Birds of North Carolina:
their Distribution and Abundance
Surf Scoter - Melanitta perspicillata
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General Comments The Surf Scoter is the most common of the wintering scoters in North Carolina, though it is often outnumbered in flight over the ocean by the Black Scoter, many of which winter farther to our south. Surf Scoters are easily seen on most of the winter ferry crossings of Pamlico Sound and the lower Neuse and Tar rivers. Its favored habitats are thus the shallow waters of Pamlico Sound, nearby bays, and the embayed portions of the Pamlico and Neuse rivers. It is often seen in flight over the inshore ocean, though relatively few actually stop and forage in the ocean. As with the other scoters, they seldom forage on lakes and ponds (freshwater sites), though birds in migration over inland North Carolina do briefly drop down on reservoirs and other lakes well inland.
Breeding Status Nonbreeder
NC BRC List Definitive
State Status
U.S. Status
State Rank S4N
Global Rank G5
Coastal Plain Winter resident. Locally common near the northern half of the coast and the Tidewater areas, south to Carteret, Pamlico, and Craven. Uncommon along the southern coast, where most are seen in flight over the ocean; very rare farther inland on lakes. Early Oct to mid-Apr, though there are scattered records for all months of the year. A tally of six at Fort Fisher (New Hanover) on 11 Jul 2022 was notable for the number of birds. Peak counts: 18,000, vicinity of Cape Hatteras, 10 Jan 1938; 10,000, Swan Quarter -- Ocracoke ferry in Pamlico Sound, 18 Jan 2003.
Piedmont Transient and winter visitor. Rare on reservoirs and other large bodies of water; mainly mid-Oct to mid-Feb, with most records from early Nov to early Jan. There were an excellent eight records for the province in fall 2022. Notably late were three on Mayo Reservoir (Person) on 23 Apr 2016. Length of stay is normally very brief (one to a few days), presumably as birds are likely forced down by bad weather during migration. Peak counts: 20, Falls Lake (Durham), 19 Dec 2019; 14, Lake Hickory (Catawba), 25 Oct - 30 Nov 1999; 12, Falls Lake, 8 Nov 2003; 12, Moss Lake (Cleveland), 20 Nov 2023.
Mountains Transient. Very rare to rare, with brief stop-over time; nearly all records from the southern mountains, with the exception of a group of 11 near Sparta (Alleghany), 17 Apr 2000; and one at Price Lake (Watauga), 8 Nov 2019. Late Oct to mid-Apr, though just one record in Jan or Feb. -- one on Lake Julian (Buncombe) on 26 Jan 2022. Peak counts: 24, Lake Julian, 11 Dec 2022; 12, Lake Chatuge (Clay), 7 Dec 2003; 11 (see above).
Finding Tips As with the Black Scoter, it is normally easy to find the species on the two Pamlico Sound ferries, and the Surf is often seen on the Pamlico River and Neuse River ferries also. Away from these areas, it can be difficult to find, and it can be missed on coastal CBC's, unless seen (usually in flight) by ocean watching. The species is noticeably more common in cold winters.
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Attribution LeGrand[2024-02-08], LeGrand[2023-05-17], LeGrand[2023-03-17]
NC Map
Map depicts all counties with a report (transient or resident) for the species.
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