Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Hunting for the Harlequin

Last weekend I headed to Port huron to look for the elusive Harlequin Duck. The clown faced Harlequin Duck is a bird that is more typically found along sea-coasts although a small number do migrate through the Great Lakes region each year. I had headed to Lake Michigan the previous week after a rash of sightings, but the the elusive Harlequin Duck eluded me. It was a great birding trip regardless, and you can read about icy adventures on the west coast of Michigan herehere and here. Hearing reports of Harlequin Duck, along with other birds of interest such as Black-legged Kittiwake and Iceland Gull, at Port Huron I decided to head up and check it out. 

Port Huron lies at the start of the St Clair river where Lake Huron drains into Lake St Clair, it can be a real hotspot for waterbirds and gulls and I was keen to check it out for the first time. 

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Yet another of Michigan's iconic icy, frigid and inhospitable winter scenes greeted us. If you looked north to Lake Huron it felt like you could be on the ice-planet of Hoth. Looking east across the river to Canada you were faced with grim smoking chimney stacks juxtaposed with the neon lights of casinos. I imagine any non-birding locals must really wonder about my sanity as they watch a binocular clad idiot spending an entire day in freezing temperatures looking at this distopian view.

Sarnia, Canada seen across the St Clair river. 
The Blue Water bridge, connecting Port Huron, MI with Sarnia, ON
Coastguard station, Port Huron
Looking north, past the Blue Water Bridge to a very Frozen Lake Huron
As soon as we arrived we quickly set to work scanning the length of the river looking for the Harlequin Duck. No harlequin Duck was seen in the vicinity of the Blue Water Bridge, although there were lots of ducks to keep us occupied. The open water at the start of the river was teeming with Long-tailed Duck, Bufflehead, Common Goldeneye, Common Mergansers, countless Gulls and even a few White-winged Scoter. Heading further north and scanning some small patches of open water revealed much the same situation although many of the birds were too distant to identify. Always a worry when you are looking for a rare, and might I say elusive, bird.

A distant, but welcome, sight were two Peregrine Falcons sitting way out on the ice.

The two dark lumps are Peregrine Falcons (honest)
Aware that the more skeptical among you might doubt the veracity of my blob identification in the above photo I even made an attempt to digiscope the birds using my droid phone and my buddy, Bruce's Swarovski spotting scope. It wasn't a complete success, but it's a certainly more Peregrine-like.

I spent some time scanning the gulls hoping to spot some unusual birds in amongst them. I didn't find anything other than Herring Gulls with my first scan from the bridge, but I entertained myself observing their graceful flight up close for a little while. It's probably not necessary to mention it was really fricking cold again, but it was.

Herring Gull
Long-tailed Ducks were everywhere in huge numbers. These pretty birds could be seen riding the current south and then when they had travelled far enough, flying back up stream to restart their ride all over again. First observation of an avian funpark? Almost certainly, and you heard it first here!

Long-tailed Ducks

I was entertained all day long watching how endearingly ungainly and awkward ducks look as they come into land; feet splayed like they just got some air on their first ever attempt at water-skiing. These Long-tailed ducks were the first to draw my attention to this special moment, but it turned out other ducks look just as daft, bless 'em.

Long-tailed Ducks

One of the sports popular with many diving ducks is "give him the bird" and involves diving just as a photographer presses the shutter release. Long-tailed ducks are particularly good at this game.

Bufflehead were also present in large numbers and it was great to get a chance to view these tiny ducks up close, both on the water and in flight.

Bufflehead also seem to be a sporting species, participating in a wide range of events. Here is a female skiing on one leg between two males.

I'm not certain how the rules work, but once the following make passes between what I assume are impromptu goal posts, all hell breaks loose.

Having failed to locate the Harlequin duck within the first mile or so of the river, on either side, we took some time to look more thoroughly at the large numbers of gulls on the ice on the Canadian side of the river. A harbour there was sheltering a large area of ice and the gulls were congregating there in reasonably large numbers. There had to be some surprises hidden in amongst the ubiquitous Herring Gulls. 

I don't want to give the impression that I don't have time for the common-as-muck Herring Gull, in fact they really did enchant me all day long. Watching the exquisite way they use their flight feathers to carve their paths through the air was fascinating, elegant and beautiful. I could have watched them all day, and frankly, in large part I did. I apologise if the large number of flight photographs is indulgent, but I think these gorgeous birds deserve some recognition.

Herring Gulls
Watching so Herring Gulls up close also gave me plenty of opportunities to observe and learn a little more about the variation from bird to bird, and the different plumages visible this time of year. The juvenile birds look kind of dirty, or messy, at first, but after a while familiarity started to breed quite the opposite of contempt. I was often impressed with how successfully the juvenile birds were able to compete, and sometimes out-compete, the mature and more experienced gulls. 

Herring Gull
It wasn't long before a couple of large, pale-winged Glaucous Gulls were spotted flying south down the river. Shortly afterwards a dark mantled, Great Black-backed Gull was spotted on the ice. Towering over the smaller Herring Gulls in the vicinity.

Great Black-backed Gull
Eventually an Iceland Gull was spotted in the water, my first lifebird of the day. The Iceland Gull, like the Glaucous Gull, is a pale mantled gull, the wings and back being no darker than the belly. The Iceland Gull is a much smaller bird, comparable in size to a Herring Gull if not a little smaller. The bird we saw was a juvenile judging by the mottled feathers and the dark coloured bill.

Iceland Gull
Iceland Gull to the right of a Herring Gull
Moving further south down the river yielded few new birds and an even more austere few of the factories lining the Canadian side of the river. 

