The distinctive Harlequin Duck is a small sea duck with a small bill, short neck, and long tail. Males in breeding plumage are unmistakable with their dark blue color, rufous sides and crown, and striking white patterning on the face, neck, sides, and back. In non-breeding plumage the males are brown with white on the face and a round white spot at each ear. A subtle white shoulder stripe and white on the wings distinguishes the male in non-breeding plumage from the juvenile and the female, which look similar.
Harlequin Ducks prefer turbulent water, both in their breeding habitat, which is along fast-moving mountain streams, and in their wintering habitat, which is along rocky coastlines. The mountain streams are usually at low to subalpine elevations within a closed forest canopy, and have midstream gravel bars or rocks for roosting. Coastal habitat is typically in the shallow, intertidal zones along rocky coastlines, where rough surf is the norm.
Harlequin Ducks are well adapted to their harsh surroundings. They make their way against the current and easily climb up steep and slippery rocks, although many have been found with broken bones, presumably from being dashed against rocks in the rough surf. Like other diving ducks they forage under water, although in addition to diving they also walk along the bottom or dabble. When they find food at the bottom, they pry it open with their bills.
In coastal habitat, mollusks and crustaceans make up the bulk of the diet. Some small fish and marine worms are also eaten. On rivers, aquatic insects are the main prey, especially larvae attached to rocks on the river bottom.
Most females first breed at the age of two, and males at the age of three, although breeding success for many birds remains low until they are five years old. Pairs form during winter and spring, and dissolve after the female begins incubation. At this time, the male leaves the female and the breeding territory. They reunite in the fall on the wintering grounds. The well-concealed nest is located close to a stream, on the ground, on a small cliff ledge, in a tree cavity, or in a stump. It is a shallow depression lined with vegetation and down. The female lays 5 to 7 eggs and incubates them for 27 to 30 days. The chicks leave the nest shortly after hatching, remain near the nesting area for a few weeks, and then move downstream. The female tends the young and leads them to feeding areas, and the young feed themselves. They can dive at a very young age, but find most of their food on the surface at first. It is not unusual to see combined broods tended by more than one female. The young can fly at about 5 to 6 weeks.
Short-distance migrants, Harlequin Ducks move from the coast inland and back again. When they migrate inland, they usually fly low, following the course of a river. Males leave the breeding area for molting areas in the Strait of Juan de Fuca and Puget Sound in late June or early July. Females and the young of the year leave the breeding grounds in August. Harlequin Duck migration often does not take the standard north-south pattern found in many birds; Harlequins wintering on the Pacific Coast and in Puget Sound may move south or west (to the Olympic Peninsula) to breed.
While the population of Harlequin Ducks in the Pacific Northwest appears to be stable, much research is currently under way to get a better sense of how the species is faring. Harlequin Ducks are listed as a priority species by the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife. They are subject to many potential threats, including shoreline development, hunting, and fishing nets. Oil spills are also a potential threat, and as recently as 1998, Alaskan Harlequin Ducks were still exhibiting reduced survival rates as a result of the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill. In Washington, however, logging is probably the most significant threat. Logging activities remove suitable forests along streams and also can add silt and sediment to the streams, reducing the amount of prey. Because Harlequin Ducks take a number of years to reach maturity, they are slower to rebound from threats, and great care must be taken to prevent a negative impact on the population.
When and Where to Find in Washington
As a breeder, the Harlequin Duck is uncommon below 4,000 feet in the Cascade, Olympic, and Selkirk Mountains from mid-March through mid-August. They are rare in the Blue Mountains and southern Cascades. In winter they are common in saltwater habitat along rocky shorelines and jetties, more common in Puget Sound north of Seattle than south. They are most common along the outer coast of Whidbey Island. Another wintering site is at Rosario Beach at Deception Pass State Park on Fidalgo Island (Skagit County). They are also regularly seen at Birch Bay and Semiahmoo Spit (Whatcom County). In summer, they can sometimes be seen along the gravel bars of the Methow River south of Winthrop (Okanogan County).
Click here to visit this species' account and breeding-season distribution map in Sound to Sage, Seattle Audubon's on-line breeding bird atlas of Island, King, Kitsap, and Kittitas Counties.
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