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:

Bird of the Week: Semidi Islands Cackling Goose


This neck-collared Semidi Island Aleutian Cackling Goose was photographed at the Martella Dairy Farm at Woods, Tillamook County, Oregon on 10 April 2011 . Note the lack of a conspicuous white ring at the base of the black "neck sock." (Photo by Dave Irons)

The Semidi Islands population of Cackling Goose ranks among the rarest of all North America birds, but is virtually unknown to most birders. Unless you visit Woods/Pacific City, Tillamook County, Oregon between October and April or somehow make your way to the Semidi Islands off southwestern Alaska during the nesting season, your chances of seeing one are nil. 

The species split of "white-cheeked" geese in 2004 separated the smaller more northerly breeding taxa to a new species -- Cackling Goose (Branta hutchinsii). Though some sources had already treated this wide-ranging group of "small race" Canada Geese as a de facto species, the American Ornithological Union (AOU) continued to ascribe all white-cheeked geese to Canada Goose (Branta canadensis), with a varying number of  subspecies.

Currently, there are four recognized subspecies of Cackling Goose: Ridgway's (B. h. minima), Taverner's (B. h. taverneri), Aleutian (B. h. leucopareia) and Richardson's (B. h. hutchinsii). Ridgway's, Taverner's and Aleutian all breed in Alaska and for the most part their winter ranges are restricted to the Pacific Flyway, while the nominate Richardson's nest farther to the east and winter primarily east of the Rocky Mountains. (Mlodinow et. al 2006).

The Semidi Island birds are considered a sub-population of the now recovering, but once critically endangered, Aleutian Cackling Goose. In terms of appearance, the Semidi birds are, perhaps, more variable than other sub-populations of Aleutians. Based on personal observations, they seemed to consistently show more rounded heads and a flatter forehead profile, though posture and viewing angle can affect these aspects of an individual bird's structural appearance. Seemingly all of  of the banded Semidi Island birds we saw either lacked the conspicuous broad white ring or partial ring at the base of the foreneck (shown by most Aleutians) or the white was very restricted. However, according to U.S.F.W.S. Roy Lowe (pers. comm.), Semidis can show broad white neck rings. Finally, in side-by-side comparisons Semidis often seemed to be shorter-legged than presumed non-Semidi Aleutians.


The bird with the green neck collar is a known Semidi Island Aleutian Cackling Goose (banded on the nesting grounds). Although the other birds differ in head shape and overall pattern (particularly the darker right hand bird), they may also be Semidis according to U.S.F.W.S. biologist Roy Lowe. (Photo by Dave Irons)

Collectively, the Semidi Islands provide slightly less than 12 square miles of land mass and the geese are only nesting on two islands in the cluster. The entire population of Semidi Islands Cackling Goose numbers between 120 and 140 birds (Jarvis 2003, Lowe pers. comm). In the wake of massive recovery effort (mainly involving the eradication of introduced Arctic Foxes on the breeding grounds) Aleutian Cacklers, once feared at the brink of extinction, have seen dramatic population increases. However, the Semidi Islands population, which at the start of recovery efforts numbered about 70 birds,  quickly hit the current plateau (about 120 birds). Some have suggested that inbreeding may be a limiting factor when it comes to growing the population (U.S.F.W.S 2001). There is no recent evidence of interbreeding between Semidis and more widespread Aleutian populations. 


The Semidi Islands, located in the bottom left corner of the map, are off the southwest corner of Alaska just east of the Aleutian Island chain. (Map image sourced online at:

Each Fall, traveling en masse, this modest flock of Cackling Geese makes the 1400-mile journey south from the Semidi Islands to a single dairy pasture along Oregon's northern coast. Once there, they will spend the next seven months grazing an area that is no more than one mile in diameter. Each evening the flock makes a short flight (perhaps two miles) to roost on the ocean or on Haystack Rock, which lies a few hundred yards off of Cape Kiwanda at the north end of Pacific City (Jarvis 2003). In 1979, when the Semidi Island breeding population was discovered (Mlodinow et al. 2006), virtually no white-cheeked goose could be found wintering along the Oregon Coast. However, with the establishment of the nearby Nestucca Bay National Wildlife Refuge in 1991 and the rebounding populations of several white-cheeked goose taxa, many hundreds and perhaps thousands of Canada and Cackling Geese now winter in the Nestucca River pasturelands. About 10% of the known population of Dusky Canada Goose (B. c. occidentalis), which numbers fewer than 10,000 birds, can be found in this area October-April (U.S.F.W.S/Nestucca Bay profile). 

I've known about the Semidi Island Cackling Geese for about 6 or 7 years after seeing a feature produced by Oregon Public Broadcasting, but only recently got to see this flock for the first time. Living in western Oregon, I see Cackling Goose flocks on a daily basis from late October through April. It is not unusual to see a field with several thousand birds feeding shoulder to shoulder and at certain locales daily counts can number into five digits. In this context, it's hard to fathom that a nesting population of fewer than 150 birds can persist at such a fragile level with no apparent recruitment from other populations. A single environmental disaster or an exceptional storm during their migratory flight or on the wintering grounds could conceivably decimate the entire flock in a single event. As I watched and photographed and pondered such possibilities, I could only marvel at the resiliency of  these birds.

Sources cited

Jarvis, Robert L. Canada Goose. Pp. 82-86 in Birds of Oregon: A General Reference. D.B. Marshall, M.G. Hunter, and A.L. Contreras Eds. 2003. Oregon State University Press, Corvallis, OR.

Mlodinow, S.G., P.F. Springer, B. Deuel, L.S. Semo, T. Leukering, T. Doug Schonewald, W. Tweit, and J.H. Barry. 2008. Distribution and identification of Cackling Goose (Branta hutchinsii) subspecies. North Amer. Birds 62: 344–360.

Editor's Note: We are introducing a new feature to the BirdFellow online journal. Each week we will do a short feature on a species or subspecies of interest. We will endeavor to share stories about unique populations, subspecies, or an interesting behavior that one might see in a common bird. If you have a story you want to tell, this venue is not limited to a select few. We want our online journal to be a place where community members can publish as well. We will be happy to work with you to find and edit photos and edit your writing if needed.