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Waddell Beach: Black Scoters and an Elephant Seal

I had a nice Santa Cruz County After-Work-Lifer (AWL) as I just crossed into Santa Cruz County on Highway 1.

A pair of black scoters had been reported just north from the dirt parking lot at Waddell Beach.

Three scoters are found on the California Coast in winter: surf, white-winged, and black. The most numerous is the the surf scoter. There were about fifty (probably many more) riding the waves or diving under them, off the sands of Waddell Beach.

Black scoter is the least common off the Santa Cruz County coast. Luckily for birders, it is the easiest to identify. Both the male and female are distinctive. The black has a rounded head where as the surf and white-winged scoter have a flatten head as if they were hit on the head with a frying pan!

The male black scoter, like it’s name implies, is all black. It’s head is rounded and it’s orange “golf ball” at the bases of it’s bill is a beacon that yells out, “Black Scoter!!”
The female also has a rounded head and a dark cap that contrasts with a lighter checks and neck.

I returned to Waddell Beach on Saturday morning to look through the gull flock at the Waddell Creekmouth. I was hopping to see a kittiwake or the rare lesser black-backed gull that had recently been reported. I saw neither.

What I did find, foraging in the near shore of Waddell Creek, was a long-billed dowitcher. Turns out that this is a new county shorebird for my list!I always love these shorts of birding surprises!

I did want to look for the black scoters again and try to get a few photos of the continuing sea ducks in good morning light. They obliged as the rode the tide about 40 yards from the parking lot. I was able to photograph the two together and separately as they associated with the surf scoters.

On Sunday morning, I headed back to Waddell Beach. The creek provides a large public gull bath along the coast and this area has produced much sought after gulls as black-legged kittiwake, glaucous gull, Bonaparte’s and, just once, an adult lesser black-backed gull! Gulls congregate here to wash in the fresh water and you are more likely to see a larger number of gulls at this early hour before the beach crowds arrive.

On Sunday morning all I recorded was California, western, mew, herring, and four Heerman’s gulls. Nothing too out of the ordinary. It did give me practice at sorting through gulls which can be notoriously tough to identify.

On my way back to the parking lot I refound the two black scoters in even better morning light. The two photos included in this post were taken on Sunday morning.

When I returned to my car I looked down at the beach and about 20 feet away was large 12 to 15 foot bull elephant seal resting on the sands. How had I missed such a large beast?

I had come here to see a county life bird. Instead I found a county life pinniped!

The view from the parking lot. Seems so hard to miss.
Here is my car to provide some scale.
This young male northern elephant seal looks like he has been in a few scuffles by the number of scars on his body. He is defiantly the beach master of this beach.