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Harlequin Ducks

Harlequin Ducks are small, uncommon sea ducks. Although, on the south coast, there is a large population of them.

The male is one of the most attractive sea ducks you will see, the adult male is striking and brightly colored. It has a blue-gray plumage, with brown withers, and streaks of white on various parts of its body and head, a white eye patch at the base of the short bill, and a round white ear patch. The belly is gray.

Harlequin Ducks, Vancouver Island, BC
Harlequin Ducks, Vancouver Island, BC, photo by Bud Logan

Females and young birds do not have the coloring of the males. The female has a plain, brown color that is darkest on its head, a white patch extending below and in front of each eye, and a prominent white ear patch. The belly is white with brown speckles. Immature birds resemble adult females. They have a white spot between the bill and eyes, as well as the round ear patch, but the feathers on their upper body are darker than those of adult females. The immature birds slowly gain their adult plumage over their first 3 years.

Harlequins spent most of their life in coastal marine areas. During winter, these ducks gather at traditional sites along the coast to feed in the winter seas. We have many that winter here on Vancouver Island. But in the spring they leave the coast and head up rivers and streams to breed.

Harlequin Ducks, Vancouver Island, BC
Harlequin Ducks, Vancouver Island, BC, Photo By Robert Logan

After the nest is built, and the hen begins to lay her eggs, the male takes off. After leaving their mates, they migrate to specific sites to undergo their yearly molt. Females join males after their brood has left to go through her molt. They are back on the coast by November.

Harlequin ducks rely on a varied diet throughout the year.  During spring and summer, when Harlequins are on the nesting grounds, they feed mostly on insects and their larvae. The birds will dive to the bottom where they walk against the current, searching the stream bed for insect larvae.

During the winter months spent on the coast, they dive and feed in the wild waters of the winter storms. They search for small crabs, amphipods, gastropods, limpets, blue mussels, and fish eggs.

Harlequin ducks usually build their nests beside fast-flowing streams, they are one of the few types that do this.

Harlequin Ducks, Vancouver Island, BC
Harlequin Ducks, Vancouver Island, BC, Photo By Robert Logan

They will use the same nesting site for years. The nest could be built on the ground, in tree cavities, on rock ledges, or on the bank of the river.  The hen will lay 8 to 10 eggs, she will incubate the eggs for about 29 days until they hatch.

The female leads her ducklings to secluded streams within one day of hatching. Here they learn to find aquatic insects and larvae in the cool and clear waters. The young are able to fly when they are about 4 weeks old. At this point, they are on their own.

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