The (Adorable) Harlequin Ducks of Winter

Walking the British Columbia shorelines at this time of year is one of my favourite de-stressing activities. As you head out along the water, the noise of the city drops away. The gentle sea air hits you, and you just start to breathe and relax. And once you slow down a bit, you’ll start to see an amazing variety of bird life along the rocky shore. 

male harlequin duck
That’s the male Harlie.

Like these guys, for example. My favourite duck in the world is just arriving at this time of year: the harlequin. It gets its name from the brightly-costumed character in Italian commedia. Its Latin name is even more evocative: Histrionicus histrionicus. This is one colourful bird, and once you learn to recognize its red, blue, black, and white patterns, you’ll easily spot it from afar. The females lack the bright colours of their mates, but have a subtle beauty of their own.

harlequin ducks against water
That’s the missus on the left.

A bird of rough water

Yes it’s a tiny thing, the shape of a bathtub toy, but it’s tough. The harlequin duck is perfectly at ease in our stormy winter waters. Watch it surfing and diving deep below the surface in search of the steady diet of underwater critters that it needs to support its fast metabolism.

In summer it nests inland, finding a sheltered spot along whitewater creeks and rivers. There it swims and bobs confidently through currents that would terrify a kayaker. It’s really a remarkable swimmer, for its size. 

So harlequin ducks are also found in eastern Canada, and their numbers there have dropped alarmingly. Here in the west they’re in better shape, though biologists are monitoring their numbers closely. As with all of our winter birds, a single oil spill along the coast could be disastrous.

They’re beautiful in late afternoon light, aren’t they?

Where to see the harlequin duck

The Stanley Park seawall is one of the best places in Canada to photograph the Harlie, as birders call it. Head out to Ferguson Point, between Second and Third Beach. Clover Point in Victoria is also good.

You’ll want a zoom lens for this one, and please resist the urge to walk out onto slippery, wet rocks. Do that and you’ll disturb the birds, and you might crack your skull or your lens (I’m speaking from experience here; don’t ask.) 

Lookin’ back with no regrets.

The contrast on the duck’s harlequin face is surprisingly tough to capture with a digital camera without it blowing out. Many cameras have an exposure compensator. Set it to -1 for this bird and you’ll be ok. 

With or without a camera, I hope you take some time for a de-stressing seawall walk this winter. The Harlies will be waiting for you. And listen for their odd high-pitched peep-squeak call. I like to think it’s their way of saying hello.

Here’s the sound

Let me brighten your Friday.

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