Want a blast of color on a drab winter’s day? A cold walk along most Salish Sea beaches, boardwalks or marinas will give you a good chance to see some of these astonishingly beautiful birds – but only in winter. Harlequin ducks have unmistakable colors and can’t be confused with any other bird. Summers find Harlequins nesting and fishing up wild mountain rivers, seemingly the wilder the better. In the Cascades and Olympics, we’ve seen harlequins appear to actually have fun diving into the most turbulent whitewater, then resurface 50 yards downstream only to try it again. It’s not a life for the delicate or infirm – harlequins have been found with broken bones, presumably from being smashed against rocks in ocean surf or river rapids.
So are we going to see drab winter Harlequins like many of the other Salish Sea seasonal migrants? Here’s the best part! Rare for seabirds, male Harlequins sport their most brilliant breeding plumages in winter, molting to drab colors between July and September. I guess that makes sense if you’re a small bird looking for true love while living under an overcast and rainy seascape, but few other migrant birds have evolved this way. Females and juveniles have to contend with a duller suit of clothes, typical of nesting or learning-about-life security. Just look for that one white circle behind the eye and you’ll easily i.d. them too. Typical of diving ducks, they forage for crustaceans, mollusks, small fish under water by diving or even walking along the bottom.
Larry Eifert paints and writes about wild places. His work is in many national parks across America – and at larryeifert.com.