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The adult male is on average 1,050 g (2.31 lb) and 48 cm (19 in) in length while the adult female averages about 900 g (2.0 lb) and 44 cm (17 in) in length, making this the smallest species of scoter on average. The male is completely velvety black except for white patches on the forehead and the nape. It has a swollen bill, appearing orange at a distance but patterned with white, red and yellow, and a black spot near the base. The female is browner than the male, with a fairly uniform plumage, slightly darker above than below. Indistinct paler patches are present on the cheeks below the eye and sometimes a whitish patch is on the nape, a unique trait among scoters. The bill is black with green or blue colorations The juvenile has a plumage similar to the female, but mainly paler and browner, and the breast and belly are whitish The surf scoter is easily distinguishable from other scoters by the white patch on the head of the adult male and its unique bill pattern. Females and immatures have a bulkier bill and a more flattened head profile than other scoters, recalling the shape of the common eider (Somateria mollissima). The black and the white-winged scoters are physically very similar to the surf scoter but in flight, the surf scoter is the only one with completely dark wings.
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