Growing up in medium sized suburbs at latitudes never higher than Nebraska, I only knew ducks to look and act one way. Ducks had green heads and hassled people at pond filled parks, whether or not folks brought bread to throw at them.
Skip a few decades and I found myself on some turbulent class 4 whitewater in the Alaska spring time. Six Mile Creek on the Kenai Peninsula to be exact. Adrenaline was pumping as we just crushed a big wave and everyone had gotten a face full of whitewater. As we slowed ourselves in the slack water, I looked up stream. Here came four clown-faced looking ducks going down the same rapids of the river we just came through, making it look easy as they coasted by us. They slid like greased lightning through the same crushing waves that soaked us, with hundred of gallons of water in one swoop. I was mesmerized, and that was my introduction to the masterful Harlequin Duck.
They are a northern-coastal duck for the most part, who sometimes venture to inland rivers to breed in the spring time. The one thing that is constant is they only want to be where the water is rough. Typically the rough shores of the Oregon coastline up through British Columbia into Alaska. According to the Audubon society many adult Harlequin Ducks have suffered a broken bone or two in their lifetime. This is because of their love of the turbulent waters and rocky coasts.
This is why springtime in Yellowstone is so amazing. Insert Le Hardy Rapids just north of Fishing Bridge. This is only constant place, this far inland and this far south that Harlequin ducks can be found most springs. You can plan on seeing the males there in the roughest waters from mid April through mid June. It is an amazing experience to hang out at the rapids as long as you want to and watch these clown-faced characters go to work. These guys dive off of logs into the pounding river, swimming and feeding with ease. They dive, then pop up like a cork 15 feet up the river from where they dove in. When they need a rest they just levitate out of the rapids on to a rough rock outcropping or a slick log somewhere. Besides their agility, their markings are so striking. It’s an amazing sight.
I encourage everyone to put a visit to Le Hardy rapids on your springtime Yellowstone list. You will not regret it.