By Robert Lucke
One definition of a harlequin is a clown. That's how harlequin ducks got their name. With their bold white and black markings, they look to all the world like they are dressed in a clown costume.
While they may look like clowns, they are anything but. These are some of the most serious-minded creatures in Montana. They are one of the few species of migratory foul that actually migrate in an east-west pattern rather than north and south. While in Montana, they reside near the fastest whitewater they can find and actually fly underneath the water to feed during the summer.
In Glacier National Park, Steve Gniadek, the park's wildlife biologist, makes it a part of his job to study these interesting ducks.
"They winter on the Pacific coast," Gniadek said. "They seem to stay around Puget Sound and Vancouver Island maybe into Oregon and even Northern California. Our birds that we have banded in Glacier seem to stay close to Vancouver Island."
In April they are seen in many areas of Glacier National Park, although most of them seem to favor Upper McDonald Creek. By late April they are paired up and starting to nest in those areas. They nest year after year in the same parts of the creek.
"After nesting, maybe by the end of June, the males go back to the coast," Gniadek said. "The males leave the chores of raising the kids to the females. In September, the females and brood head back to the coast."
Gniadek counts the harlequins in Glacier a couple of times a season. They are counted in the spring and again in August when the broods have all hatched and are back on the creek.
How many harlequins are there in Glacier? Gniadek believes there are maybe 100 all over the park, and in McDonald Creek there are usually around 10 to 15 pairs in a season. There are usually five to 10 new young in a season, although some years, like 1994, have seen broods of 40 young.
Upper McDonald Creek draws hundreds of visitors this time of year to just get a glimpse of the 15 or so pairs of harlequins that call that stretch of creek home. In spite of their bold coloring, they can be very easily hidden by the color of the rocks in the fast moving stream.
Harlequins can be seen in other areas of Glacier as well. Most of the time they are in the western areas of the park, but once in a while they can be seen on the St. Mary and Two Medicine drainages.
At the beginning of the season they can be seen on area lakes, but they do not like the lakes nearly as well as swift moving creeks like Sprague, Jackson, Snyder, Logan and Avalanche.
There is always something new with the Glacier harlequins.
"Last winter we had a male harlequin here all the way into January," Gniadek said. "We thought he must be injured, but he didn't look like he was. We had no idea why he stayed here so late. That was a first for us."