MARS MOMENT: All the water’s a stage for the dramatically-plumed harlequin

Known to be expert boatmen harlequin ducks are able to negotiate their way up freshwater currents and can tackle surging ocean surf

As winter storms continue to pound our shores with high winds and heavy rain even the hardiest of shore birds are having a tough time riding out nature’s wrath.

Known to be expert boatmen harlequin ducks are able to negotiate their way up freshwater currents and can tackle surging ocean surf. Their name “Histrionicus Histrionicus” translated from Latin means “stage player or actor.”

The Italian translation describes gaily painted clowns which harlequin ducks certainly portray with their brilliant plumage and comical characteristics.

There are two distinct populations in North America, the Pacific coast ducks winter from Alaska to southern Oregon; they migrate east of the coastal mountains to breed in the pristine fast-running streams and rivers.

The much smaller Atlantic populations winter from Nova Scotia southwards along the coast to Maine and Virginia; in the spring they make the long trek to Newfoundland en-route to Greenland and the Arctic.

Harlequins are small sea ducks about half the size of a common mallard. They have round heads, stubby bills and stocky bodies.

These ducks prefer to stay close to shore and are one of the easiest ducks to spot; in our local area harlequins can be seen along the shorelines around the Goose Spit, further south Qualicum beach is a favourite haunt.

Rivalling the wood duck and the eider duck, the male harlequin’s are one of nature’s most exquisitely marked ducks. The belly and wings are slate blue with chestnut flanks outlined with very distinct white stripes; they also have a very noticeable crescent shaped white patch at the base of their bill and a white dot around the ear.

Like most bird species the females are the “plain Janes” their overall appearance is a dull brownish grey and they can be identified by three white patches on either side of the head. Sometimes called rock ducks, harlequins have a habit of swimming and feeding in shallow rocky water and like to haul themselves onto the rocks to rest or preen.

Preening is very important to these ducks as they have extremely dense layers of feathers that trap air providing the duck with great insulation it also makes the ducks very buoyant enabling them to bob like corks in the rough surf.

Winter food for the harlequins include small crabs, snails, limpets, mussels, fish eggs and particularly herring spawn. They either dive for their prey in shallow water or pry the prey from the rocks with their powerful bills.

Harlequin ducks have very high food requirements as they expend a lot of energy. They also have a very high metabolism that means they need to spend a great deal of time feeding, unlike larger ducks and geese they lack the ability to store large fat supplies. This reminds us yet again how important it is to stay away from areas where water birds are feeding; causing a disturbance whilst they feed can mean a death sentence to them as they run out of energy before making a successful migration.

Mountainaire Avian Rescue Society (MARS) rarely admits harlequin ducks and usually the prognosis for any sea duck species is poor due to their unique dietary needs and our ability to provide them with an acceptable habitat for their stay. Local populations of harlequin ducks are stable but the eastern populations are listed as endangered mainly due to habitat loss.

To report injured wildlife please call 1-800-304-9968 for other info. 250-337-2021, www.wingtips.com.