Classy harlequins embody finesse, vulnerability

A handsome group of drakes of the harlequin duck family floats on the ocean.

A handsome group of drakes of the harlequin duck family floats on the ocean.

I love harlequin ducks. The drakes are possibly the most handsome birds on our oceanfront. The females, well, are largely brown and “soberly-clad” as the late Fenwick Lansdowne, the famous local wildlife artist once wrote.

Like many other bird species, they are essentially coloured for camouflage. The classy, unmistakable and “bravely-marked” drake, however, is all showcase, featuring subtle and refined colours and sex appeal. Definitely designed for seduction and possibly to attract predators away from females and their young.

He is genetically perfect, I would add. Particularly when seen in full breeding plumage, full-frame through excellent binoculars and in low winter or sunset light. Only then can its black, blue and cinnamon feathers, with bright and precise white bars, dots and patches be fully appreciated.

Rare and at risk in Eastern Canada, where only a few thousand birds live, harlequin ducks number in the hundreds of thousands in British Columbia and Alaska. A few thousand reside in Greater Victoria, the San Juans and Gulf Islands alone – mainly in winter – including 200 to 300 around Oak Bay and nearby islands.

In spring and summer, breeding adults return to nest along mountain rivers and creeks, as far east as the Rockies in Alberta. But many non-breeders reside here year-round.

In fact, Oak Bay provides some of the best and easiest viewing for this species in urban Canada. Our rocky shores and kelp forests are a perfect sanctuary for them: they dive and feed on molluscs and crustaceans. I still remember seeing my first harlequins near Oak Bay Marina 40 years ago, while visiting from Quebec City as a lad. I was so taken that I vowed that I would live here one day.

Curiously, despite the super-attractive nature of this duck and its habitats, heart-stopping photos or paintings of this feathered jewel in its watery surroundings are rare.

Lansdowne (Birds of the West Coast, Volume 1, 1976) painted “this elegant duck with rather bizarre colour patterns” with restraint. He did not incorporate sensational natural elements such as massive, sunlit, translucent and amber-coloured kelp floating atop or sticking out of the sea. I herewith challenge our numerous local artists to come up with the ultimate image of this underappreciated, cold-water duck.

My last frisson-inducing sights of these drop-dead gorgeous birds took place on a recent calm day below the (unmanned) lighthouse at Seabird Point, at the east end of Discovery Island, where several males and females were frolicking and courting in the kelp near my kayak.

Large ships, including an oil tanker, were plying the waters of Haro Strait barely a few thousand metres away. This left me pondering the vulnerability of these precious birds and of our beautiful, coastal waters.

– Jacques Sirois is a wildlife biologist who lives in Oak Bay and frequently kayaks around the waterfront.