One of my first embarrassing moments as a birder was on a field trip, shouting to my professor, "Puffins", which turned out to be Surf Scoters. Both are black ocean birds with orange bills, but there is a big difference in size of bird and bill. These black dots can be seen in large numbers off the coast in winter. They are easily identified by the male's striking white spot on the back of the neck and the forehead, and a white eye. The bill is large and bright orange, black and white. While other ducks go into eclipse coloration for winter, male Surf Scoters keep their bright colors year round.
The females are brown with white spots on the back of the neck and on the cheeks and the same white eyes as adult males. Juveniles have brown eyes. Surf Scoters are aptly named since they feed in the surf zone, diving or scooting through the waves. They dive six to thirty feet using the inner part of their wings and their feet for swimming. They stay down nineteen to thirty-two seconds. Sometimes, an entire flock has been seen diving under water all at once. Their main food is mollusks, such as mussels, clams and periwinkles.
Watching these and other scoters head north in spring is a breath-taking experience. I have watched flock after flock racing northward, low over the water, hour after hour by the thousands, leaving me in awe of the abundance in nature.