Return of the Sea Ducks
By Wayne Bierbaum
Each winter, unusual looking saltwater ducks come to the Chesapeake Bay. Along with them are freshwater ducks, loons and grebes from the far north. The Bay will be a winter feeding ground for multiple species of swimming and diving birds.
The most unusual looking winter duck is the surf scoter. The males have clown-like features and garish colors. Both the males and females have strangely shaped bills with a nasal passage that is large enough to easily see through one side of the head to the other.
Surf scoters are deep-diving ducks that feed on clams, mussels, crabs, marine worms, jellyfish and some algae. In the winter they can form large flocks over fertile feeding grounds. It is fun to watch groups of the birds dive and then suddenly pop out of the water as another group dives.
The ducks also begin their courtship behavior in the winter. Males will swim back and forth around a female with their heads erect, occasionally shaking his head and preening his breast feathers. In the spring, paired birds will fly toward the far north to nest in the harsh wetlands of the Arctic taiga. The taiga is wide open and has few predators but plenty of insects and worms for them to feed on. After nesting, they return to the sea and live along the northern coast.
Surf scoters are not endangered, with an estimated 400,000 individuals. They are hunted for sport in Maryland but they are not particularly good to eat and most hunters do not try.
These unusual wintering ducks can be seen on most parts of the Bay. There are certain areas that hold more food and there the scoters are more plentiful.
One of the best spots to find them is at the shallow water off the tip of Thomas Point Park. Other locations include the boardwalk at North Beach, Sandy Point Park, Matapeake Park, Downs Park, and Fort Smallwood Park. If you go to look for the ducks, bring binoculars and if you don’t initially see them, watch for them to fly in. If you sit still enough, sometimes they will fly or swim right up to you.