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Surf Duck


Surf Duck


The definitive website on wildbirds & nature



Birds of America

By John James Audubon, F. R. SS. L. & E.

VOLUME VI.

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Family
Genus

SURF DUCK.
[Surf Scoter.]

FULIGULA PERSPICILLATA, Linn.
[Melanitta perspicillata.]

PLATE CCCCII.--MALE AND FEMALE.

Although several years have elapsed since I visited the sterile country of Labrador, I yet enjoy the remembrance of my rambles there; nay, reader, many times have I wished that you and I were in it once more, especially in the winter season. I calculate indeed how easily this wish might be accomplished, were I ten years younger. Under the hospitable roof of Mr. JONES, while the tempest might be hurling southward the drifting snows, I could live in peaceful content, cheered by the matchless hand-organ of my kind hostess. Then, how pleasant it would be in calm weather to traverse the snowy wastes, to trap the cunning fox and the Jer Falcon, allured by their favourite winter food, the Rock Grouse; with what delight should I gaze on the dim red sun creeping along the southern horizon, or watch the flittering beams of the northern aurora. Now, over the glittering snow, Jones's Esquimaux curs might swiftly convey us to his friends, here crossing the ice-bound gulf, there traversing fissures and crags impassable in summer. Then what long tales for the long nights, and sports for the short days. The broad-antlered Caribou might have scampered before me, but its bounds would have been suddenly checked by the fleeter ball of my well-directed rifle. The wolf might have prowled around us, until he had been captured in the deeply dug and well-baited pit. Then Nature's pure mantle would be seen slowly to disappear, the low grounds would be inundated with the snow-waters, the warm breezes would dry the mountain ridges, and with the first appearance of verdure joy would cause every heart to bound. Thousands of seals would be seen to snuff the milder air, myriads of tiny fishes would approach the shores, and millions of feathered wanderers would pass over on whistling pinions. But alas! I shall never spend a winter in Labrador.

While proceeding towards that country in 1833, on board the Ripley, I found the waters of the Gulf of St. Lawrence alive with Ducks of different species. The nearer we approached the coast, the more numerous did they become; and of the many kinds that presented themselves to our anxious gaze, the Surf Duck was certainly not the least numerous. It is true that in the noble bays of our own coast, in the Sound, between New York and the Hook, on the broader waters of the Chesapeake, and beyond them to the mouths of the Mississippi, I had seen thousands of Surf Ducks; but the numbers that passed the shores of Labrador, bound for the far north, exceeded all my previous conceptions.

For more than a week after we had anchored in the lovely harbour of Little Macatina, I had been anxiously searching for the nest of this species, but in vain: the millions that sped along the shores had no regard to my wishes. At length I found that a few pairs had remained in the neighbourhood, and one morning, while in the company of Captain EMERY, searching for the nests of the Red-breasted Merganser, over a vast oozy and treacherous fresh-water marsh, I suddenly started a female Surf Duck from her treasure. We were then about five miles distant from our harbour, from which our party had come in two boats, and fully five and a half miles from the waters of the Gulf of St. Lawrence. The marsh was about three miles in length, and so unsafe that more than once we both feared, as we were crossing it, that we might never reach its margin. The nest was snugly placed amid the tall leaves of a bunch of grass, and raised fully four inches above its roots. It was entirely composed of withered and rotten weeds, the former being circularly arranged over the latter, producing a well-rounded cavity, six inches in diameter, by two and a half in depth. The borders of this inner cap were lined with the down of the bird, in the same manner as the Eider Duck's nest, and in it lay five eggs, the smallest number I have ever found in any Duck's nest. They were two inches and two and a half eighths in length, by one inch and five-eighths in their greatest breadth; more equally rounded at both ends than usual; the shell perfectly smooth, and of a uniform pale yellowish or cream-colour. I took them on board, along with the female bird, which was shot as she rose from her nest. We saw no male bird near the spot; but in the course of the same day, met with several males by themselves, about four miles distant from the marsh, as we were returning to the harbour. This induced me to believe that, like the Eider and other Ducks that breed in Labrador, the males abandon the females as soon as incubation commences. I regret that, notwithstanding all my further exertions, I did not succeed in discovering more nests or young birds.

