Or at least it seems longer! Especially this year, as it was my first time picking my way from rock to rock with a tripod on my shoulder. I’m not the most sure-footed of creatures, as my friends will be happy to tell you. But I also don’t have the steadiest of hands, so having the tripod was a big help.
The birds we came to see are the Harlequin Ducks. Two males swam near the rocks at the end of the jetty. There were only four Harlequins there this day, two males and two females. We didn’t mind. Quality over quantity.
It was 22° with winds gusting over 20 mph. I wore heavy wool socks, long underwear, lined pants under rain pants, a turtleneck, fleece AND insulated vest under a down jacket, a scarf, two hats and three pairs of gloves, with hand warmers inside. This duck thought I was the funniest thing he’d seen in awhile.
FUN FACT: Why are the ducks comfortable swimming in the frigid water while we humans are shivering on shore?
It starts with their feathers. Next to the skin lies a thick insulating layer of down feathers. Above the down are layers of interlocking and overlapping feathers that leave a minimum of bare skin exposed to the elements. The birds attend meticulously to feather maintenance with liberal doses of preen oil.
Look closely at a duck after it surfaces from a dive, and you will see the water beading up and running from its waterproof feathers like rain from a freshly waxed car.
Ducks’ feet and legs lack feathers to protect them, and could be a dangerous source of heat loss. But water birds have evolved to combat this by utilizing a countercurrent heat exchange system. As hot blood in the arteries flows into the upper leg, it transfers heat to the cold venous blood returning from the feet. Blood that reaches the feet is much colder than the body, close to the temperature of the water in which the duck swims, but the blood that returns to the heart is warm. This heat exchange minimizes heat loss from the legs, while maintaining a healthy body core temperature. Cold feet, warm heart!
Accompanying the Mergansers were a young male Common Eider (left) and a female King Eider. The King Eider was a new bird for me. Common Eiders I’ve seen before, but only females at a distance. Seeing both this close was a treat. I’d have been happy with Eider one!