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Thu., June 6, 2013, 7:15 a.m.

Harlequin duck, 17, returns to Glacier Park

A male and female harlequin duck rest by a stream in Glacier National Park. (National Park Service)
A male and female harlequin duck rest by a stream in Glacier National Park. (National Park Service)

WILDLIFE WATCHING -- A male harlequin duck, known to be at least 17 years old, was recently identified in Glacier National Park by University of Montana researchers and Glacier National Park scientists.

  • The banded duck is believed to be the third oldest on record. The oldest known banded harlequin duck has a recorded age of 18 years and 10 months.

“Prior to these findings, harlequin ducks were reported to live up to only 10  years of age, which makes this finding a positive indicator of the health and longevity of harlequin breeding populations in Glacier National Park,” said Lisa Bate, Glacier Park biological science technician. “Research indicates harlequin ducks mate for life unless something happens to one member of the pair. This old male has returned the last three years with the same female.”

Researchers launched the study in 2011, using radio-telemetry and banding to learn more about the location of harlequin nests and factors affecting offspring survival.

Upper McDonald Creek is considered an important breeding stream for harlequin ducks, comprising 25 percent of known broods produced in Montana. The area also has the highest density of breeding harlequins in the lower 48 states.

About 40 pairs of harlequins in the park are known to be in Glacier Park.

Read on for more detals about the harlequins.

Harlequins are small sea ducks that spend most of their lives along the coastal waters of North America. Male harlequins are slate blue with bold white, black, and chestnut highlights. They are often referred to as “clown ducks” for their unique coloring and markings. Female harlequins are brown and gray which allows them to blend into their surrounding while they sit on their nests for 28 days.

Each spring, harlequins migrate inland to breed and raise their young along fast-moving, freshwater streams. They are considered to be more strictly confined to running water than any other waterfowl species breeding in the Northern Hemisphere.  Harlequins are slow to mature, sensitive to human disturbance and vulnerable to climate change because they select nest sites close to the water’s edge. Female harlequins only breed on the streams where they were born, making the integrity of breeding sites especially important to maintain populations. The state of Montana lists harlequin ducks as a species of special concern.

Park visitors are also encouraged to report to the park any observance of harlequin ducks on streams in the park other than Upper McDonald Creek: (406) 888-7800. 

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Rich Landers
Rich Landers joined The Spokesman-Review in 1977. He is the Outdoors editor for the Sports Department writing and photographing stories about hiking, hunting, fishing, boating, conservation, nature and wildlife and related topics.

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