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Harlequin ducks get a close up at Yellowstone

Living the Wild Life

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Bill Schiess,

Four drakes and a single female Harlequin ducks were swimming/flying against the roaring, rough LeHardy Rapids while they were looking for breakfast last Monday in Yellowstone National Park. Another male was resting on a rock in the middle of the frothy chaos while the other five scurried toward the bank to find a resting spot.

The five quickly climbed on a sunken log, spacing themselves equally away from each other as if they were “social distancing.” I let them settle down giving them a wide berth as I circled around them to photograph and to observe their behavior from behind a tree.

Getting a picture of a male Harlequin was a fulfillment of one of my life-long bucket list and I was a happy, sleepy photographer. I had left home at 3:45 so I could be at the rapids before other park visitors showed up; giving me a chance to get some good pictures. I was richly rewarded.

Bill Schiess,

The sun was just peeking through the trees as I was finally able to get some good photos of them as I hid behind the pine tree. As I was watching them, the female in the group flew into the rapids to do some fishing and the four boys quickly followed returning to the same tree after 20 minutes of enjoying the rapids.

The sun was well up, shining on the water when the first person showed up to get pictures of the ducks. The woman was a regular visitor who lived just outside of West Yellowstone and was very happy to see the ducks resting on a log as she had only gotten pictures of them fighting the rapids this year. It was not too long before other visitors showed up.

Bill Schiess,

“They look like they are painted on that log,” said one man from Texas.

“I need to get a little closer,” said another man from California.

That was the end of the photo-shoot as the ducks flew off around the bend and across the raging river. But for over two hours the ducks and I had a lovely time taking turns napping, studying each other and enjoying the sounds of the river.

It was a gamble for me to make the trip so late in the spring as Harlequin ducks are very strange ducks indeed. The males’ yearly duties are usually over by the last week of May and by the first of June they are back on Vancouver Island on the Pacific Coast changing their beautiful coats for another one.

Bill Schiess,

“It is strange these males are still here in the park,” Christopher Balmer, owner of The Yellowstone Camera Store and a professional photographer, told me later. “We think it may be the high water that is keeping them here, but they could be gone tomorrow.”

Harlequins are sea ducks and studies show that the Yellowstone population winters on the western tip of Vancouver Island. During the winter a female will pick out her mate and he will follow her to the stream where she was hatched – she will not nest on any other stream.

After the hen has produced from five to six eggs in a well-hidden nest, the male migrates back to the Pacific Coast to bask on the beach and play in the rough seas while he molts. There he will wait to be chosen during the next winter for his yearly task.

Meanwhile the hen is setting on the nest for about a month waiting for her babes to hatch. If by chance the nest is destroyed by flooding or predation, there will be no second chance because the males have all flown the coop – they are long gone.

The females raise their broods and then in late September or early October with their little flock will migrate back to Vancouver Island to start looking for a mate.

Idaho has very few Harlequins with most known pairs breeding in northern Idaho. Occasionally they are found in Bonneville County on the rough headwaters of Big Elk Creek that runs into Palisades Reservoir. Over the past 30 years the birds found on Big Elk Creek appear to be migrants; mostly males migrating back to the west coast in early June. The last sighting of them in Eastern Idaho was in 2019 on Big Elk.

I have no idea what the hen was doing with the four drakes she was with, but I am going back this week to see if they are still there. The lone drake was not with the bunch of five as he never left the rock as he was there for the two hours. I wished that I lived closer to them so I could visit them regularly during their spring activities.

Hopefully conditions and circumstances will allow me to visit earlier next May to get to know them better – but what a blast it was to spend a few hours with these odd ducks.

Bill Schiess,