Harlequin became a stock character in French passion plays by the sixteenth century. He was a comic character, often portrayed as stupid and gluttonous, a buffoon. But he was also nimble and acrobatic, performing cartwheels and flips. His head was shaven and his face masked. He dressed in motley - tights made out of discordant, multicolored diamond patches. His origin was probably in the court jesters, or fools, who itinerated during the middle ages, providing entertainment in marketplaces and royal courts. Recall the Fool in Macbeth who tries to lighten the king’s dark mood and speak a word of truth to the self-absorbed monarch.
Twenty-five years ago, I went looking for the Harlequin Duck. Our family was camping in Yellowstone National Park. The park’s bird list included the Harlequin, and I knew that the duck summered and nested along fast moving rivers. So whenever we stopped near by a rushing river, I looked for Harlequin Ducks. I had no success.
I know better than to expect any guarantees when looking for birds. But, every winter along the Cape Ann coast, I see flocks of Harlequin Ducks diving close to the rocks. The flocks range from as few as six and to as many as twenty or thirty.
There are two North American populations of Harlequin Ducks - in the Pacific Northwest and in the Atlantic Northeast. In the Northeast, the status of this species is uncertain. Several sources suggest that the population is in series decline and may be threatened. On the other hand, Edward Forbush, the Massachusetts ornithologist, wrote in the 1920s: “It has never been my good fortune to see the eastern race of this rare and lovely duck, but in summer I have watched by the hour many flocks of Pacific Harlequins on the west coast.” It is hard to imagine that Forbush never visited Cape Ann during the winter. Whatever the larger status of this duck may be in its north Atlantic range, along the New England coast during the winter its presence seems to have increased.
The Harlequin Duck breeds along fast moving streams and rivers from the Gaspe Peninsula in Quebec northward through Labrador and eastward to Greenland, Iceland, and western Russia. In the Northwest, it moves from its wintering grounds along the Pacific coast to mountain streams in the northern Rockies.
The Harlequin Duck family I encountered on the rocky mountain stream were all drab and camouflaged. The splashy drake is too conspicuous to hang around and help raise the young. He had made his contribution and departed.
My trip to the Canadian Rockies was not a birding trip, but when the birds came around, I naturally watched them. I rarely get to the remote places where so many of our birds breed. Encountering the Harlequins on a mountain stream was enough to make for a good birding trip.