True to its name, the male comes dressed like a party trickster: brilliant chestnut crown and flanks, white patches on cheek, ear and upperwing, stripes on neck, breast and shoulders with an otherwise bluish plumage. The female? Well, she’s no vaudeville act—a rather plain brown duck, sharing only the white cheek and ear patch, and the small blue-gray bill.

Harlequin DuckEndangered in Canada, listed as a Candidate Species in the United States, the Harlequin Duck is now the focus of multiple monitoring efforts. (B. Whitney)

With many of the same wintering locations in common with other diving ducks, such as scoters and goldeneyes, Harlequins depart from the standard lake-breeding strategy in favor of two distinct areas: fast-moving inland streams or coastal estuaries. Here, the female carefully canvasses the area to select some prime real estate, often with preference for midstream islands, nice shrub cover and a good view. The “nest” is actually a surface scrape on a bed of needles, mosses, leaves or stones, lined with down for some extra insulation. Sometime during the month-long incubation period, the male high-tails it to the coast while the female holds down the fort, keeping six eggs at a cozy 98˚F. Make no mistake, she’s not left trying to feed six mouths—they’re feeding themselves a mere day or two after hatching. In another month and a half, the young will head for the coast.

In the winter months, Harlequin Ducks forage close to shore, gleaning a diet of crunchy marine invertebrates—crabs, amphipods (tiny, shrimp-like organisms), snails, clams and limpets—from the sea floor. Much more ubiquitous during this time, more than 5,000 Harlequins were counted during the 2011 annual Audubon Christmas Bird Count in North America. At the top of the national list: Alaska COASST locations Kodiak—420, Sitka—63; Washington locations: Sequim—218, Port Angeles—98. With the removal of the Elwha Dams (see partner profile page 38), biologists and birders are hopeful the 50 miles of restored, uninterrupted river may increase the local Harlequin Duck population in the greater Port Angeles area still further.

COASST finds of beached Harlequins aren’t so numerous, thankfully. In 11 years of COASST data, only two birds have ever wound up on a survey: a female on Buldir Transect B (Alaska) in June of 2008 and a male on Hobuck Beach (Washington) in November, 2009. Still, large beachings have occurred. Two winter/spring oil spills in Alaska have taken their toll: Exxon Valdez in March 1989—1,300 Harlequins, and Selendang Ayu in December 2004—another 60 birds. Other threats, including illegal hunting, entanglement in nets, disturbance at nesting sites and habitat degradation are also of concern.

With a bi-coastal population of less than 220,000, Harlequins were listed in Canada as Endangered in 1990 and in the United States as a Candidate Species in 1991. These designations launched a renewed research and monitoring effort—on the West Coast in particular, a joint effort between Glacier National Park (Montana) and the Montana Natural Heritage Program has worked to identifycritical nesting habitat and track sightings of banded birds—10% found again—most frequently in British Columbia, Canada. COASSTers, too, continue to monitor beaches adjacent to prime Harlequin Duck wintering habitat, especially in greater Puget Sound (Washington), Alsea, Newport and Siletz Bays (Oregon), and the sheltered waters of Prince William Sound (Alaska).

Check out these websites for more information about Harlequin Ducks: