The Not-So-Cliché Harlequin Romance

Harlequin ducks are a treat to see in Glacier National Park

Although grizzly bears earn a lot of the hype in Glacier National Park, it’s truly special to watch the few harlequin ducks that migrate to this area on the western edge of their territory. When you think about it, with roughly 1000 grizzlies in the ecosystem surrounding the park, versus the maybe 200 harlequins that visit for just a few months out of the year, finding harlequins is the greater challenge.

Learning from the best

My eldest son, Samuel, and I had the benefit of a veteran biologist’s experience when we took part in the Glacier Institute’s class on harlequin ducks taught by local wealth of wisdom and phenomenal photographer, John Ashley. (On a totally different subject, John authored the book, Glacier Park National After Dark, and is the founder of the International Dark Sky Association – Montana Chapter.) John’s worked with harlequins for over 30 years so he knows his stuff.

After a couple of hours of classroom work discussing their lifecycle and research on the birds, we piled into the Glacier Institute’s van, and headed to the Avalanche Campground to park. Even though this was the middle of May, it was Mother’s Day weekend, and the area was packed. Watching the evolution of visitation into the park for nearly 30 years, these early crowds always amaze me.

Searching for harlequins

From there we walked and talked looking for the smallish, sleek, gray, brown, and white male ducks, which are easier to spot than the drabber female counterparts. Walking along Going-to-the-Sun Road at this time of the year is a treat. It is typically gated at Avalanche allowing bicyclists and hikers, including a growing number of people keen on finding these colorful ducks. It’s quiet, everything is that beautiful spring green, and is truly one of the best times to enjoy the park.

After strolling a short ways up the road, we spotted several solo bachelor males. Harlequins are unique as the female pairs up with a male while they’re on the West Coast, which is where they spend the bulk of the year, and return to the area where she was born to nest and raise the brood. They are always side by side swimming together, feeding together, and flying back up stream together. Even though they don’t have a mate, the bachelor males typically arrive in the Glacier area in April and early May, and while they try to woo females, it never works.

With a little more walking, as luck and sharp-eyes would have it, we saw a couple of pairs. Some were traveling down McDonald Creek, while another pair was feeding in a pool. At one point a bachelor male put the moves on the female, but she was having nothing of it, nor did Mr. Harlequin tolerate the situation, continually shooing away the upstart. Eventually, the bachelor gave up, continuing on his lonely way up the stream leaving the pair to feed in the deep pool.

The importance of research

Harlequins are fascinating not only because they’re beautiful and relatively rare for this area, but because there is still so much to know. John’s research, as well as additional studies over the years, provide a better perspective into the life of a harlequin. After tagging birds with a locator, scientists finally found some of the exceptionally well-hidden nests, and have a fuller understanding of their migration patterns. This allows researchers to know what type of habitat and protection these birds need to continue to thrive in this region. John, and many other scientists, continue to work with these small duck to ultimately preserve it for future generations.