Harlequin Duck, Histrionicus histrionicus
Once every few years, local bird watchers line the St. Clair River to get a view of a rare visit from a small flock of Harlequin Ducks. The shores of the local strait are the perfect habitat for this sea duck species that prefer fast-moving, rocky shorelines for winter feeding. Perfect with the exception of our location since this duck typically winters on the Pacific Northwest coast from Northern California to Alaska and on the Atlantic Northeast coast from North Carolina to Newfoundland. Since this is one of the few years that they chose to make a local showing, let’s find out where they can be seen, how they can be identified, and what makes them so special besides rarity.
These are classified as sea ducks, a small group that also includes one of our most common winter species, the Long-tailed Duck. The Harlequin Duck is a fairly small creature, just slightly larger than our smallest duck, the Bufflehead. Harlequins average 16.5 inches in length with a wingspan of 26 inches and weigh in at 1.3 pounds. We see males most often in their basic or eclipse plumage when their coloration is much like the female with dark brown flanks and undersides and a gray head, neck, and back. Bright white markings are present as wing bars, a thin “necklace”, and a uniquely shaped “cheek” patch in front of the eyes with a round white spot behind the eyes. Females are a lighter brown with light grey head and back and they only show white on the head. The male breeding plumage is spectacular with added chestnut-red crown, bordered with an extended strip of the front “cheek” patch, a large chestnut-red flank marking, and additional white patches on the side of the neck, below the neck and just in front of the flank. The bill is blue-gray and eyes is reddish-brown.
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Harlequin ducks feed on aquatic invertebrates especially insect larvae, small fish and fish eggs. In wintering locations, they eat aquatic invertebrates, mussels, and snails and upon close examination of their re-surfacing after a dive, you may see them with a bill-full of mussels or invertebrates.
Our latest visiting Harlequins have been seen daily as they fly north into lower Lake Huron and do a foraging drift down the shoreline to Dunn Paper or sometimes as far as the Blue Water Bridges.
When “speaking” with each other, Harlequin Ducks make distinctly un-duck like squeaking sounds that have earned them the name “sea mouse” in some locales. Other colloquial names include painted duck, rock duck, glacier duck, white-eyed diver, squeaker, and blue streak. Female calls include a nasal “ekekekekek” and also smooth quacking sounds. Their fondness for turbulent waters often comes at a cost to their bodies. Harlequin Ducks suffer more broken bones than any other species, and x-rays show that most adults live with multiple healed fractures much like our small local raptor, the Cooper’s Hawk. The species’ common name harlequin and scientific name histrionicus refer to the almost theatrical coloration of the males breeding plumage. The oldest recorded Harlequin Duck was at least 20 years and 9 months old when seen in the wild in British Columbia and identified by his band in 2014.
You can learn more about the unique waterfowl of the Bluewater Area by attending the sixth annual Winter Bird Blast. Mark your calendar for this event which will be held on the morning of February 8, 2020; visit the Blue Water Audubon Society Facebook page for upcoming details. You are also welcome to attend Blue Water Audubon meetings held at The Point, 5085 Lakeshore Rd, in Fort Gratiot. Our next meetings will be held on Monday, January 6 and on February 3, starting at 6:45 PM.
Tom Dennis is a free-lance writer, passionate birder, zoologist, creation scientist, gardener, and naturalist.