Saturday, February 26, 2011

Sudden death on a sunny day

Warning: this is another "dead bird" post. It's not gruesome, at least, but it is still sad; a beautiful bird struck down in his prime.

We were walking along the railway tracks heading in to Crescent Beach, and saw a black heap in the ditch alongside. It was a bird, freshly killed, entire except for the head, which appeared to be whacked off cleanly, as with a cleaver. Nothing else was damaged.

Surf scoter, as we found him.

The feet were intriguing. I had never seen any like that before; a vivid orange-red, with black webbing between the toes. The webbing defined the bird as a waterfowl, but without a head, we couldn't identify it.

Underside. The toes on this side are spotted with black. The flight feathers are grey underneath.

I had to read through the descriptions of black waterfowl in 4 of our guides before I found a description of the feet. This is a male surf scoter, a common bird off-shore, but which we usually see like this ...

Flock of surf scoters, off Centennial Beach. Far off.

They are a distinctive bird, but the defining characteristics are on the head. A white patch on the forehead, another on the back of the neck, and that fat orange, white and black bill. The feet, almost as dramatic, are rarely visible. (But I wish I had learned about them some other way.)

Photo from Wikipedia, by Alan Wilson. Creative Commons.

I found a very few photos showing the entire bird, on the web. Here is a good one, part of a series.

But what killed the bird? Not a predator; an eagle or an owl would have left nothing but feathers behind, a fox would have scattered feathers everywhere and left, maybe a few bones. The head had been cut off, not chewed off.

We have come to the conclusion that it was probably a collision with a train, possibly with some protrusion, something that removed the head with one blow. At least there was no long-drawn-out suffering involved.

The tracks. The trains come along here at a fair clip.


  1. Sad, but at least its demise was quick!

  2. Some good detective work- very strange mystery.

  3. Still could have been an OWL, they often take the head of cleanly like that and then get disturbed and leave their meal behind.

  4. Time to Live; Interesting. I've never seen that. Not much on that stretch to disturb an owl. Except maybe the train.

    It's a pretty lonely stretch of track, 7 km between access points, unless you scramble up from the beach. No houses, few trails down the cliff overhead.

  5. I agree that it could have been an owl. We had an owl in the back yard that used to do this same thing to ducks we were raising. I was so mad at that darn owl!

  6. A zombie owl; "All I want is to eat his brains!"

    I can see being mad at the owl; that makes no sense, killing an entire bird for a taste of brains and eyeballs.


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