SNAP*Shot: Annual Visit with Harlequin Ducks

It’s Mother’s Day and once again the Harlequin ducks (Histrionicus histrionicus) are at LeHardy Rapids not far from Yellowstone Lake.  We talked about them a few years ago, but they are fascinating and so beautiful. Let’s visit with them again.

Harlequins choose the roughest coastal waters preferring rocky areas pounded by surf for their winter homes. There is a small eastern contingent of Harlequins completely separate from our Pacific Harlequins. In winter the eastern Harlequins live primarily off the coast of Maine spending the breeding season in maritime Canada. Pacific Harlequin ducks actually migrate east to west rather than north to south. They live from the central Oregon coast up and over to Russia all winter, then come inland to breed in the mountains. In spring they head to turbulent northern rivers in forested mountain areas. They are the only duck in the world that splits it time between the ocean and the mountains. Harlequins visit very few places in the Lower 48, but they are here in LeHardy Rapids every year.

Harlequin society is matriarchal with the adult females returning year after year to their river of birth. The young female will choose a bachelor to take home, and although unpaired males show up, they often to not get a chance to breed. Research has shown that a Harlequin pair may stay together for years and apparently with great loyalty. The males will only be at LeHardy four to six weeks, then they return to the ocean. The females will raise the young and return to the ocean in mid to late September, before the annual molt that leaves them flightless for a period of time.

Harlequins are small diving sea ducks, barely half the size of a mallard. They forage around rocks and on the bottom of rivers for insects, small fish, and invertebrates. The female, as with most ducks, is subdued browns, but the male’s coloring is the showiest in the waterfowl world. It has been said their splashy colors were assembled by a committee of first graders. Even so, they are beautiful! These ducks are sometimes called sea mice. Apparently when engaged in behavioral interactions, they make unducklike squeaks. The rapids are so loud we can hardly hear each other so hearing squeaks is not likely. We can imagine though as this pair chase an unattached male.

The pairs are together constantly, feeding together, diving into the roughest water, and resting together. As they are pushed downstream by the strong rapids while hunting/swimming, they flap their wings and skitter across the top of the water against the raging current to get upstream again. So fascinating to watch but very difficult to photograph. Although this fella is taking a rest, he has his eye on us.

Seeing their habitat, I guess it is no surprise that studies show adult Harlequins have had broken bones. Guess I never thought ducks would break bones simply by living their life. They have rather large feet helping them to stand on slippery rocks in rough water.

Once the males leave, the females will build their nests on the ground, under trees, in hollow stumps, or among rocks, but always near the water. She lays between 3 and 10 eggs which will hatch in about 30 days. The down-covered little ones will leave the nest soon after hatching. Although Mom will tend to them, they feed themselves. At first they’ll take food from the water’s surface, however, they begin diving for their food while still quite small. Sometimes females work together to care for their broods. The little ones are able to fly about five to six weeks after hatching, but won’t leave the area until about mid September when they’ll head to their ocean winter home.

Amazing little ducks that are an annual treat in Yellowstone. Harlequin ducks are being threatened by ocean pollution such as oil spills but also by poaching inland as well as hunting, logging, mining, even boating that disturbs and pollutes the water that is their life blood. Right now they are not in serious peril, but biologist are surprised they have survived as long as they have with all the issues they face. Hopefully it speaks to their adaptability. In the meantime we will fight for regulations that protect our wild waters and wild places to lend a helping hand to these very special ducks.

Enjoy the amazing creatures in your special part of the world!





6 thoughts on “SNAP*Shot: Annual Visit with Harlequin Ducks

  1. Veronica Wald says:

    Good post! And you’re so lucky to get those really good looks, especially at the hens, who by now are likely settled on their nests. An interpretative ranger who was there one day told me nests have been found along a trail above the far (eastern) shore of the river – there must be some water up there. They’re ground nesters, which the foxes, coyotes, badgers, martens, and other ground-dwellers must love.

    • Joy says:

      Thanks Veronica! It is amazing any survive frankly, but then again the geese next on the ground in wide-open spaces and look how many of them survive. Life finds a way.

Leave a Reply