Surf Scoters of the Salish Sea

Spring in the year 2020. For most of us, it’s likely to live in infamy for some time, after all, it isn’t every year that a pandemic takes place. My family is fortunate enough to live on Vancouver Island, where the Coronavirus has not taken a strong foothold yet, but one of the things that keeps me sane is the time I get to spend in nature. Now, more than ever, outside is the place to be! Since there is a beach that is a relatively close to home, I try to walk there often to clear away those negative thoughts. Among the frequent visitors there are river otters, harbour seals, Steller sea lions, California sea lions, myriad species of birds, and even whales if you’re lucky. If all you do is enjoy a seaside stroll once in a while, it definitely improves your outlook on life!

The Salish Sea and sandstone beaches, Nanaimo, British Columbia, Canada

In the month of April, I had the chance to closely observe not one but two incredible events of nature. Frankly, both were so memorable that I wouldn’t have been surprised if Sir David Attenborough himself had appeared out of nowhere to narrate this tale instead of me!

Sir David Attenborough, because he’d tell this tale better than I!…photo BBC

The show began with one of spring’s annual events, the herring run. It’s not difficult to tell when the fish have arrived, because the sea lions appear conveniently at the same time!

Bark! Bark! Bark! Sea Lions arriving in March
They have a way of announcing their presence, let’s just say!
It’s not at all unusual for them to show up in the hundreds

In March, you’ll begin to see fishing boats off the shores of Nanaimo on their way to the catch. Herring roe has been a coveted delicacy in much of the world, especially in Japan, and the market for it has been decreasing somewhat, but the fishery still remains active.

Typical fishing boat
Sometimes you see a small runabout boat whose crew seems to distract the sea lions so they don’t get to close to the fishing nets, I’ve speculated
Each animal has its own personality traits. Sometimes I’ve been able to identify individuals through behaviour and markings
These guys, however, I cannot tell apart!

Toward the end of March, we’d noticed some limited fishing activity, but in mid April that was to change dramatically. One particularly sunny morning, as we drank our morning coffee, we began to hear the sea lions in full voice. They’d been carrying on sporadically for a couple of weeks, but their callings now dominated for blocks around! With camera gear in tow, I made off to investigate.

When I arrived at the beach, the raucous barking got louder. And louder. And still louder! There was a milky, turquoise swath on the ocean surface that stretched fifty metres from the shore. It was coloured so by all the milt expelled by the male herrings in their haste to fertilize as many eggs as possible. That swath began well westward in the direction of Nanoose Bay, and I later discovered that it continued as far south as Neck Point Park. The waters of the open ocean beyond were a contrastingly brilliant shade of blue.

The scene at the beach, where the herring spawn was in full swing!
Fishing’s pretty good, says this guy!
Happy couple enjoys the spoils of the day!
Gulls fishing. One catches something, and the others all try to steal what he’s got!
So many gulls!
Sea lion swimming in the midst of the spawn
White, frothing milt washing up on the seashore

It was within the slick of breeding herring that the truly frenzied activity was taking place. Hundreds of sea lions rolled in the surf, gorging themselves with fish and playing gleefully. Their barking reached fever pitch, but they never seemed to tire, showing the grace and endurance in the water they are known so well for. Soon I noticed they had been joined by a number of harbour seals. I was convinced that a pod of killer whales was going to materialize, but that didn’t happen in the two hours I was there. It may well have eventually for all I know, because it was a day and a half later before all this activity began slowing down.

Arf! Arf! Arf!
There were dozens offshore sitting on a submerged sandstone shelf
California sea lion and the mountains of the Sunshine Coast beyond


Hands off my catch!


Or so I thought…To explain further, in the weeks preceding the herring spawn, we had been using binoculars to watch flocks of unidentified water birds assemble near the shores. They would seem to move in unison, like a well coordinated wave, and seldom flew more than a few feet off the surface. These birds seemed to cover a lot of ground, and to the naked eye almost resembled an oil slick from a distance. Finally, a trip to the beach identified the birds as surf scoters!

Surf Scoters on the move!
Seldom do you see a solitary Surf Scoter, like this healthy male

Surf scoters (Melanitta Perspicillatta) are large, sea going ducks that make their home in North America. They breed in Canada’s north and Alaska, and winter finds them on The Atlantic and Pacific coasts. The black coloured males make a comical first impression, with bills of black, white, and bright orange with a trademark patch of white on their foreheads and napes. The female scoter is a more subdued shade of mottled brown. Males weigh as much as two and a half pounds, and females are usually half a pound lighter.

It’s thought that the head patches confuse predators, though I know for fact they confuse photographers!
Frequent diving is how they feed, as per the splashes


The first thing you notice about these ducks, other than their sense of unity, is a seemingly restless nature. They are always feeding, often diving, and nearly always on the move. They are also very vocal, and their constant squawking and squabbling calls can be heard late into the evening. According to my research, surf scoters pair off to breed in winter, so they arrived on our shores as mated pairs. The birds are also unfailingly loyal, and will keep the same companion their entire lifetime. On the east coast of Vancouver Island, yearly herring runs provide an important staple of their diet. They will dive for and feast on the eggs until supplies run out entirely.

Their style of takeoff and flight is pretty comical too!
Very deceiving to the eye, where does one bird end and the other begin? Look closely for the females, they blend right in


Only several days after the sea lions and other predators like gulls and eagles had made quick work of the herring, suddenly these surf scoters began gathering en masse. Prior to that, it wasn’t unusual to see a couple hundred of them swimming in groups, but now, there were tens of thousands! The furor of it all was unimaginable, joined as they were by an armada of other sea birds, most of them gulls.

See the gulls on the perimeter? That is where they will remain, for the most part, because if they land in the middle the flock of scoters will rearrange itself until the gulls are on the outside once again
Tens of thousands!
Gulls try to intercept food as the scoters surface, but that strategy is doomed to fail, as the scoter has already eaten at that point
Meet the handsome Bonaparte’s gull, which is often found in the company of surf scoters
If the gulls on the shore are disturbed, they leave, then fly a semi circle right back to the same spot!

It was once again an absolute free for all, as the birds moved about in large groups dining on the millions of fish eggs beneath the surf. The scoters did all the diving, while clusters of Bonaparte’s gulls swam beside their flocks. Other sea gulls defended the shoreline, gathering eggs as they washed up with the waves, when they weren’t flying around agitating the scoters, that is. Suddenly, I noticed that I was the only human being on the beach, as everyone else had departed. It was two hours later when I started walking home!

This is why the gulls battle to hold the shoreline!
Scoters with the bulk of a navy ship looming on the horizon
Gull nation
Bonaparte’s gulls feeding


Here they are in action, if you’re interested in watching some videos:

The following day I returned, only to be met with near silence. Some flocks of scoters persisted, but it was clear that their feeding had almost ground to a halt. Several eagles were perched high in treetops, and the odd sea lion swam quietly. Nature, it seemed, was returning to its regular routine. I later discovered that such assemblies of surf scoters had taken place before on the beaches of Nanaimo. One elderly local gentleman spoke of an incident nearly twenty five years previous that was impressive, but he was certain what we’d seen this year far surpassed that gathering. As for me? I can only hope I see a repeat performance someday like he did!

Until next time!

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