Physical Characteristics: A medium-sized duck, about 12 inches long with a 26-inch wingspan, a small gray bill, short neck, and long tail. Adult males are slate blue with chestnut sides and white markings bordered by black including a white crescent at the base of the bill. Both male and female adults have a white ear patch, though the females are less colorful with brownish-gray plumage and a white patch on the head around the eye.
Diet: Harlequins are excellent diving ducks, and can also walk under water or dabble. Aquatic insects and larvae attached to rocks on the river bottom provide the bulk of their diet. In the spring they often feed at creek mouths where they find salmon eggs.
Habitat: These birds prefer turbulent, highly oxygenated water, for which they are evolutionary suited with smooth, densely packed feathers that make them incredibly buoyant and insulated against the chilly waters in which they inhabit. They breed in fast-moving mountain streams at low-to subalpine elevations with a closed forest canopy and midstream gravel bars or rocks for roosting. Wintering is spent along rocky coastlines.
Range: In northwestern North America, Harlequins can be found along the west coast, from the Aleutian Islands in Alaska to northern California, and inland to the wild mountains of north-central Idaho. The high, wet elevation of the North Fork Spruce Roadless Area in the Clearwater Basin provides a safe haven for the colorful ducks. North Fork Spruce is a major tributary to the Lochsa River, and is the most studied area in Idaho for the ducks. Numbers range from the single-digits to two or three dozen. Populations are routinely monitored on the Lochsa and St. Joe Rivers, and they are known to nest on tributaries of the North Fork Clearwater and Selway Rivers. They are believed to nest on the South Fork Clearwater and certain tributaries of the Salmon River in the Nez Perce portion of the Nez Perce-Clearwater Nationbal Forests.
Reproduction: Paired ducks usually depart their winter local for breeding streams in late April or May. Prior to nesting they will make flights up and down streams for prospective nesting sites. Nests are built close to water, carefully concealed in dense vegetation, among tree roots, or in rock crevices. Nesting females take advantage of their unobtrusive coloring to avoid detection from mink, bears, eagles, otters, and other potential predators, while still staying above the flood level. Eggs are laid every 1-3 days; after a clutch of 5-7 eggs is laid, incubation begins and the male returns to the coast and molts his feathers. Incubation lasts roughly a month, and chicks are lead to the water within 24 hours of hatching. While the chicks can feed themselves by skimming the surface and diving, another 40-60 days will pass before the young can fly.
Threats: Habitat loss is the greatest threat to Harlequins across their range. In breeding areas, logging removes suitable forest along streams and adds silt and sediment to the waterways, reducing the availability of food. Shoreline development, fishing nets, and hunting puts populations at risk, and as late as 1998 research showed that the ducks were still experiencing reduced survival rates as a result of the Exxon Valdez oil spill a decade earlier. Harlequins take a number of years to reach maturity and as such are slower to rebound from threats. Hunting along the coasts may be responsible for reducing populations that nest in the Clearwater. They are currently listed as a species of “special concern.”
Miscellaneous: During breeding times it is not unusual for females to combine their broods and watch over them communally. Because of their distinctive, bright plumage, these birds are sometimes called “Lords and ladies,” painted duck, totem pole duck, rock duck, glacier duck, white-eyed diver, squeaker, and blue streak.