A practical guide to bird watching in Sonoma County, California

(Unless otherwise indicated, all phone numbers are in the 707 area code)


Fairly common along the coast in the winter, sometimes abundant. Wintering birds mostly arrive in the area in mid-October and remain through the following March and into early April, but a Surf Scoter may turn up in any month of the year, as a fair number typically hang around over the summer, notably in the Bodega Bay area. Breeds in the far north of Canada and Alaska. Winters here and all along the Pacific Coast (and the Atlantic coast). Usually in flocks--sometimes big flocks of hundreds or even thousands of birds. Large flocks can be seen during migration off Bodega Head. Often present at Campbell Cove and in the Bodega Bay area generally. Not highly vocal, but wings have a distinctive whistle in flight.

An adult male Surf Scoter is hard to miss: The mostly black plumage contrasts sharply with its oddly shaped and colored bill and its bright red legs. The bright white eye and two white patches on the head (at the forehead and the nape) stand out as well. Common names include “skunkhead” and “skunk-headed coot.” The bill is an adaptation for cracking shellfish, its preferred food. Also eats crustaceans and insects. Rarely eats vegetation. Sloping forehead makes the head look like a brightly colored doorstop.

Females are dark brown with a nearly black bill shaped like the male’s and two pale spots on the face, one directly behind the bill, the other behind and below the eye. Female has a darkish cap. Note that field guides often make the facial patches look much more distinct than they tend to appear in the field. Sometimes they are quite subtle, and, at a distance, even a distinctly marked female may simply seem to have a pale, brownish face.

The front-most patch in female Surf Scoter has a cut-off look where it abuts the base of the bill. Female White-winged Scoter (Melanitta fusca) also has two pale spots on the face, but the shape of these is different, and, given a long look, White-winged Scoter at rest on the sea will eventually show a flash of white at the flank, which is the white wing patch that gives the bird its common name (the patch is conspicuous in flight). Female Harlequin Duck (Histrionicus histrionicus) looks similar as well, but bill shape is entirely different. Note that female Surf Scoter and immature male Surf Scoter may show a hint of the white patch at the nape to varying degrees. 

Further reading:

Bolander and Parmeter, Birds of Sonoma County California, rev. ed., 2000, p. 34

Brinkley, National Wildlife Federation Field Guide to Birds of North America, 2007, p. 51

Dunn and Alderfer, eds., National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America, 5th ed., 2006, p. 44

Dunn and Alderfer, eds., National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America, 6th ed., 2011, p. 42

Dunne, Pete Dunne’s Essential Field Guide Companion, 2006, pp. 55-56

Ehrlich, Dobkin, and Wheye, The Birder's Handbook, paperback edition, 1988, p. 86

Fix and Bezener, Birds of Northern California, 2000, p. 92

Floyd, Smithsonian Field Guide to the Birds of North America, 2008, p. 50

Kaufman, Field Guide to Birds of North America, 2000, p. 36

Kaufman, Advanced Birding, 1990, pp. 48-49

Kaufman, Field Guide to Advanced Birding, 2011, pp. 146, 148, 157

Lukas, Bay Area Birds: From Sonoma County to Monterey Bay, 2012, pp. 15, 21-22, 23

Parmeter and Wight, Birds of Sonoma County California, Update (2000-2010), 2012, p. 8

Peterson, Birds of Eastern and Central North America, 5th ed., 2002, pp. 72, 86

Peterson, Field Guide to Birds of Western North America, 4th ed., 2010, pp. 34, 46

Peterson, Western Birds, 3rd ed., 1990,  pp. 50, 70

Sibley, Field Guide to Birds of Western North America,1st ed., 2003, p. 88

Stokes, Stokes Field Guide to the Birds of North America, 1st ed., 2010, p. 43

Vuilleumier, American Museum of Natural History, Birds of North America: Western Region, 2011, p. 59

Voice: Cornell Lab of Ornithology: All About Birds--Surf Scoter



© Colin Talcroft, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013
Unless noted, all photos by the author. If you would like to use one of my images, please ask for permission for non-commercial use with proper credit or commercial use with proper compensation.

Surf Scoter, Campbell Cove, Bodega Bay, December 27, 2012

Surf Scoter pair (with female Bufflehead behind), Campbell Cove, Bodega Bay, December 27, 2012

Surf Scoter

Melanitta perspicillata

1990-2013 Sonoma County data. Graph provided by eBird (www.ebird.org), generated September 8, 2013

EBird-reported occurrence in Sonoma County