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Anseriformes The ducks part 2

Updated on August 16, 2015

The common scoter

Crossley's ID Guide to Britain and Ireland. Richard Crossley
Crossley's ID Guide to Britain and Ireland. Richard Crossley | Source


In part 1 of the Anserformes we looked at the duck species that have the foot unwebbed at the hind toe. Now we review the ducks that have the hind toe webbed. The birds of this group inhabit deeper waters and the sea than those ducks already mentioned in part 1.

Their general build,the structure of their legs and wings are also more adapted for the purpose of inhabiting deep waters. The head is thicker,the bill more inclined to be pointed,the neck shorter,the wings rounded and the whole plumage more compact,and they are furnished with closer down among the roots of the feathers.

As they are more wide ranging than the 'freshwater' ducks and generally species of a more northerly latitude,they are more under the influence of the seasonal action of the hemispheres,and as a result the migrations have been more readily observed. We commence with the scoters. These are stocky sea birds belonging to the genus Melanitta. There are five species which are grouped into sub-genera. These are the sub-genus Oidemia {Black and common Scoters} and the sun -genus Melanitta,the surf,velvet and white winged scoters.

We commence with the Common or Black Scoter.

Eurasian common scoter


Female common scoter


Egg of the Common Scoter

Museum Wiesbaden Germany
Museum Wiesbaden Germany | Source

The common Eurasian Scoter.

Before we commence the review of this species, it should be noted that there is often confusion over the common scoter,Melanitta nigra, and the black scoter, Melantta americana often referred to in modern classification as Melanitta nigra americana. For all intents and purposes they are one and the same {Conspecific}.

The Common Scoter, Melanitta nigra, is a large sea duck seventeen to twenty one inches { 43-54 cm} in length and belong to the sub genus Oidemia. They breed over the far north of Europe and Asia. The Black Scoter, Melanitta nigra americana of North America and eastern Siberia breed on those continents.

The common scoter is characterized by its bulky shape and large bill. The male is black with a large bulbous base which shows some yellow colouring around the nostrils.The female is a brown bird with pale cheeks. They may be distinguished from all other Scoters {excepting the Conspecific American birds,by having no white on the plumage of the drake and also the more prominent pale areas on the female.

The UK population is estimated at about 20,000 {Winter} and they can be encountered around the coasts throughout much of the year. These birds breed on Moorland pools in Scandinavia and the northern UK. In the UK an estimated 52 pairs bred in 2007. They are placed on the Red list of Conservation Concern because of recent breeding population declines.

The nest is a leaf-lined hollow,near water,and lined with down. It is often located on islands. The female will deposit 6-8 usually laid between March and June,she will raise just one brood per year.

The birds feed almost exclusively on shelled molluscs for which they may dive to a considerable depth to procure at sea. Whilst closer to the shores they pick them off when the tide returns and molluscs leave the concealment of the mud.

The Velvet Scoter. Melanitta fusca

Crossley's ID Guide to Britain and Ireland. Richard Crossley.
Crossley's ID Guide to Britain and Ireland. Richard Crossley. | Source

Eggs of the Velvet scoter

Museum of Weisbaden Germany
Museum of Weisbaden Germany | Source

The Velvet Scoter

The Velvet Scoter ,Melanitta fusca,formerly Oidemia fusca,is also referred to as the Velvet Duck. Like the former species {though much less abundant} these birds are about the same size and differ little in their habits. They may however, be distinguished without any undue difficulty.

The plumage of the male is velvet black,without any gloss and there is a crescent shaped spot of white under each eye,and they have wing spots {Speculum} of the same colour. The iris of the eye,the legs and the toes are all reddish. The bill dusky at the base and the margins a dull yellow in the greater part. The black of the female and the under part of the female has a whitish tinge. they are also a little larger in size than the black or common scoter.

This is another sea duck which breeds in the far north of Europe and Asia. Again in North America the White-winged scoter is sometimes considered as conspecific with the Velvet scoter.They winter further south in the temperate zones as far south as the UK.

In the UK they are placed on the Amber list of conservation concern. { declines of between 25-50% over the last forty years or so}, with an estimated 2,500 birds in winter. It is also a species of European concern. The total European population is estimated at between 25,000-30,000 pairs in summer.

The lined nest is built on the ground close to the sea or inland bodies of waters,often in woodland or tundra. The female deposits 7-9 eggs . This duck feeds by diving and feeds on molluscs as its staple diet.

Surf scoter with crab


Male Surf Scoter


Female Surf Scoter.


Surf scoter, Melanitta perspicillata

The Surf Scoter,Melanitta perspicillata, is a species,along with the velvet Scoter,placed in the sub family Merginae. This species on the whole is confined to the American shores.They breed in Canada and Alaska.It winters further south in the temperate zones on the coasts of the Northern United States. Small numbers regularly winter in Europe as far south as the UK.

