Big thank you from

The distinctive scoter is a feature of offshore waters

by Paul Cormacain

ONE of the more distinctive birds to grace our offshore waters at this time of the year is the common scoter.

This is a hardy, gregarious, sea duck, quite common, but I am surprised to see that there are as many as 25,000 plus in Ireland and Britain.

In the winter the scoter can be seen all around our shores, but it has the habit of going to inland waters in England. Why England? Why not Ireland or Wales or Scotland?

Come the summer, the change could not be greater. About 135 pair breed in Ireland, while only about 40 pair breed in Scotland. In England and Wales, there is not a scoter to be seen.

It is now almost 100 years ago that the scoter was first found nesting in Fermanagh. Since then the breeding numbers have increased in Lough Erne, but then the population was not quite as healthy as it was a quarter of a century ago. I am not sure of the exact state of breeding scoters at Lough Erne.

Erne would the easiest spot to see this bird, but if you wanted to go further afield you could try Lough Carra or Lough Conn.

In the winter the bird is rarely alone. There are usually a few of them, sometimes much larger flocks, while the small flock we saw off the County Down coast numbered two dozen. Well, we think there were two dozen birds, but some were continually being hidden behind small waves, and we could never see them all at the one time.

The scoter is a diving duck and as we watched them they took turns at diving for food. So between being hidden by waves and diving for food, you can see that we had a problem counting them.

The scoters dived for mussels and crabs and if any shrimps came into view they were gobbled up as well. They have a more varied diet than that, for they will also gobble up sandhoppers, worms, insects and even vegetable matter in the breeding season.

The scoters were not too far offshore, which was agreeably surprising. There would be times when you would be better using a telescope to see them rather than binoculars.

At a distance the male birds looked black all over, but at close quarters, or through a telescope or binoculars, the colours change. The head and upperparts have a lovely gloss of purplish-blue.

The bill is black and there is a large protuberance at the base of the upper mandible. Through this there is a patch of bright orange-yellow covering the nostrils and extending towards the tip.

The undersides of the body are duller, more brownish-black. The legs and feet are blackish, and the bird has brown eyes. The tail is black and pointed and is usually elevated.

The ladies are different in appearance. The crown and upper parts of the body are reddish-brown. On the side of the face there is a pale whitish patch which is a conspicuous feature even at a distance.

If you get to the coast in the near future be sure to keep a lookout for visiting scoters

Ulster Star