Saturday, August 21, 2010


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.

In the natural world, Harlequin’s boldly patterned attire and acrobatic nimbleness is memorialized in Harlequin Duck (Histrionicus histrionicus). Among North American waterfowl, the drake Harlequin ranks second only to the drake Wood Duck for the striking beauty of its plumage. Harlequin is a small northern duck found in turbulent waters: rushing rivers and surf pounded rocky coasts.

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 did not see a Harlequin Duck until I moved to Vermont a dozen years ago. During my first winter, I made a day trip to Cape Ann along the Massachusetts coast. In the pounding surf along the rocky coastline, “Lords and Ladies” popped to the surface like so many cork bobbers. They swam briefly, then dove again, and bobbed up again.

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.

Last week, we were in Waterton Lakes National Park in Alberta, Canada (the Canadian portion of Glacier-Waterton International Peace Park which spans the U.S. border between Montana and Alberta). We drove one of the few roads in this small park, stopping often to view the deep canyon and dramatic peaks of the glacially sculpted mountains. As the valley opened out, the road ran close to a mountain stream. We stopped at a picnic area so that we could sit by the river’s edge, and (in the back of my mind) look for an American Dipper, a small, stumpy gray bird that feeds by walking upstream underwater. There were no dippers, but on the opposite side of the creek, a family of five brown, nondescript ducklings were being carefully watched by an equally brown, nondescript hen.  Serendipity! Here were the Harlequin Ducks on a fast moving mountain stream that I had looked for twenty-five years ago.

I watched as the young dipped their heads beneath the water looking for food, while mother kept a wary eye on the human movement. Occasionally Harlequins will dabble. More typically, they dive to the gravel river bottom where they walk along the bottom against the current. They poke among the stones, eating nymphs, larvae, and adults of various aquatic insects. It seems like a much lighter diet than when they are along the coasts where they feed on crustaceans and mollusks, but apparently the insects do the trick. The ducklings I watched appeared healthy and vigorous, swimming upstream and scrambling over rocky barriers in the rushing waters.

The Harlequin Duck is charismatic with its clownish attire and acrobatic diving, as evidenced by its many folk names: lords and ladies, painted duck, totem pole duck, rock duck, glacier duck, mountain duck, white-eyed diver, squeaker and blue streak. But this is a tough little duck. It winters in turbulent coastal waters where rocks are pounded by surf. Adult Harlequins often suffer broken bones from the rough coastal niche where they make their living.

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.


Dan Huber said...

very nice post - an interesting duck i have seen but once so far

Chris said...

Hi Chris,
This is a very nice post. This is one of my favorite duck, and I love it very much. I found the name very funny especially knowing what harlequin means in French ;-) You got very nice pictures of it, well done my friend!

Birding is Fun! said...

Here I sit in Idaho, having not yet seen a Harlequin Duck. They are rarely reported in Idaho and only in a couple of select locations. I guess I need to get out more. Great information in your post. I really enjoyed reading it.

Chris said...

Hi Chris,
Fine with the comment, you do not need to catch up every message ;-)
Concerning the common wren, I do not know really but what I know is that the Icelandic common wren is a sub-species of the common wren...Starting to be complicated mate!

eileeninmd said...

Chris, what a great post on the Harlequins. I have been to the Glacier-Waterton area and it is beautiful there. Loved the photos!

Robin Robinson said...

Terrific post on the Harlequin -- duck and character. I've never seen the duck, though I think i may live with the Harlequin. I would go gaga over the duck, i"m sure. I took lots of shots of Wood duck drakes this year and could not get enough of them. Wonderful post!

FAB said...

Interesting post Chris. Another magical moment to store in the memories. FAB.


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