Harlequin ducks spend their summers along our mountain rivers. I’ve seen them there, diving straight into rapids where they search for small insects. These birds have dense feathers that trap a layer of insulating air – just like a down coat. This helps warm their small bodies against icy waters, an important adaption for a 15” bird. By facing the current with wings spread, they can actually walk underwater as they forage. In fall, harlequins migrate down slope to salt water where they spend the winter fishing for mollusks and crustaceans in waters that are actually warmer than their summer swimming holes.
So what’s with the name? I’ve read that harlequins were called after a colorfully dressed French character in the Commedia dell’arte, and their scientific name, Histrionicus histrionicus means there’s only one species of this beautiful duck, and ‘histrio’ means ‘actor’. I’ve heard them also referred to as Lords-and-ladies, painted duck, sea mouse (because they squeak) and totem pole diver. Whatever you might call them, these are by far the most colorful sea ducks we have in winter on the Salish Sea, and they brighten up any gray day. Look for them on jetty rocks or log booms until spring.
Larry paints and blogs about wild places at larryeifert.com. His work can be seen in many national parks across America.