In the States of Maine and Massachusetts, this species is best known by the name of "Butter-boat-billed Coot." The gunners of Long Island and New Jersey call it the Black Sea Duck. It is often seen along the coast of South Carolina, where my friend JOHN BACHMAN has met with it. The Surf Duck is a powerful swimmer and an expert diver. It is frequently observed fishing, at the depth of several fathoms, and it floats buoyantly among the surf or the raging billows, where it seems as unconcerned as if it were on the most tranquil waters. It rises on wing, however, with considerable difficulty, and in this respect resembles the Velvet Duck; but when once fairly under way, it flies with rapidity and to a great distance, passing close to the water during heavy gales, but at the height of forty or fifty yards in calm and pleasant weather. It is an uncommonly shy bird, and therefore difficult to be obtained, unless shot at while on wing, or when asleep, and as it were at anchor on our bays, or near the shore, for it dives as suddenly, as the Velvet and Scoter Ducks, eluding even the best percussion-locked guns. The female, which was killed as she flew off from the nest, uttered a rough uncouth guttural cry, somewhat resembling that of the Goosander on similar occasions; and I have never heard any other sound from either sex.

The migration of the Surf Ducks eastward from our southern coast, begins at a very early season, as in the beginning of March none are to be seen in the New Orleans markets. When I was at Eastport in Maine, on the 7th of May, 1833, they were all proceeding eastward. How far up the St. Lawrence they advance in winter I have not learned, but they must give a decided preference to the waters of that noble stream, if I may judge by the vast numbers which I saw apparently coming from them as we approached the Labrador coast. I have never seen this species on any fresh-water lake or river, in any part of the interior, and therefore consider it as truly a marine Duck.

During their stay with us, they are always seen in considerable numbers together, and, unless perhaps during the breeding season, they seem to be gregarious; for even during their travels northward they always move in large and compact bodies. When I was at Newfoundland, I was assured that they breed there in considerable numbers on the lakes of the interior. My friend Professor MACCULLOCH, of Pictou, however informs me that none are seen in Nova Scotia in summer. A gentleman of Boston, with whom I once crossed the Atlantic, assured me that the species is extremely abundant on the northern shores of the Pacific Ocean, and about the mouth of Mackenzie's river. Mr. TOWNSEND mentions it as being also found on the Columbia. It appears that a single specimen of the Surf Duck has been procured on the shores of Great Britain; and this has induced the ornithologists of that country to introduce it as a constituent of its Fauna.

In all the individuals which I have examined, I have found the stomach to contain fish of different kinds, several species of shell-fish, and quantities of gravel and sand, some of the fragments being of large size. Their flesh is tough, rank, and fishy, so as to be scarcely fit for food.

In the young males, in the month of September, the whole upper plumage is mottled with darkish-brown and greyish-white, the latter colour margining most of the feathers. The neck has a considerable extent of dull greyish-white, spread over two or three inches, and approaching toward the cheeks and throat. This colour disappears about the beginning of January, when they become of a more uniform dark tint, the upper part of the head brownish-black, without any white spot; there is a patch of brownish-white at the base of the upper mandible on each side; another of an oblong form over the ear, and on the nape are elongated greyish-white marks; the bill and feet dusky-green, the iris brown.

BLACK or SURF DUCK, Anas perspicillata, Wils. Amer. Orn., vol. viii.p. 49.
FULIGULA PERSPICILLATA, Bonap. Syn., p. 389.
OIDEMIA PERSPICILLATA, Surf Duck, Swains. and Rich. F. Bor. Amer.,vol. ii. p. 449.
BLACK or SURF DUCK, Nutt. Man., vol. ii. p. 416.

SURF DUCK, Fuligula perspicillata, Aud. Orn. Biog., vol. iv. p. 161.

Male, 20, 33 1/2. Female, 19, 31 1/2

Abundant from Nova Scotia to Maryland during winter, and removing southward to the mouth of the Mississippi in severe weather. Never seen in the interior. Breeds from Labrador northwards.

Adult Male.

Bill about the length of the head, very broad, as deep as broad at the base, depressed towards the end, which is rounded. Upper mandible with the dorsal outline convex and descending, before the nostrils concave, on the unguis convex and declinate; the ridge broad and convex at the base; the sides at the base erect, bulging, and very broad, towards the end convex, the edges soft, with about 30 internal lamellae, for two-thirds from the base they are nearly parallel and straight, but towards the end ascending, the unguis very large, somewhat triangular and rounded. Lower mandible flattened, with the angle long and rather narrow, the dorsal line slightly convex, the edges with about 35 lamellae. Nostrils sub-medial, elliptical, large, pervious, near the ridge.

Head large, oblong, flattened above. Eyes of moderate size. Neck short and thick. Body large, and much depressed. Feet short, placed rather far behind; tarsus very short, compressed, having anteriorly in its whole length a series of small scutella, and above the outer toe a partial series, the rest covered with reticular angular scales. Hind toe small, with a free membrane beneath; anterior toes nearly double the length of the tarsus, connected by reticulated membranes having a sinus on their free margins, the inner with a lobed marginal membrane, the outer with a thick marlin, the third and fourth about equal and longest. Claws small, that of the first toe very small and curved, of the middle toe largest, with a dilated inner edge, of the rest slender, all rather obtuse.

