Female (left) and male Black Scoters frequently visit Chignik Lake in springtime, usually in what appear to be mated pairs or small groups of hens and drakes. (Chignik Lake, May 3, 2018)
Formerly lumped together with coots and until fairly recently considered conspecific with European Common Scoters, not as much is known about Black Scoters as is known about most other North American Ducks. A few nests have been found – depressions the female lines with grass in treeless environments. I witnessed a pair mating on the lake, so it might be presumed that they intended to nest someplace not too distant.
After making his intentions known with displays featuring wing-flapping and rearing up with his bill pointed to the sky, Sir mounted his Good Lady. With Narver reporting the species as common on both lakes during summers, Black Scoters must surely nest in the Chignik Drainage. (May 3, 2018)
Considered “sea ducks,” nearby ocean bays are likely where Black Scoters winter. I never saw them on the lake earlier than spring. With the male’s black plumage and bright orange bill, these ducks are unlikely to be overlooked. For that matter, the female too is fairly easily distinguished by her contrasting dark brown cap and pale, almost white, face. If you can get a look at the bill, check for a distinctive hook at the tip. This may be an adaptation for digging up shellfish, the Black Scoter’s favorite food.
Female Black Scoter in flight over Chignik Lake. Note the hook at the tip of her bill. (August 16, 2018)
Another nearly diagnostic characteristic is the call the drakes produce. Gentle, high-pitched tones sung in a minor key are the norm. At other times the whistling sounds slightly reedy, though still quite pleasant. It’s a music I’ve come to associate with springtime at The Lake.
A peaceful morning on Chignik Lake (May 3, 2018)
Perhaps Chignik Lake is only a stopover for this pair as they travel up the drainage to the marshy tundra around Black Lake where the female will make her nest. Or maybe they’ve already got a nest, above the tree-line on one of the mountains overlooking the lake. The Chigniks remain a wonderfully under-explored and seldom studied corner of the world. (May 3, 2018)
Black Scoter Melanitta americana
Melanitta: from Ancient Greek: melas = black; netta = duck
americana: Latin, of America
Status at Chignik Lake, 2016-19: Occasional on Chignik Lake
David Narver, Birds of the Chignik River Drainage, summers 1960-63: Common on both lakes (Reported by former name, Common Scoter Oidemia nigra)
Alaska Peninsula and Becharof National Wildlife Refuge Bird List, 2010: Common in all Seasons
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*For a clickable list of bird species and additional information about this project, click here: Birds of Chignik Lake
© Photographs, images and text by Jack Donachy unless otherwise noted.