Harlequin Ducks

This gallery contains 5 photos. Almost a year has passed since I first saw a pair of female Harlequin ducks at Ambleside Park in West Vancouver. Save for a few white spots on their faces, the feminine plumage is as brown and nondescript as the masculine equivalent is flashy in spring — a perfect pairing. Ironically, I have not been able to glimpse co-ed flocks at close range.

2 females (whom males resemble in the fall/winter) – photographed on August 18, 2016
f/10, 1/250, 500mm, ISO 1000

On June 21, 2017, the first full day of summer in the Northern Hemisphere, while initially attempting to find an American White Pelican (considered a rarity in Metro Vancouver, even though they do put in an appearance or five around this time of the year) on the north side of the Tsawwassen Ferry Causeway, I chanced upon a dozen Harlequin ducks on the south side, either sunning themselves on beach rocks or swimming just offshore as they searched for aquatic grubs and insects in the company of a much larger flock of Surf Scoters (interestingly, my success at finding the pelican came just a few minutes after this discovery, and I had to tear myself away from the Harlequins to do so. When I later returned to the spot where I found the Harlequins, they had left the area).

© WHSIM Male Harlequin Duck on the Rock 1 (659px).jpg
Nemesis bird no more: classic example of an adult male in his breeding finest
f/16, 1/320, 500mm, ISO 500

© WHSIM Male Harlequin Duck on the Rock (800px profile).jpgZoomed in profile view of above adult male. Truly created with an artist’s brush!
f/16, 1/320, 500mm, ISO 500

What amazed me was that every Harlequin duck I saw at the jetty was a male in near or full springtime finery: slate grey feathers with white strokes and rich cinnamon flanks. Males in breeding plumage look like paintings come to life–which is perhaps why the Harlequin Duck has a number of colorful aliases — among them, painted duck, totem pole duck, mountain duck, lords and ladies. I wondered if breeding season was already done (or perhaps it hadn’t even started, thanks to the Polar Vortex and late arrival of spring), and these “bachelor flocks” were just having a good time getting a bit of sun or hanging ten.

© WHSIM Male Harlequin Duck on the Rock 2 (659px).jpg
Apparently, I am only worth watching with one eye.
f/16, 1/320, 500mm, ISO 500

This colorful diving seaduck is also known as the sea mouse (for its unduck-like squeaks). I’ve never found more than 5 in a flock, and they’re often see swimming quite far from shore. They possess an unearthly beauty that makes them look like (and sound) no other duck — and perhaps that is because they are the only extant members of their genus. Generally quite wary around humans, Harlequin Ducks are found wintering on the rocky western and eastern coastlines of North America, and breeding as far north as Alaska. They are classified as endangered in Canada, and considered species of concern in parts of North America.

© WHSIM Male Harlequin Duck in the Water (659px).jpg
Harlequin ducks like to rest (and even nest!) on rocks in fast flowing streams
f/16, 1/320, 500mm, ISO 500

This quintet was atypically nonchalant about the photographer in their midst, too. I was able to get to within 15-20 feet of the flock in broad daylight without benefit of blinds, bellycrawling, and camouflage–which is much, much closer than the personal space of Caspian Terns (85-100 feet). A couple of the males ignored me completely. When birds go to sleep around you, it’s a good sign that they do not consider you a threat–but, they can sleep with one eye open. 🙂 Learn more about the Harlequin Duck by visiting its Cornell Lab of Ornithology allaboutbirds.org profile here.

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8 thoughts on “Harlequin Ducks

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