BIRD WATCH: Birds of a feather: How are they named together?

GROUPS OF BIRDS are mostly referred to as “flocks.”

Other terms are also used but not as much. There are “gaggles” of geese and “murders” of crows, but chickadees, robins, juncos and most flocking birds usually get the “flock” treatment.

On a recent ferry ride between Kingston and Edmonds, it was pretty evident the surf scoters are moving back into protected waters.

Groups of them were scattered on the waters near both ferry docks. Saying that there were several flocks of surf scoters on the water suddenly sounded a little strange.

I thought about calling them herds, but that didn’t sound right either. So what is another collective noun for these ducks?

Groups of ducks are usually referred to as “flocks.” There are other nouns used, and they are fun.

You can refer to different duck species as rafts, teams or paddlings. A little thought is called for before doing so.

Which sounds best? A raft of surf scoters, a team of scoters or a paddling of scoters? Even though a “raft” works pretty well, I prefer a “team of scoters.” There is a reason for this thinking.

The birds floating on the water near the Kingston ferry dock were actually in separate groups. A good distance of water separated the different bunches from one another.

There were obviously several families making up each group, and who determined who would travel with whom was a bit of a mystery.

What does limit the size of flocks of birds? There is probably more than one reason, but it made for an interesting scene out on the very blue water under an equally blue sky.

The scattered groups of scoters looked like teams to me. They looked this way and that, keeping an eye on what the others were doing. It was a beautiful picture bathed in bright sunlight.

Male surf scoters are handsome, but they have some bizarre features on their heads.

Their brightly colored orange and white bills are large and eye-catching. Those bills are strong enough to crunch up the mollusks and crustaceans that make up most of their diet.

The markings on their heads are responsible for a nickname, “skunk duck.” A large white patch on the back of the bird’s head is the reason, and there is white on their forehead as well.

The rest of the male’s body is jet black. The female lacks this colorful attire and is mostly a faded version of the male and has no bright color on her bill.

Surf scoters and one of their cousins, the white-winged scoter, are a pretty common sight on Western Washington’s saltwater areas. They are diving ducks as opposed to dabbling ducks, those that paddle around in calm-water estuaries foraging over submerged areas.

These “sea ducks” are part of the scene where the waves roll and crash against stone jetties, but they also frequent the more protected areas during the winter months.

Surf scoters and white-winged scoters may be closely related and found in similar settings, but they tend to keep to themselves. Sometimes both can be spotted in the same area, but their associating is pretty loose.

“Butternose,” their all-black cousin with the large yellow-orange bump on the top of his bill, is less common and is more habitat-specific. Rocky areas where kelp is present are good places to see this handsome member of this family.

I’ve had to rethink my original idea of referring to groups of scoters as herds. That noun is used to refer to another group of birds.

How about a herd of “hoatzins”? This beautiful but bizarre bird is found throughout much of South America, including Brazil, Bolivia and Peru, and it’s the national bird of Guyana.

“Team” will work just fine for surf scoters.

________

Joan Carson’s column appears every Sunday. Contact her at P.O. Box 532, Poulsbo, WA 98370, with a self-addressed, stamped envelope for a reply. Email: joanpcarson@comcast.net.

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