The male harlequin duck (Histrionicus histrionicus), when viewed from a distance, may not impress you at first with the hallmark coloring that has given him his name. He appears small and nondescript, a dark slate color overall. Seen up close, however, a unique pattern emerges that accounts for the term harlequin.
The dark body of this duck, when viewed close up, is actually marked by numerous white and black lines and spots. He is further set off by chestnut flanks. The face is marked by white patches and spots, along with a distinct crescent at the base of the bill. The tail is long, pointed, and black, while the bill is also bluish black.
The harlequin duck’s mate is dark, almost black, overall. However, for contrast she displays a white belly in flight, plus three round white spots on each side of her head.
The juvenile harlequin duck resembles the female in appearance.
Traits that harlequin ducks of all descriptions share include a stocky build and a small bill.
Best Field Marks
- Stubby shape overall.
- White face spots.
- Chestnut sides of male.
The harlequin duck has earned the nickname of “sea mouse” due to its squeaky call.
Distribution & Occurrence
The harlequin duck is a bird of the far northern reaches of North America. These ducks head for the northern breeding grounds starting in late March and spend the spring. When breeding season has ended, beginning in late June, the ducks separate. The males gather in small flocks and start slowly working their way to the wintering grounds along the coastlines of the North Atlantic and Pacific Northwest, pausing to molt in a safe location. The females, meanwhile, take their young back to the coast, where they spend the summer months. The ducks rejoin each other on the wintering grounds in late October.
There is only one recorded sighting of a harlequin duck in Kansas. This individual was seen in Wyandotte County in 2001.
This species rarely roams too far from the water, which it seems to prefer in a state of rapid motion. In flight, it travels fast and straight, but low. It can also dive underwater and swim using both its wings and its feet while searching for mollusks and crustaceans. The harlequin duck has also been known to take insect prey on a regular basis.
Neither birdwatchers nor hunters are likely to be able to attract the harlequin duck in Kansas.
While the female bufflehead and the female harlequin duck are both small, dusky ducks with white on their faces, they are nevertheless fairly easy to tell apart. The bufflehead has only one face spot compared to the three of the harlequin duck. She also displays a white wing patch, while the harlequin duck’s wing is completely dark.
Scoters can present a greater challenge due to their very dark appearance and face spots. However, familiarity with the size and shape of the larger scoter will help clear matters up. The harlequin duck is much stubbier by comparison, with a relatively small bill.
Photos, audio, and more information from Cornell’s All About Birds site.