Birds in Focus: Harlequin Romance and Other Winter Fantasies

Birds in Focus: Harlequin Romance and Other Winter Fantasies

Harlequin ducks. Photo by Bryan Pfeiffer.

In winter at Halibut Point, a rocky headland on the Massachusetts coast, the drama begins at dawn. A stout gust rips the white from whitecaps and sprays the shore with ice that tinkles like glass. A faint orange glow greets the horizon. And in the frigid waters offshore, harlequin ducks are getting hot.

These perky ducks bob and dive, lunge and flutter, cavort and compete. Nearly a half-year before our woods erupt in a rainbow of spring songbirds, harlequin ducks are courting, feathered evidence that cold water doesn’t necessarily put the chill to carnal desire.

Watching harlequin ducks, besides being a cheap thrill, is among many reasons to leave the comfort of your home and head out for short birdwatching excursions. The coldest months offer the bundled-up birdwatcher hawks, owls, gulls, and a rabble of Arctic birds, some of which shatter our notions of winter.

The male harlequin’s signature courtship move is “headnodding.” On the water, he extends his neck forward toward the female and flips his bill upward. It is a nippy turn-on. Then there’s a maneuver called “the rush.” A male, holding his head low and outstretched, scoots across the water at an established harlequin pair. In this winter dance of courtship, it is an aggressive form of “may I cut in?” If the female prefers her chosen partner, she’ll sometimes repel the intrusion with a rush of her own.

In addition to Halibut Point, harlequin ducks winter in good numbers along Perkins Cove in Ogunquit, Maine, and at Sachuest Point in Rhode Island. From these vantages, you will encounter more species that nest in the Arctic or other northern places but winter offshore: common eider and the rare king eider, long-tailed duck, red-throated loon, red-necked grebe, northern gannet, and purple sandpiper.

Inland destinations offer their own rewards. A day-trip to the open farmland of Vermont’s Champlain Valley, for example, presents a birder with visiting roughlegged hawks. Sharply marked in black and white, “rough-legs” leave their tundra and taiga breeding grounds in fall, but only migrate as far as the frozen fields of southern Canada and the northern United States. Joining them in daily patrols for voles, mice, and other treats are red-tailed hawks and northern harriers.

If owl watching is your idea of a winter getaway, pack your bags for Ontario. Northern owls regard the province in the same we consider Florida. Great gray owls and northern hawk owls, which only rarely reach the northeastern U.S., regularly winter in the Ottawa Valley, a welcome transition zone between the boreal forest (where some of these owls breed) and temperate forests to the south.

No winter owl fix is complete without a ferry ride off the north shore of Lake Ontario near Kingston to Amherst Island, a quiet community of farms and forests where up to 10 owl species might land for the winter, including boreal owl, long-eared owl, and short-eared owl. They come for the island’s mix of meadow voles and roosting trees, such as red cedar, white cedar, and jack pine.

And finally, you need not get married to consider the honeymoon destination of Niagara Falls; the gulls alone are worth a visit. In November and December, the open waters of the Niagara River host one of the greatest gatherings of gulls in the world. Gull-watchers have recorded 19 gull species here (about m60 percent of the gull diversity found in this hemisphere) and up to 14 species in a single day (a feat that makes my heart pound). Most of us would do well to see six gull species in a day.

Back in the unfolding harlequin romance at Halibut Point, there are winners and losers. Although they are courting in the icy surf, harlequin ducks won’t nest here. Instead, from this rocky shore and other ocean points around the world, they’ll fly north to Labrador, Newfoundland, Iceland, Greenland, eastern Siberia, the Bering Sea, the Sea of Japan, Alaska, and south into the American Pacific Northwest and northern Rocky Mountains.

Before they leave, visit the ducks this winter. Drop in on the hawks and owls and gulls. Out there in the cold you will find fresh diversity – even a little romance.


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