Last week I was all pumped about my new strategy for learning the birds of Cape Ann. I would keep track of all the birds I could see sitting in one spot on Andrews Point for a year. Epic fail, at least for now. As Greg Bover pointed out to me Sunday over breakfast, there are more birds on Cape Ann in the winter than in the summer. And the fact these little feathered dip-shits change plumage if they are juvenile, one year, two year, adult, mating, molting, dating but not mating and it seemed hopeless. Just my one tiny viewing spot and the common eider, harlequin duck, scoters, maybe buffleheads got me so confused the one female mallard was throwing me off. I might get them straight for ten minutes then forget who was who the next day without my Sibley bird guide in hand.
So, new strategy: One bird at a time until I can identify and relate to that species with my eyes closed. This favors my scientist, beat the small OCD details to death, approach. (Joey calls this my inability to respond to a simple question with a simple answer.) Since I don’t have a long camera lens I can also rely on the kindness of strangers who have good bird blogs. First up, Harlequin Duck, the premier, cute, winter resident common enough so that all ages of bird can be seen at the same time and the confusion between the juveniles, the one year olds and the female can be sorted out. I will also stick in “fun facts” that might not be common knowledge but stuff that helps me remember who is who.
Harlequin Duck. Hilke Breder writes a great bird blog One Jackdaw Birding and by clicking the name you go to the post of her Friday the 13th visit this month to Andrews Point. She shot plenty of great photos of the harlequin:
Three males and is that a female or a juvenile male? Answer that in the comments. The one trick to at least keeping scoters, buffleheads and some others that are mingling in out of the picture is that the harlequin always has that one circular dab of white paint behind the eye and the bill stays small.
I sat there for a half hour trying to keep track of a small group of four females and six males. To me it looked like they were very interested in mating. One male would bug the hell out of one female, chasing it relentlessly. But then after giving up, she would follow him! Reading about them, these birds are just being very social (teases) on the winter feeding grounds this time of year. It looked like I was viewing an elementary school playground with hormones on simmer. Some groping but second base was off limits. (Only over the sweater.)
Fun Facts: Some harlequins have been known to live for 17 years. These data seem very haphazard so the lifespan could be longer for a healthy adult who knows to exit stage right if an eagle shows up. (Eagles eat them, nom nom, crunchy duck.)
Genus Species name: Histrionicus histrionicus The harlequin common name comes from the Italian jester whose face was painted black and white. After watching them for a while I can see how they were given these weird names. They seem to be goofing on each other with great histrionics.
Mostly monogamous and while they might not go for open marriage like Newt they do seem to follow the “love the one your with” if the old man doesn’t make it back to the same Canadian stream to mate in the summer.
What are they doing on Cape Ann? Harlequins are benthic divers. They dive down using their feet as propulsion and wings out to turn. On Cape Ann they are probably mostly diving down for small mussels but small crabs also get nailed. A scientist with a stopwatch: On average they dive for 26 seconds then pop to the surface for 15 seconds, rinse and repeat. (No, I did not time them, I read it at Cornell’s great website about North American birds.) One last fun fact: Harlequin Duck fossils have been found to be 4.8 million years old. These funny ducks have been here a lot longer than we have.
Check them out now before they all fly to Canada for mating in April. On the other end of Cape Ann right in front of the Gloucester Elks Lodge on the back shore you’ll find some pods along with quite a few other species to confuse you. But you’ll assuredly find a birder out there who will point them out to you. Serious birders are there to spot the elusive King Eider. Approach with caution. Birders also can be full of histrionics. Do you have that memorized yet? You’re welcome.