Nature challenges hardiest birds

As winter pounds our shores, even the hardiest of shorebirds are having a tough time riding out nature’s wrath.

  • Dec. 1, 2011 1:00 p.m.
HARLEQUIN DUCKS are hardy enough to withstand surging ocean surf.

HARLEQUIN DUCKS are hardy enough to withstand surging ocean surf.

As winter storms continue to pound our shores with high winds and heavy rain, even the hardiest of shorebirds are having a tough time riding out nature’s wrath.

Known to be expert boatmen, harlequin ducks are able to negotiate their way up freshwater currents and can tackle surging ocean surf.

Their name, Histrionicus Histrionicus, translated from Latin means “stage player or actor.” The Italian translation describes gaily painted clowns, which harlequin ducks certainly portray with their brilliant plumage and comical characteristics.

There are two distinct populations in North America, the Pacific coast ducks winter from Alaska to southern Oregon; they migrate east of the coastal mountains to breed in the pristine fast-running streams and rivers.

The much-smaller Atlantic populations winter from Nova Scotia southwards along the coast to Maine and Virginia; in the spring they make the long trek to Newfoundland en route to Greenland and the Arctic.

Harlequins are small sea ducks about half the size of a common mallard; they have round heads, stubby bills and stocky bodies. These ducks prefer to stay close to shore and are one of the easiest ducks to spot.

In our local area, harlequins can be seen along the shorelines around Goose Spit; fArther south Qualicum Beach is a favourite haunt.

Rivalling the wood duck and the eider duck, the male harlequins are one of nature’s most exquisitely marked ducks. The belly and wings are slate blue with chestnut flanks outlined with very distinct white stripes; they also have a very noticeable crescent shaped white patch at the base of their bill and a white dot around the ear.

Like most bird species, the females are the “plain Janes.” Their overall appearance is a dull brownish grey and they can be identified by three white patches on either side of the head.

Sometimes called “rock ducks,” harlequins have a habit of swimming and feeding in shallow rocky water and like to haul themselves onto the rocks to rest or preen.

Preening is very important to these ducks as they have extremely dense layers of feathers that trap air providing the duck with great insulation it also makes the ducks very buoyant enabling them to bob like corks in the rough surf.

Winter food for the harlequins include small crabs, snails, limpets, mussels, fish eggs and particularly herring spawn. They either dive for their prey in shallow water or pry the prey from the rocks with their powerful bills.

Late April, the harlequins are on the move, heading east to Banff National Park, which provides the clear, unpolluted, fast-flowing water these ducks need to successfully breed. Often the route takes them up narrow, rushing streams, which they navigate with their large powerful feet swimming or walking upstream against the current. They even portage around rapids on land.

In these breeding grounds they take advantage of the abundance of emerging insects, especially the black, May and stoneflies supplemented with fish eggs. Harlequin ducks have very high food requirements as they expend a lot of energy.

They also have a very high metabolism that means they need to spend a great deal of time feeding. Unlike larger ducks and geese they lack the ability to store large fat supplies.

This reminds us yet again how important it is to stay away from areas where water birds are feeding; causing a disturbance whilst they feed can mean a death sentence to them as they run out of energy before making a successful migration.

Harlequin ducks are very secretive about their breeding habits and rituals, nests locations pose a challenge for the observer, they are often found beside fast-flowing water or hidden under logs or vegetation in the forest or even in tree cavities and rocky ledges. Once the female has produced her eggs, the male heads back to the coast, the ducklings are hatched with fluffy down and are able to swim within 24 hours, however they remain with the mother for 50 days learning their life skills.

MARS rarely admits harlequin ducks and usually the prognosis for any sea duck species is poor due to their unique dietary needs and our ability to provide them with an acceptable habitat for their stay. Local populations of harlequin ducks are stable but the eastern populations are listed as endangered mainly due to habitat loss.

• • •

MARS will be at the Black Creek Hall Christmas Fair this Saturday. Please come and support us.

We have a variety of bird-related gifts, plus specially made Hot Chocolate eagles, and for a rewarding, unusual gift, sponsorships are available for the care of any patient or sponsoring an eagle or owl release.

For more information, please check our website and Facebook.

To report injured wildlife, please call 1-800-304-9968. For other information, phone 250-337-2021 or visit www.wingtips.org.

