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Surf Scoter
Melanitta perspicillata

The Surf Scoter is a large, migratory, diving sea duck, primarily found in large single or mixed flocks along North America’s ocean coastlines. The black and white head pattern of the male has given it the nickname “skunk duck”.

Description: The male has a large, heavy, multi-colored bill, patterned with orange, black and white that slopes off a square-shaped head that has two distinct white patches. One on the forehead and one on the nape. The female’s bill is greenish-black, sloping and equally large. Females are dusky brown with a dark crown. Her head has two light patches on the sides and a pale whitish patch on the nape. In flight the wings are dark and have no pattern. Surf Scoters fly in straightline formations with rapid, direct strong wing beats.
Length: 20 inches
Wingspan: 30 inches
Weight: 2.1 lbs

Voice: Generally silent. Male makes a gurgling call during courtship displays. Female’s call is a harsh crow-like call and used when defending her young.

Both sexes wings produce a whistling noise in flight.

Similar Species:

  • Black Scoter - The male sports all black plumage the black bill is thinner with a yellow-orange knob. Female has dark cap with clean whitish cheeks-not patches.
  • White-winged Scoter – female with similar whitish face patches, but has large white wing patch and sloping forehead. Male has red, white and orange bill with black knob at base and “teardrop” of white near his eye and distinct white wing patch.

Habitat: In Tennessee, Surf Scoters can occasionally be found on freshwater lakes. Rarely dives in water that exceeds 30 ft.

Diet: Mollusks, freshwater invertebrates and insect larvae

Nesting and reproduction: There are no known records of this species nesting in Tennessee.

Status in Tennessee: The Surf Scoter is an uncommon migrant in early spring and late fall, occasionally found in winter in Tennessee.

Dynamic map of Surf Scoter eBird observations in Tennessee

Fun Facts:

  • Surf Scoters form pair bonds on their wintering ground
  • Full adult makes coloration not obtained till 28 months
  • Native to North America

Obsolete English Names: Skunk-Duck, Skunk-headed Coot, Horse-headed Coot, Bottlenose Diver, Snuff-takers, Mussel Bill

Best places to see in Tennessee: Nickajack Dam, Paris Landing State Park, Big Sandy Unit of Tennessee NWR, Radnor Lake, Percy Priest Lake, TVA Lakes

For more information:


Sibley, D. A. 2000. The Sibley Guide to Birds. A. A. Knopf, New York, NY.

Alsop, F.J, 2001. Birds of North America, DK Publishing, New York, NY

Savard, Jean-Pierre L., Daniel Bordage and Austin Reed. 1998. Surf Scoter (Melanitta perspicillata), The Birds of North America Online (A. Poole, Ed.). Ithaca: Cornell Lab of Ornithology; Retrieved from the Birds of North America Online:

Peterson, R.T., 2002. Peterson Field Guide to Birds of North America, Houghton Mifflin, New York, New York