As early as mid-April, I was checking the Montana Birding Facebook page twice daily for reports of Harlequin Ducks arriving at Glacier National Park (GNP). These small, striking sea ducks migrate inland from the Pacific Coast to breed in the pristine, turbulent waters of Upper McDonald Creek on the park’s western slope. I’d wanted to see this population since moving to western Montana in late 2019, but the window for good viewing is narrow – May and June. So when the first report of Harlequins was posted on April 29, the quest was ON!

I’ve been fixated on Harlequin Ducks for a couple decades. I first admired them in the rough-and-tumble coastal waters of Oregon and Washington in winter. When I moved to the mountains of east-central Idaho, I spent three consecutive springs looking for breeding Harlequins in streams with historical records, but didn’t find any. Years later, I did find a pair in a different drainage, and observed a few hens with broods on the Salmon River during their late summer outmigration.  

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A breeding pair of Harlequin Ducks on Panther Creek, a tributary of the Salmon River, Lemhi Co, Idaho.

Time has passed but I remain in awe of this plucky little duck and its amazing life history. I think of Harlequins as “feathered salmon” — making these epic lateral migrations from the ocean to inland freshwater streams to breed, similar to the upstream migration of salmon to freshwater spawning habitats. After pair-bonding at the coast, the male Harlequin follows the female inland to her natal stream, just as adult salmon home to the stream of their birth. Along whitewater streams within old-growth forests, the female selects a well-concealed nest site in a tree cavity, on a stump, or on a small cliff. Once she lays her clutch of 5-6 eggs, the male departs for molting grounds on the coast, leaving the female to incubate and raise the brood alone. In late summer, the female and her brood migrate together to the coast to ride out the storms of winter. What a life!

Back to the quest…..

Between appointments, a construction project, and poor weather, mr. giddy and I were already halfway through May. We checked GNP’s website for current conditions and were alarmed to see that entry ticket reservations were required starting May 23 (and tickets were sold out into May-June). We had one decent-ish weather day forecast for the week; it was May 22 or bust.

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Glacier National Park and Waterton Lakes National Park over the border in Canada are International Biosphere Reserves, and together are designated a World Heritage Site

We got up at 4:30 am and drove straight to GNP, arriving at the West Entrance at 8:00 am. It was cool, cloudy, and breezy, but decent for birding. We drove north on Going-to-the-Sun Road to the Upper McDonald Creek trailhead, grabbed our bear spray, and started hiking. All recent sightings of Harlequins on eBird and Montana Birding were along Upper McDonald Creek. The trail followed the north side of the creek, providing great views of the stream. We stopped often to glass the roiling, boulder-strewn channel for Harlequins but didn’t see any in the 1.5 mile stretch to the McDonald Creek cut-off. We held out hope we’d see them further upstream.    

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The Lake McDonald Valley represents the eastern-most extension of the Pacific Northwest’s maritime climate in the U.S. The valley supports a lush Western Hemlock-Western Red Cedar forest type.

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Upper McDonald Creek has all the bells & whistles for ideal Harlequin nesting habitat: clear, cold, fast-flowing water; in-channel rocks for resting; mature forest to conceal nests; and low human disturbance. 

We returned to the trailhead and motored N-NE on Going-to-the-Sun Rd. for ~1 mile to the next turnout, which was next to McDonald Creek. By this time, the sun came out and the wind died down, making for a glorious day. Upstream about 300 yards, we saw a couple of birds floating mid-channel in calmer water. No mistaking that bold pattern on the face and head:  Harlequins ahoy! 

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Our first glimpse of two drake Harlequin Ducks, floating and feeding in a calmer section of the creek.

The pair kept feeding upstream, so we decided to drive north to the next parking area to get a closer look. By the time we parked and walked to a vantage point, we lost the ducks. We watched patiently for several minutes, when I caught some movement below the bank I was standing on.

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A drake Harlequin keeps a watchful eye on me as it swims upstream.

 

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I thought this view of the drake’s head markings was particularly striking.

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Harlequins have densely-packed feathers that provide insulation from cold and make them very buoyant in rough water.

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Harlequins’ diet on breeding range consists of aquatic insects, small fish & roe. The diet on winter range, includes crustaceans & mollusks (crabs, amphipods, barnacles, mussels, limpets, periwinkles & snails). 

