Surf Scoter Akacakayak or Cingayak

by Frank Keim

original artwork by Frank Keim

One of the Yup’ik names, Akacakayak, for this crazy looking duck describes its odd appearance perfectly. The male’s nose in spring does indeed look like a bird who has “overturned accidentally,” and stubbed its bill, or that it’s had just too many barroom fights and its nose needs immediate surgery.

I actually like the second name better, though. Cingayak is the one I found in Hooper Bay back in the 1980’s while my wife and I were teaching there, and it means, “one whose nose was pushed in,” as if with a kiss too aggressively bestowed (in traditional Yup’ik culture, kisses used to be given nose to nose).

Like their two cousins, the Black and White-winged scoters, the Cingayak doesn’t spend much time in the YK Delta. It is here for only about four months in spring and summer. Even before it comes up from its winter habitat in Pacific coastal Canada and the U.S., the male and female have formed their pair bond and are ready to nest as soon as they arrive.

Their winter courtship rituals include a liquid gurgling and a low, clear whistle by the male as he swims back and forth with his head straight up like a sentinel, sometimes dipping his colorful bill in the water. He faces any female who may be watching, shakes his head, preens his chest and gives his gurgling call. He then holds his head back, rears out of the water, and presents the female with a frontal view of his glistening black-plumed chest. He may also fly around her, raising head and wings vertically when he lands nearby.

If the female is interested, she might respond by tilting her head upward while giving a raspy crowing call. He may respond with exaggerated bowing or by raising his tail, shaking his head, then turning away to show her the raised white patch on the nape of his neck.

Many males may display in this manner to one female at the same time. If a female likes what she saw, she leads him on a wild scoter chase, even underwater, until she finally decides he’s the one, and they settle down to the business of feeding and fattening up until the spring light tells them its time to move north to nest and raise young.

During their migration north to Alaska along the Pacific coast, Surf scoters form huge flocks that can be heard for miles on calm days because of the whistling noise made by their wings. When they finally reach the YK Delta in May, they head for a small shallow lake where the tundra blends with the boreal forest, and at the edge of the wetland search for an ideal nesting spot where the female can lay her eggs and raise her brood of ducklings.

She selects a well-concealed place on higher ground below shrubs, tree branches, fallen trees or rocky ledges a short distance from the lake, then fashions a bowl-shaped nest big enough for about seven eggs. She lines it with her own down feathers, plus mosses, grasses and other materials from around the nest site. The eggs are a creamy white to pale buff color and are incubated only by the female for 28-30 days. All of the eggs hatch at about the same time, and the downy ducklings leave the nest for the closest open water with their mother shortly after they dry. The young instinctively already know how to feed themselves, but are tended by their mother who avoids deeper lakes where large predatory fish like pike are found. The ducklings feed on aquatic vegetation, small freshwater invertebrates such as snails, insects, insect larvae, and tiny crustaceans.

As they grow to adults and migrate south along the coast, they will eat small mollusks, especially mussels and clams, as well as marine worms, small crabs, sea squirts, and herring spawn. When they hunt for their prey, they usually spring forward and dive into the ocean surf (hence their common name) with their wings partly open.

For more than eight months of their lives these scoters are ducks of shallow ocean coastal waters, and you can find them during winter months from the west coast of the Alaskan panhandle all the way down to Baja, Mexico. Since they are a big duck, they are hunted in large numbers during the fall, and this plus habitat degradation and water pollution, have led to a decline in their populations.

Scientists expect that Climate Change will severely impact their numbers even more in the near future, owing to seasonal mismatches in snowmelt and prey emergence.

Many non-Natives who hunt Surf scoters call them “skunkhead coot” because of their coloration. But they also have other interesting common names: blossom-billed coot, baldpate, bay coot, butter-billed coot, goggle nose, hollow-billed coot, horse-head, patch-head, plaster-bill, sea coot, snuff-taker, speckle-billed coot, surf duck, surfer, white-head, and white scop, among others.

This doesn’t include their common names in other languages. All of which can really confuse the issue when we are trying to talk about the same duck. Thus, the need for scientific names: one for everyone all over the world to describe the same bird. In this case, Melanitta perspicillata, which translates as “conspicuous spectacular black duck.” 

And it is that, wouldn’t you agree?