by Philippe Henry
April 19, 2023
Fig 001 Harlequin ducks of the eastern population winter on rocky shores or reefs along the Atlantic coast, from Newfoundland to Virginia where ice buildup is minimal.
Every year for more than ten years I feel great excitement before going to photograph harlequin ducks. The rivers that these ducks frequent on their return from wintering sites, are places where one can draw on the positive energies of nature.
Fig 002 The coast of Maine hosts half of the eastern wintering population.
Fig 003-004-005- In March, the harlequins are moving north to breed. They are often seen along rushing rivers where there is plenty of food.
Fig 004 Harlequin ducks next to streams in early spring - female on the left and colourful male on the right.
Fig 005 Harlequin ducks (Histrionicus histrionicus) in white water stream in early spring.
In western North America, these ducks molt and spend the winter on the pacific coast. They are found breeding in mountain streams and rivers from Wyoming to Alaska.
Fig 006 Harlequins often arrive to their breeding sites at the same time as the common mergansers (Mergus merganser) male shown above.
Fig. 07 Common merganser - female.
Fig 008- By mid March in the eastern Quebec, it is not unusual to see several males courting a female.
In eastern Canada most of these birds breed along the hundreds of turbulent rivers that cross Nunavik, Newfoundland and Labrador, and northern New Brunswick. In the province of Quebec, where I live, harlequins breed mostly in Gaspésie which is the heart of their breeding range in southern Quebec.
In the Second Atlas of Breeding Birds of Southern Quebec -2019-, Quebec biologist Michel Robert tells us “that the harlequin has gone from the status of an endangered species to that of a species of concern. Nevertheless, barely 4000 individuals wintering on the east coast, is much less than at the beginning of the 20th century”. They are particularly vulnerable to disturbances in breeding areas such as timber harvest, hydroelectric developments - for example, when Churchill Falls was developed for hydroelectric generation, approximately 1400 km2 of land space was flooded in an area that was likely historically important for breeding Harlequin Ducks, construction of road networks and mining that can increase heavy metal concentrations in nearby aquatic systems, thereby increasing the potential for heavy metal toxicity threatening these ducks, and to threats from chemical and oil pollution, fishing nets and aquaculture on their wintering grounds.
Fig 009-010-011-012- At the beginning of the breeding period we can observe scenes of chases between the males over the white waters.
Fg 10. Two males chase a female Harlequin duck
Fig 11. Harlequin ducks.
Fig 12. Harlequin ducks.
Fig 013 The harlequin duck is half the size of a mallard and the male is certainly one of the most beautiful sea duck.
Fig 14 Male Harlequin duck flapping its wings on a cold stream.
Fig 15 "rock duck" is another nickname of the harlequin due to its habit of jumping on rocks.
Fig 016-017-018- As with many ducks, the female harlequin has a duller plumage, which made her almost go unnoticed in the flowing waters of a river and when she incubates the eggs.
Fig 17 Female harlequin duck.
Fig 18 Female harlequin duck.
Fig 19. Male harlequin duck.
Fig 20 Male harledquin (in front) and female duck on the left.
Fig 019-020- Harlequins reproduce when they are 2 or 3 years old. You have to be extremely lucky to be able to photograph the mating because it takes place in the white waters of the river where the pair is almost invisible.
Fig 21. Male harlequin duck.
Fig 021-022- Harlequins have high food energy requirements. They often find their food at the bottom of the rivers catching their prey -mostly insect larvae - by walking against the current.
Fig 23 Male harlequin duck spreading its wings.
Fig 023-024- Male harlequins move to moulting sites when females begin to hatch the eggs.
Georges Edwards is known as the father of British ornithology. In his book - A Natural History of Uncommon Birds - he describes the Harlequin as a "dusky and spotted duck". The male fits this description very well with a plumage full of contrast. In June, the level of the river, where I photograph them when they return from wintering, dropped and the male has gone to his moulting site further north. The female is hardly visible anymore, hidden in the vegetation of the banks with her ducklings. I often leave the site at that time with hundreds of photos and videos to sort through and memories of very good time spent in the company of this duck which takes its name from Harlequin (French Arlequin, Italian Arlecchino), a colorfully dressed character in the Commedia dell’arte.
Robert,M. 2019. Arlequin plongeur, p.128-129 dans Deuxième atlas des oiseaux nicheurs du Québec méridional (M.Robert, M.-H.Hachey, D.Lepage et A.R.Couturier).
Bio: Philippe Henry is a photographer, a writer and a filmmaker specialized in wildlife and conservation. He is based in La Mauricie, in Quebec. He is currently working on a new wildlife documentary which will be available in winter 2023. You can follow his photography on his facebook page. Photo of Philippe by Diane Meilleur