This sea duck species has undergone significant population declines on Puget Sound, where it winters. Increasing development in the Puget Sound has led to more disturbance, pollution, and degradation of foraging areas used by sea ducks. Reduction of marine forage (primarily herring spawn) may be reducing populations in some areas. Some aquaculture practices can impact foraging areas through exclusion of sea ducks.
Surf scoter is managed as a migratory game bird. Sea ducks are game species, managed under state and federal migratory waterfowl regulations cooperatively through the Pacific Flyway Council.
Description and Range
The surf scoter is a large sea duck. They are about 19 ½ inches in length and weigh about 2 pounds. Adult males or “drakes” have black plumage and can be distinguished from other scoters by two white patches on their head and the bright orange, white, and black color of their bill. Adult females or “hens” have dark brown plumage and two white spots on their head. Immature birds are paler overall.
Like all scoters, these birds move along our coasts in loose flocks, stringing into irregular, wavy lines. Flight is strong, direct, and usually close to the waves.
For more information on how to identify this species, check out the Sea Duck Joint Venture "Meet the Sea Ducks." Also check out the Resources section.
Ecology and life history
The surf scoter is one of the least studied ducks in North America.
Surf scoters do not breed until two to three years old. They are believed to be long-lived, but on average have low reproductive output. As an example, an average of approximately eight percent young in Puget Sound wintering flocks was documented during 2008 to 2010.
Nests are well concealed and the few that have been found are typically near shallow lakes within the boreal forest of Northwest Territories and Nunavut, an area threatened by energy development and climate change effects.
Males and nonbreeding females often undertake extensive molt migrations to coastal areas (including Padilla Bay in Washington) that are hundreds of miles from breeding areas. Molting flocks may number in the hundreds to thousands, although the location and characteristics of molting areas has not been well documented. Birds depart coastal molting areas from late August through November and move to wintering areas, primarily in Puget Sound. Adults are site-faithful to wintering sites.
Wintering surf scoters feed mostly on mussels and clams at up to 66 feet in depth, before switching to herring eggs or other seasonally abundant prey during spring migration.
Although surf scoters are found in many marine coastal areas, they are most numerous on Puget Sound. Wintering numbers of all scoters on Puget Sound total approximately 50,000, and most (80 percent) are surf scoters. The total scoter population index (three-year average) for Puget Sound has declined over 50 percent since 1994 to 1996, and they may have declined as much as 78 percent since 1978 to 1979.
WDFW has implemented progressively restrictive hunting regulations for scoters since 1998 in response to population declines.
For maps of world-wide distribution and other species’ information, check out NatureServe Explorer and the International Union for Conservation of Nature Red List.
Sensitivity to climate change
Duckling surf scoters may exhibit some physiological sensitivity to climate change as local weather conditions can affect survival. However, the overall sensitivity of surf scoters is primarily due to dependencies on specific breeding and foraging habitats that could be affected by climate change. Increases in temperature or sea level as well as changes in water chemistry may alter prey species composition and herring spawn as well as alter subtidal foraging habitats. Surf scoters are a late-nesting species and may also exhibit reduced flexibility in their timing of breeding, increasing their overall sensitivity to climate change.
Exposure to climate change
- Increased ocean temperature
- Sea level rise
- Declines in dissolved oxygen and pH
Rules and seasons
For current rules about hunting surf scoter in the state, be sure to check the Washington Game Bird and Small Game hunting regulations.
Sea ducks are game species, managed under state and federal migratory waterfowl regulations cooperatively through the Pacific Flyway Council. The Pacific Flyway Council is an administrative body that forges cooperation among public wildlife agencies for the purpose of protecting and conserving migratory birds in western North America. The Council is composed of the director or an appointee from the public wildlife agency in each state and province in the western United States, Canada, and Mexico. Washington waterfowl hunters pursuing sea ducks in western Washington are required to record and report all harvest effort and activities, including for surf scoter.
WDFW has various game management plans to track populations and harvest of games species around the state, including waterfowl. These plans have information about harvest statistics from recent years, and the department's long-term vision and goals for a variety of species.
In early 2003, WDFW formed the Washington Waterfowl Advisory Group (WAG) to increase citizen involvement in the conservation and management of Washington’s waterfowl resources. This group has members from a broad representation of waterfowl hunters throughout the state. To learn about the WAG, contact the WDFW Waterfowl Section at (360) 902-2515 or visit the WAG webpage.
Conservation Threats and Actions Needed
- Resource information collection needs
- Threat: Lack of Information on status and distribution.
- Action Needed: Conduct annual winter inventory.
- Threat: Lack of information on population demography.
- Action Needed: Conduct periodic recruitment and species composition surveys.
- Agriculture and aquaculture side effects
- Threat: Some aquaculture practices can exclude sea ducks.
- Action Needed: Develop best management practices; identify and protect important foraging areas.
- Fish and wildlife habitat loss or degradation.
- Threat: Development impacts on breeding and wintering habitat.
- Action Needed: Document and address limiting factors.
See the Climate vulnerability section for information about the threats posed by climate change to this species.
Our Conservation Efforts
Midwinter Aerial Seabird Surveys
WDFW conducts survey flights over a period of several days from November through February annually to monitor the abundance, trends, and distribution of sea ducks and other marine birds in the Puget Sound and the Strait of Juan de Fuca (U.S. portion of the Salish Sea). Learn more about this research on the project's page.
WDFW. 2013. Washington Sea Duck Management Strategies - Draft Report to the Washington Fish and Wildlife Commission.16 pgs.
- U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service - Overview: Surf Scoter
- U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service - Aerial Observer’s Guide to North American Waterfowl
- U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service - Ducks at a Distance: A Waterfowl Identification Guide
- Sea Duck Joint Venture - A Conservation Partnership under the North American Waterfowl Management Plan
- Cornell Lab All About Birds - Surf Scoter
- eBird Northwest - Surf Scoter