Velvet scoter (Melanitta fusca)

Barents sea region red-listed species
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A rather large, bulky diving duck (length 51-58 cm, weight 1140-2104 g, wingspan 86-99 cm). Slightly larger than Common Scoter. Sexually dimorphic. Adult male glossy black with mottled flanks. Yellowish bill with pinkish-orange nail and black knob. White horizontal comma-shaped patch seen below white eye. Feet red. Younger males browner without eye patch. Females have dark brown plumage with greyish patches on cheek and between bill and eye. Bill dark. 

Eyes brown. Both sexes recognized in flight by conspicuous white wingbars, formed by white secondaries and great coverts. Sometimes the wingbars are also visible while swimming.

Distribution/range – global and regional

Breeds in Scandinavia and Estonia, eastwards through northern Russia to the Yenisey River and south to Central Siberia and Kazakhstan. Isolated populations in Turkey, Armenia and Georgia. Winters along the coasts of W Europe south to N Mediterranean. Also in the Black Sea, Caspian Sea and along the Danube River. Recently separated from White-winged Scoter M. deglandi (N America) and Siberian Scoter M. stejnegeri (E Asia) (Carboneras & Kirvan 2014).

Breeds in suitable habitat in northern Fennoscandia; both inland and along the coast. Common on the Kola Peninsula and in Nenetsky District. Also breeds on the White Sea islands. In Northern Norway, the Velvet Scoter is relatively common in winter (Bustnes & Bianki 2000).

Key habitats - seasonality

The Velvet Scoter usually breeds near small lakes and ponds on the tundra or in the taiga forest. It can also breed in brackish water (Bustnes & Bianki 2000, Carboneras & Kirvan 2014). In Finland and Sweden the population is mostly coastal, buth both countries have small inland populations. In Norway the population breeds entirely inland (HELCOM 2013).

Outside the breeding season Velvet Scoters are mostly found at sea, but they can be seen at inland lakes during migration. Usually winters in shallow waters along exposed coasts with rocky and sandy bottoms. Their normal foraging depth is ca. 5 meters; occasionally much more (Cramp & Simmons 1977).

Biology – migration, life strategy, feeding, trophic relation, etc.

Generally a migratory species. In Norway autumn migration takes place in September-November; spring migration in April-June (Båtvik 1994). The birds wintering along the northern coast of Norway probably breeds in Norway and NW Russia. Birds wintering in the Baltic Sea are probably breeding around the White Sea and further east. The White Sea, Kolguev area and Pechora Sea are important moulting areas for adult males and non-breeding birds (Bustnes & Bianki 2000, Cramp & Simmons 1977).

Seasonally monogamous. Sexually mature 2-3 years old. Breeding starts in late May or June. Pairs may defend a small territory around the nest-site. Nesting in single pairs or loose groups (e.g. on islands), sometimes among gulls and terns. The nest is a shallow depression among vegetation on the ground, usually within 100 m from open water. Clutch is usually 7-9 eggs, incubation takes 26-29 days (by female only) (Carboneras & Kirvan 2014). Males usually desert females during incubation, and leave for the moulting areas (Båtvik 1994).

Feeds almost exclusively by diving, though occasionally dabbles on the surface. Nocturnal foraging occurs, but usually farther from shore and in deeper waters. During the breeding season, the species feed on a variety of organisms, including insects and insect larvae (especially caddisfly), small fish, and plant material (Carboneras & Kirvan 2014).

Population status – numbers and trends

The global population is undergoing a very rapid population decline. Global population estimates are based on counts in the wintering areas in the Baltic and Black sea and in Kaukasus. In addition a few thousand individuals were probably wintering along the coasts elsewhere in Europe. Based on this the global population was recently estimated at ca. 250.000 mature individuals (Carboneras & Kirvan 2014).

The size of the breeding population in the Barents Region is not known. The total Norwegian population was estimated 1000-1500 breeding pairs (Båtvik 1994) and 30 000 wintering individuals (Nygård 1994). The wintering population in Norway was stable, ca. 30 000 individuals, between 1980 and 2000 (Lorentsen & Nygård 2001). Numbers breeding and moulting in Kandalaksha State Nature Reserve, have declined four-fold since ca. 2002 (BirdLife International 2013). A new inventory in the Swedish mountains shows a population decrease of 50% during the last 30 years. At present, the total breeding population in Sweden is estimated at 8 000–12 000 pairs (Ottosson et al. 2012).

In 1999–2001, the breeding population in Finland was estimated 14 000–16 000 pairs (BirdLife International 2004). About 1 000 pairs were believed to breed inland (Väisänen et al. 1998). For 2009, the total breeding population in Finland was estimated 10 000 pairs (HELCOM 2013), and the decline seems to continue.

Threats – natural and anthropogenic

This Velvet Scoter has relatively few reported predators, e.g. Killer Whale (adults) and large gulls (ducklings) (Carboneras & Kirvan 2014). The species suffers predation from American Mink on islands (Nordstrom et al. 2002) and is also susceptible to avian influenza, so may be threatened by future outbreaks of the virus (Melville and Shortridge 2006). Broods are vulnerable to inclement weather conditions (Berndt & Hario 1997).

The causes for the decline of the Swedish breeding population are not well understood, but in particular eutrophication, disturbance and nest predation are believed to be important. Activities such as deforestation may increase sedimentation in breeding waters, and reduce the clarity needed by ducklings for feeding (Natura 2000 2007).

Moulting and wintering concentrations of Velvet Scoter are very susceptible to oil spills and other marine pollutants. An oil spill could destroy a large proportion of the global population if it occurred in a key moulting or wintering area (Madge & Burn 1988). Oil drilling and exploration of nature resources in NW Russia, may become an increasing problem for birds in the Barents Region (Bustnes & Bianki 2000).

The species is also threatened by commercial exploitation of marine benthic organisms and shellfish, and by drowning in fishing nets (BirdLife International 2013, Natura 2000 2007). Even discarded fishing gear and lead sinkers can represent lethal hazards; for example, in S Baltic Sea, up to ca. 4000 individuals per winter may drown as a result (Carboneras & Kirvan 2014).
Other significant threats are hunting (e.g. Åland), poorly located windfarms, lake drainage for irrigation and hydroelectric power production, and disturbance from tourism in remote habitats (BirdLife International 2013, Natura 2000 2007).

Conservation measures and needs

The “European Union Management Plan for Velvet Scoter (Melanitta fusca) 2007-2009” was published in 2007.

The plan outlined management prescriptions that aimed to reverse the negative trend. It was aimed at all EU member states with breeding, staging or wintering populations of Velvet Scoter.