A lone Canvasback was hanging out with a group of female Common Mergansers. The distinct sloping forehead that is so characteristic of the Canvasback can be clearly seen in the following photographs.

Common Merganser

We made a brief stop to enjoy the delights of Roadkill Roy's Pulled Pork ... how could I not? I also did not ask too many questions, sometimes ignorance really is bliss.

Full of pulled pork we headed north, back to the bridge to renew our search for the Harlequin Duck. Just as we were leaving the parking lot, Eagle-eyed Bruce spotted a family silhouette perched up just above us. A Peregrine Falcon, and this time there was no need for a spotting scope, we were up close and personal and getting some fabulous views.

Peregrine Falcon
Slowly we inched the car closer as I snapped shots out of the open window. For some reason birds, raptors especially, seem to tolerate the unnatural shapes of cars far more than people. I knew he would most likely fly the moment I opened the door.

Peregrine Falcon
After some time drinking in the proximity to the Peregrine, the bird fixed me with a steely look and decided it was overdue a better view.

Peregrine Falcon
A quick squirt of poop and it was ready to take to the air. It is at times like this I wish so hard I could afford a more expensive lens which would perform better in these low light conditions. He gave me some great opportunities as he flew off, the best I can give you are these almost sharp series of flight photos.

Peregrine Falcon
Still pumped from our Peregrine encounter we stopped at the Coastguard boat to check for the Harlequin again. Bruce spent some time, using several thousand dollars of high-end optics to confirm that there was a huge fricking boat right in front of him. I'm starting to suspect he might be one leg short of a tripod, if you know what I mean.

A bunch of extremely tolerant Mallards and Domestic Ducks sat in the parking lot, distracted me with some photo opportunities for a while. They happily provide a blog gift to my "non-birding" sister who has been going out of her way recently to take photos of birds for my viewing pleasure. One good duck shot deserves another.

Domestic Duck

Once again, the schadenfreude of duck landings was a guilty pleasure. They look so graceful as they bank, brace and seemingly float down to the ground.

And then they faceplant!

A male Common Goldeneye provided some close looks, a stunning duck I think you'll agree.

Common Goldeneye
Some birders we bumped into earlier on had mentioned seeing a Merlin at the lighthouse park, so we decided to take a break from scanning for the Harlequin to see if we could re-find that. We walked all through the park with no success, but beneath one tree I did find some evidence that some feathery extermination had been taking place, and a Merlin would definitely feature high on my list of culprits. I'm terrible at feather identification but if anyone has any ideas on the previous owner, please let me know.

Back we went to the coastguard station and as the light started to fade from the dull grey we'd enjoyed all day to an even dingier grey, we made a last-ditch effort to find this bloody Harlequin Duck, who most likely had decided to head south, or was hiding behind a rock laughing at us.

Thankfully, a small flock of Bufflehead broke the tension by demonstrating that when it comes to ungainly landings they got it going on. Some of these little guys all most look like Puffins as they float in doing their best Eddy the Eagle impressions.

Shortly afterwards, I was scanning along the river, and a distant duck caught my attention. I couldn't see much detail, but it's shape didn't fit any of the duck species I'd seen so far that day. In fact, it looked good for a Harlequin Duck! I impatiently watched, waiting for the bird to turn and give me a more decisive look, my gut screaming this is it, this has to be it. Eventually, the bird turned side on and the distinctive markings of a first year male Harlequin Duck could be seen. NAILED IT!

Harlequin Duck
I had taken the numbers of a group of birders we'd met earlier on in the day, who were also hoping to see a Harlequin Duck, and was able to direct them to a good viewing point where we all enjoyed some distant views of the duck. Eventually, I decided to explore and see if I could find a better vantage point to get some better pictures. I spotted a gap between two houses, about where I estimated the bird should be and quietly walked down near the water's edge. The bird was still further to my south, but much closer now. However, almost immediately the bird starting flapping it's wings while running across the surface of the water. My heart dropped as I frantically snapped off a few shots.

Harlequin Duck
Thankfully, he stopped and settled in the water directly out from where I was sitting crouched down. From this distance the shape and markings of the bird were much clearer and simply sat and enjoyed this bird I had spent so much effort trying to find. It felt entirely worth it, absolutely worth ever second of it.

Harlequin Duck
Eventually, the bird headed further north up the river, travelling like a skipping stone for most of the distance. 

Harlequin Duck
It eventually landed, and this time it was right next to the crowd of birders I had left behind. I could see them grinning from ear to ear as I jogged back to the group. 

Harlequin Duck
In my quest for better photographs, and in an attempt to circumvent the limitations of my equipment, I fearlessly headed down a steep, snow covered, slope on my ass, hoping I'd not slide right into the river. I ended up at the bottom sat in deep snow, with the Harlequin duck just a couple dozen feet away. Snow was now packed into all kinds of unpleasant places, but I ignored that for the moment and concentrated on the bird itself. While I had marvelous views of the bird through my binoculars, the slide down had managed to throw snow all over my camera lens and no matter how hard I tried I was unable to defog the lens sufficiently for use. Before I knew it, the bird had flown again and it was time to defrost my, by now, quite chilled posterior.

With the last of the dying light, one of the other birds offered the use of his absolutely ginormous, 500mm zoom lens. I was too slow getting it hooked up to get a better photo of the Harlequin Duck, but a handful of Long-tailed duck passing by made fun targets. I can only imagine what this lens could do under better light, these birds would have been mere specks in my 300mm lens.

Long-tailed Duck


  1. Amazing shots! Especially the flight ones! good work bro!

  2. Mark - What a great post! I enjoyed the perspective from the other side of the river, as I spent most of my youth looking from the Canadian side. Great photos!