Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Down By the Riverside

.As I’ve written here before, and as every birder knows, finding good birds has a lot to do with luck. Such was the case, again, this morning.

On the first leg of my morning drive, I noticed a very large raptor perched over the river at the rear of the town cemetery. Big one, I thought. Probably the big female red-tailed hawk that lives in there. But hmmm, she’s really big. Distance, lighting, and the need to get where I was going prevented a closer look.

On my way back through that part of town a half hour later, I decided to pull through the cemetery to see if the raptor was still there. Yes, there it was, in a tree overhanging the river. Closer, drive as silently as possible. Lower the window before you get there so the sound and motion doesn’t attract the bird’s attention. Creep forward. Be invisible. (A car makes a great blind.) Oh nice…a Bald Eagle. A first- or second-year juvenile, dark brown mottled with white, but with the unmistakably massive bill of an eagle. I was able to get very close and had a chance to really study the plumage and contours of this wonderful bird. Though eagles have made a comeback and are no longer really rare, still it’s a treat to see one, especially up close like that.

As I watched the eagle, I noticed that the ducks and geese gathered below on the water and icy edges were silent and still. Eagles will take ducks and even geese if they can, though they probably prefer fish and even carrion. After a few minutes, the eagle flew down river, and the geese resumed their conversation. I scanned the flock, knowing that interesting ducks and rarer geese will often associate with the large flocks of Canada Geese. Safety in numbers, and all that. It's always worth looking closely at every bird in a large flock. On this day, in addition to the expected Mallards and Black Ducks, I spotted some spiffy Common Mergansers, three Ring-Necked Ducks, and a pair of Wood Ducks. Bonus on the day.

Scan, scan, scan….it’s worth scanning the flock closely several times, in case you missed anything on the first or second passes….It's like playing Duck, Duck, Goose. Scan, scan, scan, duck duck, goose. Ring-Neck, Mallard, Merganser, Harlequin Duck, Merganser…. wait, what? Harlequin Duck?! HARLEQUIN DUCK!

I’ve seen a Harlequin Duck only once before, and that was a single drake off the rocky Maine coast last May. The Harlequin Duck, endangered in our part of the world, breeds on turbulent mountain streams and winters in coastal waters. Seeing one in May on the Maine coast was rare; in fact, my sighting was included in Maine’s Rare Bird Alert that week. The Harlequin Duck is a very rare winter visitor to Connecticut, and even then it is seen only on the coast. So finding this bird at all in Connecticut, and finding one so many miles inland at that, is a rare treasure. So rare, in fact, that from my car I called D at his office so he could contact the CT birding community to report the find. Here are excerpts from the report I later sent in:

I observed the bird without interruption from about 8am until 930am. It seemed quite settled in the area. It is a bright male bird, very beautiful.The Riverside Cemetery … is a good place to see waterfowl in the winter; there are always Canada Geese (coming and going), Common and Hooded Mergansers, Mallards, Black Ducks, etc. This morning there was also a 1st-year Bald Eagle, 3 Ring-Necked Ducks (2m, 1f) and a pair of Wood Ducks. I have also seen Red-Breasted Mergansers, Common Loons, Scaup, and a good variety of land birds as well. Good place for raptors and woodpeckers year round. The Farmington River curves around agricultural fields here (Tunxis Meadows), narrowing and providing the swift, turbulent areas favored by the Harlequin Duck. The bird was spending nearly all its time around or behind an old, large fallen tree trunk on the west bank, where the water was most turbulent. ... The duck fed in the swift water, diving under and usually coming up pretty close to where it had submerged. It also spent long periods resting and preening, often perching near some Common Mergansers nearby. It has a mottled grey belly and grey legs and feet, not shown in my field guides. The slate-blue-grey-black color is quite beautiful, set off by the white markings and chestnut sides. At one point I think I heard its whistling call.

The Harlequin Duck sports incredible plumage:

This colorful little duck is named for Arlecchino (in French, Harlequin), one of the colorful characters in the Italian Commedia dell’arte tradition. Its species name, Histrionicus histrionicus, is from the Latin histrio, meaning actor. Arlecchino typically dresses in a bicolor costume, which the duck’s slaty-blue-with-white spots recalls. But the character of Arlecchino was also noted for his physical agility and nimbleness, just like the little Harlequin Duck that dives in and out of the rapids so easily and nimbly.

