Speaking of Nature: The harlequin duck
Well folks, this is it: the end of February and the light at the end of the tunnel for winter’s reign is starting to show brighter and brighter on the horizon. I have just returned from one of the most enjoyable vacations I’ve had in a long time and I feel refreshed and rejuvenated. Who would have imagined that this sort of satisfaction could have been the result of freezing my nunny off in the cold rocks of the ocean shoreline?
I’ve talked about Sachuest Point National Wildlife Refuge in the past and that’s because it’s an amazing place. There are 242 acres of wonderful shoreline and scrub lying on the Rhode Island coast just to the east of Newport and every time I go there I have a magnificent time. I had originally aimed myself at Sachuest because of the spectacular views of snowy owls that have been reported there all winter. For me, that was a complete bust.
I did manage to see three different snowy owls, but I saw the first two only after they had seen me. The third and final time I spotted one of these gorgeous birds was different. I saw the owl first and I think I can safely say that the owl never saw me. Of course, it was about a quarter of a mile away from me at the time, so photography wasn’t really an option, but I did get a sense of the bird.
At the time I happened to be crouched in the freezing rocks at the water’s edge on the eastern shoreline of Sachuest Point. I had my camouflage coat on, wool gloves and two pairs of winter pants on, but I was freezing anyway. The wind is persistent at the shore and the rocks seem to have an endless capacity to drain heat out of a person who is both sitting on and leaning against them.
I saw the owl and, for a moment, I actually considered getting up from my hiding place and seeing if I could close the distance between us, but then I came to my senses. I had been crouched in my spot for over an our, my hind quarters were basically numb and my right leg had started to fall asleep, but I was committed — I would stay put and wait for the ducks.
Nikonus and Iso must have been proud of me for I was richly rewarded for my steadfast dedication to my quarry. In fact, the rewards were so numerous that I may have as many as six new topics for upcoming columns, but I shall not spoil any of the surprises now. Instead, I shall focus all of my interest on just one of the species that I saw; the one I specifically return to Sachuest to see — the harlequin duck (Histrionicus histrionicus).
As a group, male ducks are known for the splendor of their plumage. Many male birds are beautiful, but the ducks stretch simple beauty into splendor with the amazing variety of colors, sheens and gaudy patterns that they wear. Well, the male harlequin duck does not disappoint. A combination of black, white, slate-blue and burgundy red feathers is so distinctive that it reminded someone of the famous character from Italian theater.
Even the bird’s scientific name “histrionicus” (which is repeated for both genus and species names) is a reference to theater. The Latin word “histrio” means “an actor” and is a direct reference to the character of the harlequin, known for his checkered blue-and-red costume.
The harlequin duck is a species that can be found as far south as the Carolinas in the winter. They tend to stay close to rocky shorelines where they dive in the surf in pursuit of mussels and other mollusks and crustaceans. When it comes to rough water, harlequins seem to think that rougher is better.
In the summertime, the breeding urge sends the harlequins northward to Quebec, Newfoundland, Labrador and Baffin Island, but they stop being “sea ducks” in the summer. Instead, they seek out swiftly running streams and become something akin to the torrent ducks (Merganetta armata) of South America, plunging themselves under the water to scour the rocks for insects and crustaceans.
The members of a mated pair will set up shop right next to a stream of this sort and the male will stick around just long enough to ensure that he is the father of the majority of the ducklings that will hatch out of the six to eight eggs laid by the female. But as soon as the female starts incubation, the male will abandon her to her own devices. Male ducks are gorgeous, but they are shameless cads.
Before any of this dastardly love-’em-and-leave-’em drama can unfold, however, the males must first do their best to seduce a willing female. I happened to be in just the right place at just the right time to capture some of this behavior on film (as it were) and I must say that the females command a great deal of attention.
I suppose it was fitting that Valentine’s Day had just been celebrated. The male harlequins were simply gorgeous in their bold plumage and they all had love on the brain. What I found so interesting was the fact that there seemed to be only a few females in the area and I managed to capture one image in which a single harlequin hen was being followed by no less than eight optimistic males.
How the female chooses is beyond me. Each male seemed just as beautiful as the next but, like an Olympic judge, the female must scrutinize details so small that an outsider such as myself simply cannot understand what she’s looking for. Sooner or later she will select her temporary mate, perhaps with a complete understanding of what is to follow. Perhaps harlequin hens are superficial and select a drake only because of his looks, rather than his substance.
The female will build her own nest, the female will undertake all of the incubation duties for the 30 days required to hatch her eggs and the female alone will raise the ducklings. They will not be able to fly far until they are roughly two months old, but well before that they are able to take care of themselves. This frees the female to raise two broods in a single summer, which means that the males abandon the responsibilities of fatherhood, but not the general area. Still, the females do go looking for another male, so who can really blame the males?
Fortunately for all of us, the harlequin ducks will continue to grace the ocean coasts of New England until the beginning of May. They will leave for the summer and then return again in late October to spend the winter in the relative warmth of our latitude. How they stay warm I’ll never know. I was freezing to death just looking at the water they were frolicking in.
If you have any interest in zipping down to Newport in the coming weeks, then visit the Reader’s Corner page of my website for a link to the Sachuest Point NWR. It will be easier to endure the weather in the coming weeks and you can treat yourself to an amazing seafood lunch at one of Newport’s fantastic restaurants. Just don’t forget something warm to wear if you plan on sitting down in the rocks for an extended period of time.
Bill Danielson has worked as a naturalist for 16 years. In that time, he has been a national park ranger, a wildlife biologist and a field researcher. He currently works as a high school chemistry and biology teacher. To contact Bill, or to learn more about his writing, visit www.speakingofnature.com