Last week’s unseasonably warm weather made me particularly nostalgic for summer. I half-expected to spot a kayaker gliding by or a fishing boat pulling up its nets. But, the water temperature has dropped nearly 20 degrees since its peak, which was close to 70F this summer. And, this has certainly impacted the behavior of all things living on the coast – both above and below the water.

The most basic change is the decrease in activity on the water. Many animals have already taken off to head south for the winter and others have found their way further away from shore in preparation for the first freeze. Some intrepid creatures, however, will stick around all winter, somehow managing to stay warm and fed in the midst of blustery Maine weather.

Nicknamed “chunky ducks,” Maine’s sea ducks are some of the most intrepid of the bunch. They take on a particularly beefy look in the winter with both an increase in size as they bulk up in fat and feathers, and also in appearance as they puff themselves up as if you would fluff up a down pillow. There is something heartening about seeing these chunky friends bobbing up and down even among choppy winter waves and blowing spray. They are so perfectly designed to be outside in conditions we would gladly retreat from.

With the pandemic, we are all trying to adapt on the fly to being outdoors more – and this has its particular challenges as the weather cools. Restaurants are setting up patios with outdoor heaters, college campuses have erected giant tents to serve as “outdoor” classrooms, and sales of personal outerwear have skyrocketed. Humans have evolved over a long period of time to need things like clothing and shelter, and without them we are in trouble. How great would it be to fluff up your feathers and float through a storm while the rain rolled off your oiled, waterproof plumage? We need a lot of gear to mimic what these ducks do every day.

Their feathers, when fluffed, trap tiny pockets of air between them that can hold warm air close to their bodies even when it is frigid outside. This is why we have down jackets and comforters. Their feathers are also coated in oil to shed the water and help them keep their insulation dry. Inside their bodies, they have special adaptations as well – a dense layer of fat wraps around their round bodies to keep them warm. And, as for their skinny legs? Specialized veins and arteries are able to rewarm blood returning to their bodies and then return it to their uninsulated parts.

There are many types of sea ducks that share these adaptations, but they are quite easy to confuse. Most are a combination of black and white, especially in their winter plumage, and their size and shape is difficult to discern from any distance. They all have great names – buffleheads, mergansers, goldeneyes and scoters are some of the more common types. Their differences can be guessed at, in part, from these names. Male buffleheads have a large white patch on their stout heads that look a bit like a puffy buffalo heads. They’re also on the small side, compared to the other ducks. Mergansers are another funny-headed duck. The mature hooded merganser males look a lot like buffleheads with their crisp white hoods, but the immature ones and females look a bit like my daughters who often neglect to comb their hair in the morning, with feathers sticking up in a kind of crest on the backs of their heads. The goldeneye needs no explanation except to say that it is striking when you see one. And then, there’s the scoter with its thick orange, white and black bill and white patch on the back of its neck.

While you might not be able to spot the differences between these species, you can appreciate the features they all share that make them such super survivors in Maine’s chilly waters – and perhaps you might envy them a bit, too.

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