It was a good morning down at the riverside.

Post Scriptum. This afternoon, I dropped by the cemetery to see if the duck were still there, and to see if any birders might be there. I was very sorry to see that four people with scopes, cameras, binoculars etc. (birders?) had climbed down the river bank right into the middle of the area where the geese and ducks sleep and rest (the gravel bank). The duck was easily seen and photographed from the road, making it unnecessary to approach so closely or to make the geese and other ducks leave their usual resting area. There are no leaves on the trees, and there are plenty of open areas where the bird can be seen clearly. Why stress the birds, and perhaps scare off the rare one, just to get 50 feet closer? The circumstances of this sighting – the unusual inland location, the late migration date, the fact that the bird was resting and feeding in one place all day long despite the very close approach of four people – indicate that the bird may already be a bit stressed and in need of rest. I wish people would just watch from a distance and be glad that this wonderful bird is there for us to see at all.

Post Post Scriptum. Here's a link to a very short video of "my" Harlequin Duck, taken by a Connecticut birder. Copyright is his.



  1. Hi Sarah,

    Congrats on the great sighting! Paul Cianfaglione and I saw the bird this evening (maybe 4-415 or so?) not long before sunset. No other birders were there...it took us ~30 mins to find the bird as it swam up from well downstream of where you first reported it. Great looks!

    To be fair to the 4 birders you saw earlier in the day, it may be possible that there were no/few ducks to scare away at that spot. When I arrived there was nothing more than 4 Ring-necked Ducks in that general area. All the birds were upstream, about where the river bends to the west (this included several hundred Canada Geese). In fact, after nearly 30 mins of looking I nearly walked down to the riverbank myself to look up and down the river, and wouldn't have flushed anything. Luckily the bird swam into the area before we had to look elsewhere. Just something to keep in mind (unless you were there and saw the 4 birders scare away the waterfowl...in which case that would explain why that torrent area was fairly empty when I arrived!).

    Thanks again for a great bird!

  2. Hi Nick,

    I'm honored that you've stopped by at Quodlibet; I read Shorebirder regularly.

    I should have been clearer in my postscript above. I actually stopped by twice this afternoon; the first time, there was a single person on the road, and I watched him climb down the bank toward where the geese and ducks were resting. I left and came back 30 minutes later, and four people were out on the bank, and the geese and ducks had moved away and were treading water in mid-stream, seeming to be waiting to return to their spot. I bird this patch 3-4 times each week and am fairly familiar with this flock's behavior. I'm thrilled that I happened to find a great bird and that other people came to see it. But as you know, the view from the road was entirely sufficient. I watched from the road for 90 minutes this morning and was delighted with the clear unobstructed view and cognizant of the privilege of seeing this rare and lovely bird so easily from that point. Thanks for stoping by; I have learned a lot from your writings.

  3. You're right, the view from the road is just fine.

    I read Don Morgan's account of an eagle taking a swipe at the Harlequin and other ducks...sounds like he dodged a bullet there!

  4. I saw the young eagle there early yesterday morning. They are regulars around Farmington, but always a welcome sight!

  5. I've always enjoyed your posts to CTBIRD. I like your philosophy, and you express yourself so nicely. Do you know Hill-Stead Museum? Ever bird there? I am the Estate Naturalist, and I write a blog about the natural world there and close by. I am sure I will include the story of our Harlequin friend there. If you ever want to have a look, it's The Hill-Stead Nature Blog www.hillsteadblog.wordpress.com

  6. Hi Diane,

    Yes, I know the Hill-Stead and enjoy birding there, as described here:


    And yes, I read your blog! It's wonderful!

    Thanks for stopping by!


  7. I saw the harlequin duck this afternoon about 3pm. Took a few photos as well.

    Hadn't seen your blog post until now; I stumbled upon it after identifying the bird in a birding book and then googling 'harlequin duck farmington'.

    My girlfriend and I just moved here a couple of weeks ago and am thrilled we've landed in an area with interesting varied sightings!


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