A few years ago I visited Kamchatka, a peninsula in far eastern Russia, 2000 miles across the Bering Strait from Anchorage, Alaska. In recent years this area has become a destination for fishermen from around the world because of the number of rivers and the abundance of fish, mostly trout and salmon. And that’s why I went. Kamchatka is a relatively unpopulated and unpolluted part of the world and it was a real pleasure to see virgin, unspoiled habitat as we floated down the river and watched thousands of fish pass under our raft. But of course I did a bit of birdwatching.
Probably the most common bird we saw was the Harlequin Duck, a beautiful bird with spectacular coloring which gives it its name. A “Harlequin” is a comedic character of Italian operas and plays and also refers to a clown. This character is often pictured with a mask and multicolored tights, often with a diamond design. The duck, with a little imagination, does bring up that image.
According to BirdLife International, “The Harlequin Duck is found in north-western and north-eastern North America, eastern Russia, the Aleutian Islands, southern Greenland and Iceland. It can winter further south to Korea, northern California and North Carolina.”
Harlequin ducks are one of only four species of ducks in the world that breed in fast-moving mountain streams; others are New Zealand’s Mountain (or Blue) Duck , the Torrent Duck of South America, and the Black Duck of Africa. Because of the physical demands of foraging in order to feed on aquatic invertebrates such as crustaceans, mollusks, and insects as well as small fish and roe, in water moving up to 15 kilometers an hour (just over nine miles an hour), these ducks have powerful legs placed far back along their narrow bodies, and long tails to guide the current down their backs. They forage underwater, allowing the current to push them down and forward along the length of their body.
During most of the year Harlequin Ducks are found in coastal marine environments and in the spring leave the saltwater to ascend fast-flowing rivers and streams to breed. During winter, Harlequin Ducks congregate at traditional sites to feed in the swirling waters of shallow and rocky coastal areas. In northern wintering areas, they seek rocky shores and ledges near turbulent water where ice buildup is minimal. Like many other waterfowl, male Harlequin Ducks leave the breeding areas once the female begins to incubate the eggs usually by mid-June to early July. After leaving their mates, males migrate to specific sites to undergo their annual molt, called an eclipse plumage and are flightless for a few weeks. Females normally join males at these sites later and molt one to two months later.
Harlequin Ducks are also called “rock ducks” due to their habit of hauling out and sitting on rocks. Other local names include “lords and ladies,” “ladybirds,” “white-eyed divers,” “painted ducks,” and “totem-pole ducks.”
By the way, “bird” in Russian is “Птица”, pronounced “ptee-tsa”, like “pizza.”