It does not appear to differ in its habits from the other previous species but can be differentiated by its plumage. The general colour is black and there is no spot on the wing,but the nape of the neck abd a band across the eyes are white. The legs and toes are blood red and the bill is yellowish red with a grey tip,and darker margins,which are more pectinated than in other Scoters.

The nest which is usually located on the ground close to the sea,lakes or rivers,in woodland or Tundra. The female will deposit 7-9 eggs.

Illustration of the Canvasback


The Pochards and allies

Now we come to the Pochards of the genus Aythya which belong to the sub-family Aythyinae. The common Pochard Aythya ferina has already been reviewed in detail in my series 'Birds of Europe' The birds of this sub-family are very interesting birds. They are short and dumpy in their forms but beautifully adapted fro swimming and for diving. When they visit the UK in winter,they are much more inland or freshwater birds than the Scoters.

We commence with Aythya vallisneria. This is the largest species of diving duck found in North America. Its common name derives from the fact that early European settlers declared its back was a canvas-like colour and the name has stuck. The specific name of vallisneria comes from an American plant species Vallisneria americana upon which the ducks feed. Wilson in the 1800's described the bird in some detail.

" The Canvasback is two feet long and three feet in extent,and when in good order,weighs three pounds, The bill is large rising in the head ,three inches in length of a glossy black. The eye is very small the iris a dark red,cheeks and fore-part of the head,and greater part of the neck.bright glossy reddish chestnut.ending in a broad space of black that covers the upper part of the breast,and spreads round the back. Both Scapulars and tertial feathers are white,faintly marked with an infinite number of transverse wavy lines or points,as if done with a pencil. The whole lower part of the breast also the belly is white,slightly pencilled in the same manner,scarcely perceptible on the breast,pretty thick towards the vent. The wing coverts grey with numerous specks,blackish, the primary and secondary feathers,a pale slate colour,two or three of the latter of which,nearest the body,are finely edged with deep velvety black."

" The tail dusky at the tip,and very short,pointed,consisting of fourteen feathers of a hoary brown. The vent ,tail coverts are black ,lining of the wing white. The legs and feet ,very pale ash. The latter three inches in width,a circumstance which partly accounts for its great powers of swimming."

" The female is somewhat less than the male,the crown is blackish brown, the breast as far as the black extends on the male,dull brown,skirted in places by pale drab.The back dusky white,crossed with fine waving lines. The belly the same dull white,pencilled like the back. The wings ,feet and bill,as in the male. Tail coverts dusky,the vent white waved with brown."

Canvasback stretching its wings


Canvasback in flight.


Canvasback,breeding nest and eggs,

The Canvasback prefers to nest over water in permanent prairie marshes surrounded by emergent vegetation,which provides the required concealment. They breed in the North American Prairie pot holes. They also breed in the sub-arctic river deltas in Saskatchewan and the interior of Alaska.

The nest is a bulky affair made from the surrounding vegetation and lined with down. The female will lay between five and eleven eggs which are a dull greenish colour. The chicks when hatched are adorned with down and capable of leaving the nest within a short period of time.

These birds are excellent divers and swim with speed and agility. They feed in the main on vegetable matter such as the one previously mentioned. They are naturally shy and wary birds,as well they might, for they have long been hunted for their flesh and was once a very common sight in the markets.

Other Pochard ducks include Bayers Pochard Aythya baeri, The Madagascar pochard A.innotata. and three species in the genus Netta. The Red crested Pochard netta rufina, the Rosy billed Pochard N.peposaca and the Southern pochard N.erythrophthaima.

The Greater Scaup Aythya marila

Taken at Lake Merritt ,Oakland California
Taken at Lake Merritt ,Oakland California | Source

Female Scaup Aythya marilla


The Greater Scaup Aythya marila

The Scaup Aythya marila was once commonly referred to as the Pochard Scaup,now more commonly named the Greater Scaup or just Scaup,and in North America as the Bluebill, In the UK it is placed on the Red list of conservation concern with an estimated 5,200 birds in winter. This is due to a decline in the non-breeding population between 1969-2007.

The European population is classed as being of 3 concern ,most in Europe endangered. More than 30,000 Scaup used to winter in the Firth of Fourth {Scotland} feeding on the wast grain from the breweries and distilleries until tighter sewage regulations stopped the discharges {source BTO}.

These birds feed on molluscs in winter,mostly by diving,however,they are somewhat omnivorous. These birds breed in Northern Eurasia and northern North America,and winter south to southern Europe and China and the southern United States.

