I saw my first harlequin ducks on a backpacking trip in Olympic National Park in Washington. We were an afternoon’s walk from the trail head, settled into a campsite in a shady grove along the Elwha River. I was reclining on the bank, staring seriously at the river, when I noticed a small dark duck standing in the shallows about 50 yards downstream on the opposite bank. The patches of white on the sides of her head identified her as a female harlequin. Then I saw, just behind her, a bobbing raft of six young, perhaps three-quarters grown.
I watched them for most of an hour as they made their way upstream past my vantage point and around a bend that eventually hid them from view. The adult female led them as they methodically searched the river for food.
Understand that the Elwha is not some placid brook but a true mountain stream full of rapids, submerged rocks, whirlpools, and other hazards for swimmers. Given the size difference between a harlequin and a human, the Elwha should have presented the ducks with the sort of problems humans face in running the hair-raising rapids of the Urubamba or the upper Ganges, with the added difficulty that the ducks were moving upstream. But they treated it like a walk in the park. They bobbed like corks through the rough waters, rested now and then in the lee of large rocks, even hopped up on the tall rocks to shake out their feathers and preen.
If they saw something that might be good to eat, they pecked at it, or if it was down a little deeper, tipped up like mallards with their rumps sticking out of the water and their necks stretching down toward the food. From time to time, they dove, staying under for as much as 30 seconds.
Their movements had the same grace as the motion of the water and their dark bodies blended so well with the deep gray rocks that it was often hard to find them, even though I knew approximately where they were. They worked the whole river, bank to bank, fast water and slow.
They eat almost anything small enough to catch. Aquatic insects, especially caddis-fly larvae, are favorites, but they also eat mussels, crawfish, and other molluscs and crustaceans, small fish, tadpoles, and frogs, and the eggs of fish and frogs.
Their insouciance in fast water seems to be typical of the species. O.J. Murie, the great biologist, reported on some birds he saw in a subarctic river on Canada’s Ungava Peninsula. “We stopped to camp,” he wrote, “at the head of a rapid which culminated in an abrupt fall of 20 or 30 feet. Here we found some more harlequins. I got two young and the mother between me and the fall and attempted to corner them for a photograph. There was but a narrow lane of comparatively quiet water near shore. As I neared the little group, the mother flew upstream and the little ones spattered up over the water, actually entering the edge of the swift current in order to get by me. Upon repeating the performance several times, I had an opportunity to perceive their wonderful knowledge of currents and their skill in navigating them. Finally, when pressing them close for a near approach, they again entered the swift water. At the same time the mother came flying low and passed downstream. This time the youngsters were evidently caught for the current carried them out of sight over the falls. With a feeling of remorse I looked below. I had not intended to be the means of their destruction. At first I could distinguish nothing among the ripples and the foam-flecked current below. Then I saw them floating along, rising to shake the water from their down, then quietly preening themselves. Although they had clearly endeavored to avoid the falls, they were none the worse for the accident when it did happen.”
Harlequin ducks have been seen floating in the Yellowstone River just above the Lower Falls, which are 308 feet high. The birds would float downstream until they were just about to be carried over the hp of the falls and then they would fly upstream a ways and repeat the performance.
Underwater, they are as graceful as penguins. They swim either by kicking their feet or by flapping their wings. They especially like to dive in areas with gravel bottoms–these are also, of course, areas with fast currents–and when they get to the bottom, they can control their buoyancy enough to walk on the gravel. Six feet down in cold, fast water and they search and peck for food like chickens in a barnyard. And when their air supply gets low, they just rise to the surface as effortlessly as a bubble. Apparently, this style of hunting works well in mountain streams. The dipper, a songbird unrelated to any duck, lives in similar streams and also hunts by walking around on the bottom.
Harlequins nest in alpine and subarctic streams in both North America and Asia. In the Soviet Union, their range extends from Lake Baikal east to the limits of Asia and then beyond. They nest in the Aleutians and the Pribilofs and in the mountains from Alaska south to Oregon and Wyoming. The eastern population lives on Greenland and the islands of the Canadian arctic and south along the Atlantic coast to Labrador.
Most of these birds winter on salt water, either along the Pacific coast from Alaska to California or along the Atlantic coast as far south as the Carolinas. They retain their love of moving water in the winter. Their preference is to feed on rough and rocky coastlines where the waves crashing against the rocks make a reasonable substitute for the mountain streams where they were born. In Iceland, one of the common names for this bird is brindufa, “breaker dove.”
Male harlequin ducks form a startling contrast to the drab females. Their crazy-quilt plumage is responsible for both the common name and the scientific name of the species: Histrionicus histrionicus. A male harlequin shows a splash of white on its face and another white dot behind its ear. Both of these white patches are outlined in blue-gray. Two vertical white streaks outlined in black mark its sides, and there is another strip of white running down the back. The bird’s flanks are a rich cinnamon.
Those odd streaks of white are good examples of disruptive camouflage. The streaks break up the silhouette of the duck. It is hard for our brains to put the shape back together. We can scan the waters of a mountain stream and not even notice this seemingly gaudy bird.
Harlequins begin their breeding season with a typically ceremonious duck courtship. The female builds a nest on the ground or in a stump. She incubates the eggs for about a month and then leads the flightless, downy young around, providing both protection and hunting lessons until they are old enough to make it on their own. Unlike other duck species, the female feeds the very young birds, and they react to her presence by tipping their beaks up and opening their mouths, rather like baby songbirds. The young begin to fly about 40 days after hatching.
If you want to see harlequin ducks in the winter, your best bet is along the northern parts of either coast, but in late fall and early spring, we do sometimes see these birds on Lake Michigan. Our shores don’t naturally provide the sort of rough and rocky circumstances that harlequins prefer, so they tend to concentrate around harbors and breakwaters where concrete can provide a reasonable facsimile of rocks. We look for them at Michigan City and Waukegan or along the breakwaters in Evanston.
Recently a bird has been staying offshore in Rogers Park. It is usually found off Jarvis Street, though it sometimes wanders a block north or south.
I have seen one male on the lake in my years of looking, but almost all the birds we get here are either females or young of the year, immatures whose plumage is very similar to the coloring of the females. They may be young birds who got lost on their first migration. Or they may be from a particular population that routinely passes through the Great Lakes in spring and fall. We know that we don’t see harlequins here in January and February. It could be that the fall birds have left for salt water, not to return until March. It could be that the birds we saw in fall died in January’s ice and a new set is passing through in spring. We don’t know, but we can enjoy a view of these extraordinary swimmers nonetheless.