Northern Ireland's Priority Species

Melanitta nigra – common scoter


Distribution map

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Melanitta nigra (L.)
Family: Anatidae

The male common scoter is a large black sea duck, which breeds across Eurasia from Iceland to eastern Russia. Northern Ireland formerly held the majority of the UK and Irish breeding population, but still supports a substantial wintering population.

In brief

  • Commonest on the County Down coast in winter especially in Dundrum Bay
  • Breeds on freshwater lakes. Winters in sheltered, sandy, coastal bays
  • Formerly bred on Lower Lough Erne, County Fermanagh
  • The first birds arrive at the coast in August, peak numbers are present December to February
  • It is listed as a UK Priority Species and red listed on both the UK and Irish Birds of Conservation Concern
  • A complex interaction of factors has led to its extinction as a Northern Ireland breeding species. Main threats to the wintering population are the risk of an oil spill in winter along the County Down coast, unregulated waste disposal and aquaculture developments
  • Concerns about continuing declines in the remaining Irish breeding population could lead to extinction throughout Ireland.

Species description
A medium to large, plump-bodied duck, with all dark plumage. Males are all black with a small yellow area on top of the bill. Females are dark brown with paler cheeks. Juveniles are similar to females and can be identified by the pale area on the belly. Most commonly encountered in large ‘rafts’ on the sea, often in sheltered bays. Feeds on marine molluscs by diving in a characteristic manner with a small leap with the wings folded tightly against the body. Though often quiet, males can be heard giving a soft piping whistle in spring, during courtship.

Formerly considered as a single species, scientific research now recommends that the North America and far east-Asian form be treated as a separate species known as black scoter M. americana.

Life cycle
The northern Irish and all-Irish populations seem to prefer larger island-strewn lakes as opposed to upland bog pools as in Scotland. They nest close to the water, on the shore of an island, often in a sheltered site or under dense cover of scrub or rank vegetation. Six to nine eggs are laid in a hollow lined with a little plant material, down and some feathers in late May in southern populations. Incubation by the female alone takes 27 to 31 days. The precocial chicks hatch synchronously and leave the nest as soon as they are dry. They are tended by the female for six to seven weeks.

Similar species
The velvet scoter has white secondaries in all plumages, which are easily seen in flight and whilst wing-stretching. The surf scoter has large white patches on the head of the male and a different bill structure and pattern. The recently recognised black scoter is very similar but the males have more yellow on the bill. Female common scoter could also be confused with female red-crested pochard, which is larger with a pale wing bar.

How to see this species
Dundrum Bay in County Down is the best site to see common scoter. Post-breeding birds arrive in August. Flocks from December to February can be in excess of 1,000 birds and sometimes more than 2,000 can be seen. Smaller numbers can be seen in Belfast Lough, Lough Foyle and off Magilligan. Rare on inland lakes but are occasionally seen on Lough Neagh; there are no records from Lough Erne since 1998.

Current status
A localised, but common, winter visitor, mainly to the County Down coast, and a former breeder. Peak counts at Dundrum Bay fluctuate annually which is typical of wintering scoter populations. The five-year mean of peak counts between 1996/1997 and 2000/2001 is only 151 birds. However, a peak count of 2100 was recorded on 27 January 2002. The species is specially protected at all times on Schedule 1, Part 1 of The Wildlife (Northern Ireland) Order 1985 and is listed on Appendix III of the Bern Convention.

Why is this species a priority in Northern Ireland?

  • Listed as a UK Priority Species
  • Red listed in both Ireland and the UK (Birds of Conservation Concern)
  • Rapidly declined as breeding species in Northern Ireland.

Dundrum Bay holds nationally (All-Ireland) important wintering numbers

Threats/Causes of decline
The decline and eventual extinction of the scoter as a breeding species on Lower Lough Erne was the result of a complex interaction of factors. These included the deterioration in water quality and food availability, competition for food with introduced roach, predation by mink and the erection of security fencing around the two dams downstream. The main threat to the wintering population is one of a catastrophic incident such as an oil spill affecting Outer Dundrum Bay during the winter months. In addition, waste disposal around the site and the development of aquaculture are issues of concern.

Conservation of this species

Current action
There is a UK Action Plan which was published in 1998.

  • RSPB maintains its reserve on Lower Lough Erne and a number of the former breeding islands are maintained in a suitable condition for breeding should the species return. Former sites are monitored annually and all former sites were surveyed in the national survey of 2002
  • Outer Dundrum Bay is part of the South Down Coast cSAC
  • Both breeding and wintering habitats are covered by Northern Ireland habitat action plans.

Proposed objectives/actions

  • Regain common scoter as a breeding species in Northern Ireland
  • Maintain current range and distribution of wintering common scoter
  • Continue to maintain former breeding sites on Lower Lough Erne in a suitable condition to support breeding scoter in the event of their return
  • Continue to monitor former sites on Lower Lough Erne.

What you can do

  • Report any sightings on freshwater lakes between April and July to RSPB, Tel: 028 9049 1547
  • Participate in monthly Wetland Bird Survey (WeBS) counts which help to monitor non-breeding waterfowl at important sites in Northern Ireland. Contact EHS, Tel: 028 9025 1477
  • Report any counts of flocks of common scoter along the coast to Northern Ireland Birdwatchers’ Association Flightline, Tel: 028 9046 7408.

Further information

UK Species Action Plan

The Wildelife (Northern Ireland) Order 1985

NI HAP Eutrophic Standing Waters

General species information from

General species information from RSPB

Photographs from

Taxonomic recommendations from IBIS

Cramp, S. et al. (1977) Handbook of the Birds of Europe, the Middle East and North Africa, Vol.1. Oxford.

Crowe, O. (2005) Irelandís Wetlands and their Waterbirds: Status and Distribution. Birdwatch Ireland.

Hagemeijer, W.J.M. and Blair, M.J. (1997) The EBCC Atlas of European Breeding Birds their distribution and abundance. T. and A.D. Poyser.

Harrison, C. (1975). A Field Guide to Nests, Eggs and Nestlings of British and European Birds. Collins.

Hutchinson, C.D. (1989)Birds in Ireland. T.&A.D. Poyser.

Madge, S. and Burn, H. (1988). Wildfowl an identification guide to the ducks, swans and geese of the world. Helm.

Newton, S. et al. (1999). Birds of conservation concern in Ireland. Irish Birds 6(3).

Partridge, K. and Smith, K. (1987). Common Scoters: The Lough Erne Decline in and All-Ireland Context. RSPB.

Partridge, K. (1987). The Common Scoter Melanitta nigra in Ireland – A review of the breeding population with special reference to Lough Erne. RSPB.

Sangster, G. et al. (2005). Taxonomic recommendations for British Birds: third report. Ibis 147(4).

Steele, D. and Mellon, C. (1998). Common Scoter on Lower Lough Erne: A review of proposals for conservation action. RSPB.

Whilde, A. (1993). Threatened mammals, birds, amphibians and fish in Ireland. Irish Red Data Book 2: Vertebrates. HMSO, Belfast.

Text written by:
Allen & Mellon Environmental Ltd.