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Shellfish-eating duck somewhat rare in North Dakota

This female or immature White-winged Scoter was one of two seen recently near Alice in western Cass County. Keith Corliss1 / 3
Carl Loge examines a White-winged Scoter he had just shot near Lake Audubon recently. Carl Loge 2 / 3
White-winged Scoters were featured on the N.D. small game stamp in 1998. N.D. Game and Fish Dept. 3 / 3

Carl Loge, a small business owner in Moorhead, is an avid sportsman and had seen just about every flying fowl out there. Yet while hunting ducks two weekends ago in central North Dakota he encountered something just a little different. “I was on the north side of Lake Audubon and I had shot three Redheads and two bluebills (Scaup sp.) so I had one more duck to get (limit is six),” said Loge. “I was concentrating on what didn’t look like a redhead when here comes this big black duck and I got it.”

Speaking to the scarcity of this bird Loge continued the story. “I’m holding it in my hands and I’m speechless; I don’t know what it is. I thought it might be some kind of ocean duck. So when I got back to the pickup I got on my iPad and sure enough it’s a White-winged Scoter (Melanitta fusca).”

White-winged Scoters (pronounced “Skoh-ter,” not scooter) are but one of a threesome of Scoter species that make an annual appearance in North Dakota, usually in the fall. Of about 25 duck species that frequent the state, Scoters are among the rarest. These are holarctic ducks of the far north, found in summer across much of northern Canada and Alaska. Residents and hunters living along the Atlantic and Pacific are quite familiar with these species as they typically winter in the oceans along the coasts, often in huge numbers.

In 1998, the North Dakota Game and Fish Department issued their small game stamp featuring White-winged Scoters. It turned a few heads at the time, being so unfamiliar. Historically, however, the bird was known to nest along the northern border of the state. It’s likely been decades, though, since the ducks have nested here.

All of the Scoters are divers and mainly mollusk eaters (clams and mussels). Because of this diet, Scoters sport large beefy bills, ones with which to locate and remove stubborn shellfish from the substrate of shallow estuaries, bays, and inlets. Without much imagination, the bill of a White-winged Scoter could be likened to a wedge-shaped doorstop. Quite a colorful one too as that of a male appears orange-pink, particularly in spring.

Males are an overall jet black color, females and immature are a rich, dark, chocolaty brown. A small white teardrop of feathers surrounds its eye, similar to the quite familiar Nike swoosh stripe. Females and immatures are usually seen with dull white facial ovals. In flight the white trailing edge of the inner wing (speculum) stands out like a beacon. This feature makes it easily distinguishable when in mixed Scoter flocks along the coast. I’ve never really noticed eye color on one of these birds because I’ve typically seen them from a fair distance. It was quite noticeable in the hand according to Loge however, “I’ve never seen a duck with steely gray eyes like that.”

It’s likely these are creatures targeted by birders looking to add these infrequent ducks to their year list more than by waterfowl hunters (All three Scoters make up 0.3-0.5% of all waterfowl killed by hunters in the US [1998 USFWS]). A few White-winged Scoters have been reported this fall in the state from the usual locations—waste water lagoons in Minot, Grand Forks, and other places, which get scanned quite often by birdwatchers. One was even spotted at the horse track pond in Fargo last week.

If Scoters are on a body of water, locating them is usually not difficult. I have concluded these ducks typically associate with themselves and aren’t usually mixed in with the other ducks. Scan along the edges of flocks or farther away in open water for any large black ducks. If present, White-winged and other Scoters should be fairly distinguishable. Some patience is required occasionally because, if actively feeding, the birds spend a lot of time under water and out of sight.

Populations seem to be in a long-term decline. Some good news appears to be springing from a strange source however. More and more of them are wintering in the Great Lakes, taking advantage of the presence of a new food source: the nuisance invader called zebra mussel.