GOOD BIRDING

Harlequin ducks are whitewater specialists

Posted March 29, 2013, at 11:51 a.m.
Harlequin ducks are striking birds who get their names from the colorful costumes worn by European actors hundreds of years ago.
Courtesy of Doug Hitchcox
Harlequin ducks are striking birds who get their names from the colorful costumes worn by European actors hundreds of years ago.

I don’t know the proper etiquette when I encounter two animals copulating in front of me. Do I avert my eyes and pretend not to notice? Surely this pair had no expectation of privacy. I am referring to two harlequin ducks whose courtship behavior went to extremes in the waters of Perkins Cove in Ogunquit last Sunday.

Harlequin ducks were a primary reason that a vanload of birders happened to be in that particular cove at that particular moment. The Maine Audubon trip left Fields Pond at 7:30 a.m. and arrived just in time to witness the display of overactive libido. The truth is this amorous coupling was probably just foreplay. Harlequin ducks nest in fast-rushing rivers and streams far to the north, and this pair will probably not leave Maine for another month. It is much too soon for egg laying.

The male harlequin is an exceptionally pretty duck. It gets its name from the colorful costume worn by European actors several hundred years ago. They’ve been dubbed the lords and ladies of the surf, not only because of their regal coloration, but also their habit of feeding in the pounding waves along the ocean’s edge. This is their ecological niche. On their breeding grounds, they dive in tumultuous whitewater where no sane duck would go. In both seasons, they risk their lives to chase food where they have no competitors. Mistakes happen and they do bash into rocks occasionally. X-rays of found birds reveal mended bones and other injuries consistent with getting thumped hard.

There used to be many more harlequins. It was a plentiful bird along the Maine coast in the late 1800s. Numbers crashed throughout the 20th century, possibly due to the massive flooding of Quebec hydropower and other habitat losses. In the last two decades, numbers have begun to rise again. The bird is still considered endangered in Canada and threatened in Maine. Since the rock-bound coast of Maine has a lot of pounding surf, we are starting to see a lot more harlequins. In fact, some scientists believe that that half of all the eastern harlequins in the world winter along our shore.

I was happy to see so many harlequin ducks last weekend. They were next to Nubble Light in York, the Cliff House in York, and strung out all along Marginal Way in Ogunquit. There was even a tidy flock at Dyer Point near Two Lights in Cape Elizabeth. That should be cause for celebration. But even if you added the big flock that is usually near Isle au Haut and the smaller flocks that collect offshore in Corea, the total number of harlequins along our coast is still pretty small — maybe a few hundred. If that is half the entire eastern population, you begin to understand how few there really are. We’re blessed to have them.

This column gives me the chance to pass myself off as an expert. You would have chuckled to see this expert struggle vainly over the identity of a distant loon in York. When I first spotted it, it was so far away that I couldn’t even be certain it was a loon. Over the course of several minutes, my explanation to the group was: “It’s a red-throated loon … no, no, wait … it’s a red-necked grebe … oh, whoops, it’s a skinny common loon.” As it slowly drifted closer, it became clearer that it was a loon, but which one? We have two along our coast: the common loon and the red-throated.

No, wait, make that three loons. The Pacific loon is a rare wanderer into Maine waters. The shape is more similar to a common loon, but the size and color resemble red-throated. This individual was making things tough on us by alternately preening and snoozing. For nearly half an hour, he refused to reveal clues. At last, he got hungry, flapped a little, dived a little, and finally acted like a real bird. The telltale field marks began to present themselves. Mystery solved. Ironically, this was exactly the same location where I had seen my first-ever Pacific loon about 15 years ago.

Overall, we did pretty well on the day, sighting almost all of the common ducks and a few less common species. However, we failed to find one coveted target: the king eider recently foraging near Scarborough. A few show up along the Maine coast each winter. King eiders are like a properly functioning Congress — rarely seen by anyone but hypothetically possible.

Bob Duchesne serves as a Maine Audubon trustee and vice president of its Penobscot Valley Chapter. Bob developed the Maine Birding Trail, with information at www.mainebirdingtrail.com. Bob can be reached at duchesne@midmaine.com.

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