Bird of the Week: Harlequin Duck


Male Harlequin Duck (Photo by Glenn Bartley -- sourced from the BirdFellow Gallery)

Among ducks, most of which show intricately patterned feathers and iridescent colors, one species stands out. The male Harlequin Duck will get many votes as being the sharpest looking of the waterfowl crowd. Even when seen at close range, it's hard to discern individual feathers in their highly-patterned plumage. The broad swipes and spots of white that mark their otherwise cold blue and rusty upperparts seem as though they have been painted on. Like females other duck species, Harlequin hens are decidedly more cryptic in plumage.

For all their external beauty, this is one tough duck. If they could spend their days in washing machine, they just might. Away from the breeding season they can be found in the pounding surf along the rocky shores of both the Atlantic and Pacific coastlines. How they manage to avoid getting shredded as the feed among barnacle encrusted rocks is a marvel. 

One would think that after all winter in this saline agitation cycle, Harlequins might seek more placid waters during the nesting season...hardly! Instead, they migrate many hundreds of miles inland to endure a summer rinse cycle in the often frigid, fast-moving, rocky streams of western mountains (Pacific population) and the northerly drainages of eastern Canada (Atlantic population). The only other birds that thrive in the latter conditions are American Dipper and the occasional Common Merganser. About the only time this species moves to less turbulent waters is when they are tending to broods of young ducklings (Robertson and Gouldie 1999). 


Female Harlequin Ducks are similar to female White-winged Scoters -- dark chocolate-brown or dusky-brown overall with a paler face and a conspicuous white spot behind the eye (Photo by Glenn Bartley)

The migratory habits of Harlequin Ducks hold a bit of mystery. Just the other day a birding friend of mine wondered aloud about the route this species takes as it makes its way from the outer coast to inland breeding areas. Do they take an overland route over coastal mountains or do they follow major rivers inland? Beats me.  Though I've spent a fair amount of time birding in mountains where they are known or presumed to breed, I've never seen a Harlequin Duck on its breeding grounds. They are typically found in upper reaches of narrow drainages that are not easily reached or surveyed. Nests are normally located close to the water under some sort of overhanging cover (Robertson and Gouldie 1999). 

I've also never seen a Harlequin Duck in transit between the coast and nesting sites. Although transitory Harlequin Ducks are occasionally found at inland locations, such sightings are not common, particularly in the West. It believed that most Harlequins make fairly direct flights from their breeding grounds to coastal wintering grounds. This notion is supported by a record cited in Birds of North America online (Robertson and Gouldie 1999). This account describes a female first noted  in w. Alberta that was seen a mere 48 hours later along the coast of British Columbia. 

If you hope to see a Harlequin Duck, your best bet is to visit their coastal wintering grounds, where they can be quite approachable as they roost on nearshore rocks and jetties. Given the stunning appearance of adult males, they are understandably quite popular with birders, especially those carrying cameras. 

Literature Cited: 

Robertson, Gregory J. and R. Ian Gouldie. 1999. Harlequin Duck (Histrionicus histrionicus), The Birds of North America Online (A. Poole, Ed.). Ithaca: Cornell Lab of Ornithology; Retrieved from Birds of North America Online:


Thanks for this informative article. You might find the following story of interest. In early Januaryy 2010, I found a first-year male Harlequin Duck on the (fresh) Farmington River in Farmington, CT. It had found a stretch of turbulent water on this stretch of river that suited its habits. Lucky for me that the turbulent area was right on my daily “patch” birding route. The bird stayed on through the winter in company with several Common Mergansers, a few Canada Geese, and some Mallards. It took off, presumably for northern climes, in early March. What a privilege to observe this bird every day over the course of several weeks! Birders flocked from CT, MA, and NY to see it – the first Hartford County record. A beautiful bird. I wrote a series of posts about it on my blog:
and here


Dave, I had the pleasure of flying over the Semidi Islands and counting the nesting Geese with USFW officer Dave Pitkin while stationed in Kodiak. Great article and good writing as usual.


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