Harlequin Romance on Hornby Island

I went to Hornby Island to see and photograph Harlequin ducks, and stayed with friends and researchers working for the Canadian Wildlife Service.  Other than admiring them from a distance, I had not had any direct experience with ‘Harlies’, as they are affectionately called by the people that study them.  They and many other shore birds congregate to feed on the herring spawn in late March.  So plentiful is the spawn that days following a walk along shore showed rows and rows and roes of wave washed seaweed with million of eggs stuck among it.

Days started at 5 am, a hearty breakfast had to fuel a morning of standing still in cloudy, rainy, damp to the bone weather.  The sun made only one guest appearance for the entire five days, but where the sun lacked the birds made a grand show.  There were so many birds!  Harlequins in the hundreds, mew gulls, that filled the sky, dunlin, magic birds that fly collectively and show there wings to the light all at the same time, mergansers, surf scoters, goldeneyes, and eagles.  I was lulled and entranced.  I recognized the early morning fanaticism shown by birders in myself – observing birds was a complete act.

The Magnificent Drake

Herring Roe Clings to Seaweed

The first two days were spent getting to know the birds, their habits, and where they liked to ‘haul out’, a term that simply means pulling their bodies onto the rocks at the shoreline.  I followed researchers toting powerful scopes that were reading and recording band numbers.  Harlequins fly in from a few miles off shore where they ‘sleep’, haul out on the rocks, peep, preen, chase, feed, and fly in a mad rush to the water when an eagle or other bird of prey soars above.  The birds are sensitive to humans also; great care and stealth must be engaged to get close enough for a photo.

Drakes & Hens

Hauled Out

Fly Away

My appreciation for the bejeweled drake and plainer hen grew as I learned.  Harlequins are migratory and the North American Pacific population winters along the coast from Alaska down to California.  Spring is breeding season, and birds head inland to nest along fast moving rivers and streams.  I saw birds on Hornby that had been banded in Montana, Jasper, and Idaho.  Worldwide, Harlequins are found along the coast of Russia down to Japan, and in dwindling numbers on the Northern East Coast, Iceland, Greenland, and Maritime provinces.

Because of their habitat choice they have been called the white water bird or surfer duck.  They congregate mostly where shores are violent and swift and the oxygen content and clean water support a large number of maritime invertebrates.  A 19th century taxidermist who specialized in Harlies noted that many had large numbers of broken bones due to their love of things rough!

Harlies feed on a wide variety of life in the intertidal zone along the seacoast, shore crabs, limpets, sea worms, and chitons.

I gained a respect for wildlife photographers and experienced how difficult it was to have the needed conditions present at the same time:  light, and birds.  It is a simple request, or so I thought.  The trick, which I soon discovered, is to position oneself in a protected area before the birds arrive.  One morning I was nestled in some thick salal at the shore, waiting, birds were few and I lay down, salal supporting a surprisingly comfortable nap. They soon showed in more impressive numbers.  I woke and started to shoot.  Focusing on what was to be my best shot yet, a culmination of days of work, the birds erupted in a flurry of wings.  A well-meaning band reader stood at the shore.  Tomorrow is another day.

Bird by Bird

Patience is a virtue I am learning, and the last day was by far my best.  I was screened behind a large piece of driftwood; the birds saw my approach and took refuge in the water.  I waited, and as if sensing my frustration and desire to get some food and sit by the fire, the birds began to return.  Bird by bird I became a part of their world.  The feeling I had sitting among them that last morning was a meditative bliss, an utter trust in the present and the climax of my time with them.  I sat, watched, they were themselves, unaware or unconcerned by my presence, they peeped and preened, dunlins feasted in a swarm and life was simple.


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