms. As a result, they have difficulty walking giving the term "duck waddle" special meaning.