Tuesday, 22 January 2013

The Morfa Bychan Scoter

As many of you may have already heard, the 'Black Scoter' that I reported from Morfa Bychan last Wednesday is now considered to be an aberrant Common Scoter with an extensive yellow bill (or possibly a hybrid of some sort).  After seeing the bird in the field on Sunday Reg raised some concerns about the bill structure and head profile, and after sending him some of my photos this morning, we agreed that we had both seen the same bird.

While strikingly bright, the bill appears to have too much yellow for Black Scoter, extending towards the bill tip and actually looking paler nearer the tip when it should be black.  The basal swelling also isn't as pronounced as on Black, although this appears to vary between individuals (see: http://www.rarebirdalert.co.uk/v2/Content/weeklyreview2012no16.aspx?s_id=433786878 for a less distinctive bulge), the combined profile and pattern of yellow on the bill don't add up for Black Scoter, which always seems to show a very clean-cut and sharply contrasting edge to the front and sides of the bulge.  Looking at the bird head-on, while the yellow extends up the bill there doesn't appear to be an even bulge on either side either.  The head profile is also not correct for Black (not being rounded enough) and the neck too long, both more in fitting with Common Scoter.

Note the extensive yellow/orange in profile, but the bulge isn't as distinctively obvious and appears to give a more triangular profile, rather than stopping abruptly on the culmen with a more vertical front edge.  While appearing to be an adult the bird doesn't appear to have a basal knob as would be expected for Common Scoter at this age.  However, 2cy birds can generally lack this so perhaps it isn't quite a full adult yet.  The photo below seems to show some paleness in the flanks, which may support this.

Seen head-on the yellow extends too far down the bill and doesn't have a clean-cut edge as Black should have.  It also doesn't have that glowing 'beacon' effect that the even edges of the flatter bulge on Black Scoter give.
 The head profile should be more rounded for Black Scoter.

I'm still not certain as to whether it's an abnormal Common Scoter or a hybrid and would be very grateful to hear from anyone with experience of these.
Rob Hughes told me about a similar bird he found on Fair Isle (presumed to be a hybrid) and more details on Common x Black intergrades can be seen here: http://ardeajournal.natuurinfo.nl/ardeapdf/a60-128-129.pdf 
There is also an interesting paper in BB about an adult male Common Scoter on Southport Marine Lake in 1979, which had an almost wholly yellow bill.

Thanks to everyone for their comments (and kind words!) and sincere apologies to those who travelled to see it expecting a Black Scoter.  This is at least a very useful bird to learn from if nothing else (especially considering more distant birds) and it's certainly pushed up my learning curve.

Cheers and good birding,



  1. Great post Chris and although not what we all wanted as the outcome, it's still a great find.
    We'll all be more knowledgeable for this. Well done for calling it.

  2. Crikey, wasn't expecting that! A tad unfortunate but applying the same caution I wonder whether the Llanfairfechan bird could be clinched one way or another. People happily ticked it and it was about 3 miles away. A black blob with a smaller yellow blob attched to it from memory. Fair doos for an honest informative response though.

  3. Here's a link to the field sketch of the Southport bird, note the dark sides to the basal knob:

    There's also some pics of an aberrant Common Scoter in the ID section if you do a search on "scoter" and photographer "Martin Scott". It has very extensive yellow covering most of the bill, but black on the basal knob.