Monday, February 1, 2010

Lords and Ladies

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The Harlequin Duck that I discovered on the Farmington River on January 12 (read about it HERE) has continued to be seen almost daily, with the exception of a few days when warm temperatures and heavy rains raised the river and smoothed out the turbulent waters favored by this bird of the mountain streams. I’ve been busy with a large research project and haven’t had a chance to go to see it for three days, but I’ve been following the online reports and enjoying the photos and video that other birders have posted. (I’ll compile a list of those offerings soon and post it here.)

In the few minutes I’ve had for pleasure reading (as opposed to the technical reports that cover my desk this week), I’ve been indulging my “Harlequin Romance” by perusing some older books about birds that had been in my parents’ library. This description of the Harlequin Duck, by Edward Howe Forbush (Birds of America (ed. T. Gilbert Pearson, Garden City Books, 1917), is a good example of the more flowery, less scientific language that was typical of natural history books of a century ago. (Forbush was State Ornithologist of Massachusetts at the time the book was published.) The illustration, taken from the book, shows the accompanying painting by Louis Agassiz Fuertes (1874-1927), a leading American ornithologist and one of the foremost bird artists of the time. The pair of Harlequin Ducks is at the lower right of the illustration; King Eiders (top) and Common Eiders (lower left) complete this set of northern ducks.

Harlequin, well named! Fantastically decorated, but still a thing of beauty. Delightful in color, elegant in form, graceful in carriage, rightly are its little companies called the “Lords and Ladies” of the waters. This is the loveliest of the Sea Ducks, but its beauty is reserved mainly for the cold and inhospitable North, and the wave-lashed rocks of isolated ledges in the wintry sea. It breeds principally in the Far North along the coasts of the Arctic Ocean. Yet, strange as it may seem, some individuals prefer the glacial streams in the mountains, and follow the higher ranges as far south as California, where they rear their young amid snow-clad peaks and disport themselves in the foaming mountain torrents until the rigors of approaching winter drive them to the sea. [We now know that the Harlequin Duck breeds only on fast-flowing mountain streams and rivers and winters almost exclusively at rocky coastal areas.] … They are fond of swift waters, mad currents, tide rips and flowing seas; are tremendously tough and hardy, and feed largely on mussels, which they get by diving, often to considerable depths.