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Could these drakes be paired with hens that are laying or incubating eggs nearby?

The drakes were so close they startled me! They swam upstream another 50 yards, then drifted downstream and to the opposite bank to feed in some shallow cobble while we observed and photographed from a distance. 

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This photo shows the purple speculum of Harlequin Duck drakes in breeding plumage. The ‘speculum’ is the patch of often iridescent color on secondary wing feathers of most duck species. Zoom

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Harlequins Ducks are classified as a “diving duck.” They can dive as deep as 70 feet for up to 45 seconds. But most feeding activity we observed was in the shallows of the stream channel.

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Fed by alpine glaciers and snowpack, McDonald Creek waters are pristine and clear. The channel is lined with smooth cobbles in all shades from pink to maroon, and from green to blue. In the bright sunshine, the overall effect was like looking at a luminous opal.

We were thrilled to get such good looks at the drakes, so called it a day for the Harlequin quest and continued north towards Avalanche Campground. This was as far as Going-to-the-Sun Rd. was open due to snow. We planned to hike up the road to find Boreal Chickadees, Canada Jays, and Varied Thrush. A short half-mile up the road, we spotted some Harlequin Ducks resting on a huge rock in the middle of McDonald Creek. 

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Rock circled in red is where we spotted the Harlequins. IMHO, McDonald ‘Creek’ is too humble a name for this waterway; it is a rollicking-ass RIVER!

We stopped at the next parking area and hiked back along the road to a good viewing vantage. Two beautiful drakes and a single hen were resting in the warm sun while water rushed by.

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The Harlequin’s common and scientific names (Histrionicus histrionicus) refer to the theatrical, court jester-like colors of the drake’s plumage, including a deep slate-blue body, chestnut flanks and crown patch, white facial crescent and spot, and bold white body stripes edged in black.

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Hens are overall dusky-brown with white around the bill and eye and a conspicuous, oblong white spot behind the eye. Her drab, cryptic coloring helps to evade predators while incubating and brood-rearing.

A 10-mile stretch of Upper McDonald Creek has the highest density of breeding Harlequin Ducks in the lower 48 states, with more than 25% of all Harlequin chicks born in Montana being raised in this drainage. Based on 3 decades of surveys, an average of 9 pairs and 10 chicks have been observed in this drainage each year. 

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The Harlequin Duck is a Species of Concern in Montana.

GNP biologists conducted a study in 2011-2014 looking at 2 main threats to Harlequins in the park:  1) climate warming, and 2) increasing human disturbance (GNP hosts 2 million visitors per year!). Master’s student Warren Hansen found that increased springtime stream volatility due to climate change will lead to more frequent flooding of Harlequin Duck nests near riverbanks. If a nest is lost due to flooding, Harlequins don’t get a chance to renest because males have already departed for the coast. But interestingly — in recent years — GNP biologists have observed some hens selecting nest sites in higher locations above McDonald Creek, away from flooding hazards.

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One of the Harlequin Duck’s colloquial names is “sea mouse” — referring to its peculiar squeaking call heard above the din of roaring rapids while feeding or during courtship rituals.

Hansen’s study also assessed how ever-increasing human visitation might be impacting Harlequin behavior and nest success. His work led to the development of strategies to minimize human disturbance, including public education, increased monitoring of traffic and roadwork, and establishing/enforcing seasonal closures and restricted access to nesting and brood-rearing areas.  

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Our Harlequin Duck quest fulfilled, we headed to Avalanche Campground to continue birding, but by then it was mid-afternoon and crowded with visitors. We retreated to a few less-peopled spots and rounded out the day with Eared Grebes, Townsend’s Warblers, American Dipper, Swainson’s Thrush, Violet-green Swallows, Golden-crowned Kinglets, and Canada Jays. All in all, a truly magical day.

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More of a scenery shot of Lake McDonald, but there are 4 Eared Grebes in the foreground. Zoom

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Townsend’s Warbler. At first we thought we were hearing Black-throated Green Warblers, but they’re out of range and there were too many! Finally got a glimpse of this high-canopy songster. Zoom

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American Dipper — singing loud above the gurgling noise of the creek. Zoom

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Canada Jay came out to play. Zoom

Okay, Chorusers, time to cool off and grab a snack. Your turn…..

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