Sandy Fairfield is the educational co-ordinator for the Mountainaire Avian Rescue Society (MARS). The MARS column appears every second Friday.

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

The suspect in a Nov. 22 attempted robbery at the Ryan Road 7-Eleven has been arrested. Photo supplied
Courtenay man arrested in connection with attempted robbery at 7-Eleven

A 19-year old Courtenay man has been arrested following an attempted robbery… Continue reading

The Nov. 20 WestJet flight 3171 has been identified by the BC Centre for Disease Control with a COVID case aboard. (Black Press file photo)
COVID-19 exposure reported on a fifth flight at Comox airport

Another exposure risk from flight originating in Calgary

The School District 70 administration office in Port Alberni. AV NEWS FILE PHOTO
Four Alberni schools reporting COVID-19 exposures

Exposures occurred between Nov. 19 and Nov. 25 depending on the school

The Royal Canadian Legion Branch 160 Comox, B.C. Poppy Chairman, Kent Guilford presenting cheques to the following organizations in support of their venues: (top left) The Sea Cadet Corps who assisted in last year’s Poppy campaign. (Top right) CFB Comox, Military Family Resource Center, Kim Hetherington, executive director MFRC. Bottom, The Views at St Joseph’s, Jessica Aldred, Health Care Foundation, Michael Aikins, senior operations leader. We wish to Thank All those who supported last year’s Poppy Campaign and we hope we will have your continued support this year. Thank you all.
Comox Valley gives back

Spotlight on some of the groups, businesses and individuals who make the Comox Valley great

A B.C. Ambulance Service paramedic wearing a face mask to curb the spread of COVID-19 moves a stretcher outside an ambulance at Royal Columbia Hospital, in New Westminster, B.C., on Sunday, November 29, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
B.C. records deadliest weekend of COVID-19 pandemic with 46 deaths; more than 2,300 cases

Provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry provides COVID-19 update

Cannabis bought in British Columbia (Ashley Wadhwani/Black Press Media)
Is it time to start thinking about greener ways to package cannabis?

Packaging suppliers are still figuring eco-friendly and affordable packaging options that fit the mandates of Cannabis Regulations

Kettle bells sit aligned in an indoor fitness studio. (PIxabay.com)
1 COVID-19 case at a B.C. fitness studio leads to 104 more infections, 6 school exposures

According to case data released by Fraser Health, one case of the novel coronavirus carries a big impact

Vehicles drive past a display thanking essential workers in Burnaby, B.C. on Sunday, Nov. 29, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Marissa Tiel
B.C. changing COVID-19 case reporting as virus spread continues

Manual counting takes more time, leads to errors

Black Press Media and BraveFace have come together to support children facing life-threatening conditions. Net proceeds from these washable, reusable, three-layer masks go to Make-A-Wish Foundation BC & Yukon.
Put on a BraveFace: Mask fundraiser helps make children’s wishes come true

From Black Press Media + BraveFace – adult, youth and kid masks support Make-A-Wish Foundation

Christy Jordan-Fenton is the co-author of the book Fatty Legs, which has been mentioned amid the controversy of an Abbotsford school assignment on residential schools.
Co-author of residential schools book condemns controversial Abbotsford class assignment

Children’s book mentioned amid controversy at W. A. Fraser Middle School

Kootenay East MLA Tom Shypitka takes over as energy and mines critic for the B.C. Liberal opposition. Kelowna-Lake Country MLA Norm Letnick (right) moves from health critic to assistant deputy speaker. (Hansard TV)
B.C. Liberals pick critics to take on Horgan’s NDP majority

Interim leader Shirley Bond takes seniors, long-term care

Left to right: A screenshot of NTC nurse navigator Lesley Cerney, FNHA regional mental health manager Georjeana Paterson and Island Health’s medical health officer Dr. Charmaine Enns addressing Ehattesaht community members from Ehatis reserve in a Facebook live update. (Ehattesaht First Nation/Facebook)
Medical team sent to Ehatis reserve near Zeballos to guide community through COVID outbreak

17 cases, eight recoveries and no hospitalizations as Island Health praises First Nation’s response

Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Finance Chrystia Freeland listens to a question from a reporter on the phone during a news conference in Ottawa, Monday, Nov. 30, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld
Spending too little worse than spending too much, Freeland says as Canada’s deficit tops $381B

‘The risk of providing too little support now outweighs that of providing too much’

Most Read