Harlequin Ducks

Walking on the Wild Side

Harlequin Ducks (Histrionicus histrionicus)

Well lets dive right in...the name, Harlequin duck, comes from the English name depicting characters in an Italian comedy that wear masks and have oddly painted costumes. The adult male's color pattern (as seen below) is why the name came about. One of their endearing nicknames, the sea mouse, comes from their unique vocalization that sounds very much like the squeak of a mouse.

Sea Mouse (Harlequin Duck)Sea Mouse (Harlequin Duck)The nickname "sea mouse" came about because when communicating with each other these birds produce distinctly unducklike squeaks. There are only four birds in the world that are able to feed in fast-moving streams and Harlequin ducks are one of them.   Pictured is one of my Limited Edition prints called "Sea Mouse" (click on the picture to see sizes & pricing)   


This species is actually a sea duck that spends most of its time along the northern portions of both the Atlantic and Pacific coasts. I don’t have pictures of these ducks amid their coastal habitat, but fortunately they come to Montana for the breeding season. This gives me a short window to locate and photograph these special birds not too far from where I live. The population that comes here is small, but given their love of clear, fast-flowing rivers and streams, it’s no wonder they find their way to Montana. Both males and females arrive between late April and early May.


Couples Retreat (Harlequin Ducks)Couples Retreat (Harlequin Ducks)Harlequin Ducks are most common in fast-flowing sections of rivers among the rapids while feeding or resting on flat rocks/surfaces when not. Pictured is a mated pair resting along a stream edge in Glacier National Park.

Pictured is another one of my Limited Edition prints called "Couple's Retreat" (click on the picture to see sizes & pricing)   

They feel right at home here in these turbulent streams just as if they were on the ocean where they are often knocked about by surf and fast moving water. They feed by swimming under water, diving down for small aquatic organisms and bouncing right back to the surface like a cork. This is due to their smooth, dense packed feathers that trap lots of air. This trapped air helps insulate their small bodies against the chilly waters and also makes them exceptionally buoyant.


Pictured below you can see how this male Harlequin is completely unfazed by the waves of the class I/II waters along this particular stream.  

Courtship begins soon after arrival with pairs performing for each other by nodding heads and shaking their bills from side to side. The paired couple apparently likes to keep some space for themselves, as you often see them scurry over the water surface to fend off intruders. I got to photograph a male chasing off another pair of ducks just this past month.

A male nodding his head for his girl (above). A series of a male chasing off another pair of  Harlequin's (below).


By June, the males will have started their journey back to the coastal lands, leaving the female alone to incubate the eggs and rear the young. Often the nests are located near the stream. Typically they are built on the ground under shrubs or logs, under bank overhangs, or even sometimes on rock ledges. Soon after hatching, the young will be ushered down the river by mom to some calmer water where they will have a chance to feed on aquatic bugs before learning how to navigate more turbulent waters. By September all of the Harlequins will be gone, having returned to the coast until next Spring.


Lea Frye - Wildlife photographer


www.leaf-images.com     |      Lea Frye, Wildlife Photographer        |    Helena, MT

                     Wild Animals / Wild Landscapes



No comments posted.