Plumage soft, dense, blended, and glossy. Feathers on the head and neck of a velvety texture. Wings rather short, narrow, and pointed; primary quills curved, strong, tapering, and pointed, the first longest, the second little shorter, the rest rapidly graduated; secondaries broad and rounded, the inner elongated and tapering. Tail very short, narrow, wedge-shaped, of fourteen stiff, narrow, pointed feathers.

Upper mandible with a nearly square black patch at the base, margined with orange, unless in front, where there is a patch of bluish-white extending to near the nostrils, prominent part over the nostrils deep reddish-orange, becoming lighter towards the unguis, and shaded into rich yellow towards the margins; the unguis dingy greyish-yellow; lower mandible flesh-coloured, unguis darker. Iris bright yellowish-white. Tarsi and toes orange-red, the webs dusky, tinged with green; claws black. The plumage is of a deep black, glossed with blue. On the top of the head, between the eyes, is a roundish patch of white, and on the nape a larger patch of an elongated form.

Length to end of tail 20 inches, to end of wings 18, to end of claws 22; extent of wings 33 1/2; bill from the angle in front 1 1/2; from the prominence at the base 2 1/2; along the edge of lower mandible 2 5/12; wing from flexure tail 3 3/4; tarsus 1 7/12 first toe and claw 11/12; outer toe and claw 2 1/4; middle toe and claw (1/2)/12 longer. Weight 2 lbs. 7 oz.

Adult Female.

Bill greenish-black; iris as in the male; feet yellowish-orange, webs greyish-dusky, claws black. The general colour of the plumage is brownish-black; darker on the top of the head, the back, wings, and tail; on the breast and sides the feathers edged with dull greyish-white.

Length to end of tail 19 inches, to end of wings 15 3/4, to end of claws 18; extent of wings 31 1/2; wing from flexure 8 3/4; tarsus 1 5/8; middle toe 2 3/4, hind toe 9/12. Weight 2 lbs. 2 oz.

In an adult male, the tongue is 1 inch 9 twelfths long, has numerous conical papillae at the base, is deeply grooved along the middle, has two lateral series of bristles, and terminates in a thin rounded lobe, 2 twelfths long. On the middle line of the upper mandible are about ten short conical papillae, and on each of its margins about 35 lamellae; on the lower an equal number. The heart is 1 inch 8 twelfths long, 1 inch 2 twelfths broad. The oesophagus, 8 1/2 inches long, is wide, its diameter at the upper part being 1 inch, towards the middle of the neck 1 1/4 inches. The proventriculus is 1 1/2 inches long; its glandules cylindrical, 1 1/2 twelfths in length, and, as in all other Ducks, arranged so as to form a complete belt. The stomach is a powerful gizzard of a roundish form, 1 inch 10 twelfths long, 1 inch 10 twelfths broad, its lateral muscles very large, the right 10 twelfths thick, the left 9 twelfths. In the stomach were various small bivalve shells and much gravel. The cuticular lining longitudinally rugous; the grinding plates 3/4 inch in diameter. The intestine, 5 feet 7 inches in length, has an average diameter of 6 twelfths. The rectum is 7 1/2 inches long, 8 twelfths in diameter. Of the coeca one is 3 inches 4 twelfths long, cylindrical, obtuse, 2 1/2 twelfths in diameter, the other 4 1/2 inches long.

The aperture of the glottis is 8 twelfths long, with numerous minute papillae behind. The trachea presents the same structure as that of the Velvet Duck. Its upper rings, to the number of 9, are very narrow, and continuous with a large bony expansion, 7 twelfths long, and 8 twelfths broad. Beyond this part its diameter is 5 twelfths, gradually diminishes to 3 twelfths about the middle, then enlarges to 5 twelfths. In this part the number of rings is 78. Then comes a roundish or transversely elliptical enlargement, 1 inch 2 twelfths in breadth, 9 twelfths in length, convex before, slightly concave behind, and composed of about 12 united rings. The trachea then contracts to 4 twelfths and presently enlarges to form the inferior larynx, which is large, ossified, but symmetrical. In this space there are 6 distinct rings, and 10 united. The entire length of the trachea is 7 1/2 inches, its rings are all osseous and strong. The contractor muscles are very strong, pass along the sides of the lower dilatation, on which are given off the cleido-tracheals, then continue to the commencement of the inferior larynx, where the sterno-tracheals come off. The bronchial half-rings 25, unossified.

The cavity of the nose is very large, being 2 inches long, 1/2 inch in diameter at the lower part, continued narrow in front over the dilatation causing the external protuberance of the base of the bill. The olfactory nerves are of moderate size; the maxillary branches of the fifth pair very large.

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