They nest near water typically on islands in northern lakes of North America or on floating mats of vegetation They lay a clutch of six to nine eggs of a olive-buff colour. The eggs are incubated for a period of 24-28 days. The resulting ducklings are hatched adorned with down and capable of following their mother soon after hatching. They feed by diving under the water. They breed in Tundra and the boreal forests. It is estimated that 75% of the birds in North America breed in Alaska.

The plumage of this species varies with age and indeed between individuals. In general the bill is bluish,the feet lead coloured,the iris golden yellow ,and the wing speculum white. The head ,which is tumid,is glossy green half way down the nape. The neck,breast and lower part of the hind neck is black. The back and scapulars white,with waving lines of black. The primary feathers brownish black,the secondary feathers white with black tips. The belly is white marked with black near the vent. Vent feathers,rump and tail coverts black and tail feathers dusky brown.

The female has the front and sides of the head white,the rest of the head brownish. The general colouring inclining more to brown. As a consequence of her colouring the species is sometimes called the 'White-faced duck'

The principle food of this species is molluscs,plant material and insects,which are obtained by diving. Other species of scaup include the Lesser Scaup, Aythya affinis and the New Zealand Scaup, Aythya novaeseelandiae

Head of the Golden Eye Bucephala clangula


Pair of Golden Eye


Bufflehead duck is beautifully coloured

Taken in Toronto, Canada.
Taken in Toronto, Canada. | Source

Golden Eye Bucephala clangula

The Golden Eye is also a member of the sub-family Merganae and placed in the genus Bucephala and given the specific name of clangula. In the UK the they are placed on the Amber list of conservation concern because of the small breeding population that occur there. There is a n estimated 200 females summer. The wintering population in the UK is estimated at about 20,000 individuals. They are relatively recent colonizers in Britain. This duck nests in tree holes.

It is a medium sized duck and is closely related to the Barrow's Golden Eye Bucephala islandica. Elsewhere the breeding habit is in Taiga.They are found on the lakes and rivers of boreal forests of Canada the northern United States,Scandinavia and northern Russia.

Adult males range from 18-20 inches in length while the females are 16-20 inches long. The bill is of a bluish colour. The upper part of the neck and the head,the feathers on the top of which are very thick and much produced forming a sort of crest,but not a pendent one, are of a rich glossy green with the exception of a white spot just behind the gape. below the green there is a collar of deep velvet black,below which the whole under part is white,with the exception of a few black feathers in the flanks and thighs. The middle of the back and rump black. The general colour of the wings brownish black,with the coverts and secondary feathers white crossed on the middle by a black bar.

The female is brown on the head and dusky on the back,with paler margins to the feathers. The males do not attain their full plumage colouring until the second year.

The food of this species consists of crustaceans,aquatic insects and molluscs are procured by the birds diving skills.

Other species in the genus incvude Bucephala is the Bufflehead duck a small American species which is beautifully coloured. They occur on the east and west coasts of North America and the southern United States. They breed in wooded lakes and ponds of Alaska and Canada.

Common Eider duck-male

Taken at London Wetland Centre UK
Taken at London Wetland Centre UK | Source

The Eider ducks

We conclude this look at the sea ducks with the Eider ducks. They are remarkable for the fact that these birds have an immense coating of down by means of which they are protected from the cold. They are members of the sub-family Merginae and there are three species.

The common Eider pictured above, has been reviewed in detail in my series 'Birds of Europe' The King Eider, Somateria spectabilis, and the Spectacled Eider, Soamteria .

The King Eider. This is a large sea duck that tends to breed along the Arctic coasts of north east Europe ,North America and Asia. The specific name spectabilis derives from Latin and indicates showy or remarkable.

King Eider.

Taken in northern Norway.
Taken in northern Norway. | Source

Nest and Eggs of the Spectacled Eider


Spectacled Eider duck

The spectacled Eider duck is also a large sea duck breeding on the coasts of Alaska and northern Siberia. They feed on crustaceans and molluscs. It is slightly smaller than the common Eider. The male is unmistakable when one considers the black body,white back and yellow green head with large circular white eye patches from which it takes its common name.

The female is a rich brown bird. The paler eye patches help to distinguish her from other Eiders.

Spectacled Eider pair.



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    • D.A.L. profile imageAUTHOR


      3 years ago from Lancashire north west England


      Hi Deb you crossed my mind as I was writing about the American species,I knew you would have had acquaintances with some if not all of the species. Thank you for your visit. much appreciated. Best wishes to you.

    • aviannovice profile image

      Deb Hirt 

      3 years ago from Stillwater, OK

      I am closely acquainted with several of these ducks. We have both the Greater and Lesser Scaup. I have also met several pairs of Buffleheads, and the Canvasbacks are most entertaining. Nice article on the ducks, one of my favorite species.


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