The Harlequin Duck

Harlequin Duck

Harlequin Duck

I’ve been waiting for a sunny day to go back to Strathcona Park to get some better photographs of the Harlequin Duck, and on Friday that day finally came. It was cold, though; only about -5°C, and the wind made it feel worse. I didn’t intend on staying out too long, but as I was at the mercy of the bus schedule, I ended up staying out longer than I had planned.

When I arrived I was amazed by all the Canada Geese feeding on the lawn – the flock contained over 100 birds. I scanned them for Cackling and Greater White-fronted Geese, to no avail.

The river was much lower than it had been two weeks ago, with lots of exposed rocks near the western bank. There were also lots of mallards, Ring-billed Gulls, and a few American Black Ducks roosting on or feeding near the rocks. You can also see the pedestrian footbridge currently under construction, slated to open in 2016. (Yes, that is a bright orange construction warning sign in the water!)

Rideau River

Rideau River

I started my search near the north end of the park, where at least 40 Hooded Mergansers, a couple of Common Mergansers, and several Common Goldeneyes were feeding. From there I walked toward the pedestrian bridge, and found the Harlequin Duck swimming near the rocks. As I was watching she climbed up onto one and spent some time preening. The light was much better today for taking photos.

Harlequin Duck

Harlequin Duck

She didn’t stay on the rock long; only a few minutes later she was back in the water, swimming around. The Ring-billed Gull on the left gives you a nice indication of how small this duck is.

Harlequin Duck

Harlequin Duck

She dove a couple of times, then found another submerged rock to stand on. Harlequin Ducks spend the winter on bodies of fast-moving water with rocky shores and ledges, preferring coastal areas where the turbulent water prevents ice from building up along the shore. They are diving ducks, and find food items such as small crabs, amphipods, gastropods, limpets, chitons, blue mussels, and fish eggs in rock crevices beneath the surface.

Harlequin Duck

Harlequin Duck

These ducks occur in two separate populations, a larger one on the Pacific Ocean (more than 200,000 birds) and a much smaller one on the Atlantic Ocean (less than 2,000). The Atlantic population is considered endangered as its population has declined significantly over the last century due to over-hunting, oil pollution, recreational activities, degradation of riparian areas, and loss of nesting habitat due to hydro-electric projects, road construction, logging, and mining.

Unfortunately, Harlequin Ducks are not prolific breeders and their low reproductive rate means that it takes longer to rebuild their numbers after a decline than it does in other species. They breed when they are two or three years old, later than other species, and have a small average clutch size (3-9 eggs). In addition, females do not breed every year, perhaps because of decreased insect populations. It is thought that the high proportion of non-breeding birds in some years may contribute to the low reproductive rate of Harlequin Ducks.

Harlequin Duck

Harlequin Duck

They have some interesting names, including “rock ducks”, due to their habit of hauling out on rocks, “lords and ladies”, “ladybirds”, “white-eyed divers”, “painted ducks”, and “totem-pole ducks.” Their distinctive, unducklike squeaks have also earned them the names “sea mouse” and “squeaker”! It gets its English name from the costume-wearing Italian comedic characters who wore painted masks. Similarly, its Latin name, Histrionicus, means a stage player or actor.

Eventually the Harlequin Duck moved off to the center of the river where it took a leisurely swim beyond the range of my camera. I scanned the gulls, hoping to find a white-winged gull among them. Instead I came up with this brute! If you don’t think he’s all THAT big, check out the tiny Ring-billed Gull on his right.

Great Black-backed Gull

Great Black-backed Gull

All the others that I could see were Ring-billed Gulls. A few were standing in the water right below me, including this one preening its back feathers….

Ring-billed Gull

Ring-billed Gull

…and these two dozing standing up. This young bird is sleeping in a typical position.

Ring-billed Gull

Ring-billed Gull

This adult, however, looks like he just can’t keep his eyes open any longer!

Ring-billed Gull

Ring-billed Gull

By the time I was ready to leave to catch my bus I was thoroughly chilled. I am really glad I went, however, as seeing the Harlequin Duck in the bright sunshine was worth braving the early winter cold!

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5 thoughts on “The Harlequin Duck

    • Well, at least the water is warmer than the sub-zero air; imagine being a bird in -30C weather! Their feathers provide remarkable insulation against the cold, and the oil that coats their feathers provides insulation as well as waterproofing.

      Their legs have a unique blood flow system where the veins carrying cold blood from their feet run close to arteries carrying warm blood from the heart, allowing heat exchange to occur. The warm arterial blood loses heat to blood flowing back up into the body; by the time this blood reaches the foot, it is very cool, so less heat is lost to the cold water.

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