Species Profile: Harlequin Duck

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Species Profile: Harlequin Duck

By Mary Grande, Wildlife Outreach Coordinator, RIDEM

Rhode Island’s coastal areas provide essential foraging habitat for many species of migratory sea ducks each winter, including the harlequin duck. The season on harlequin is closed, but winter presents a special opportunity to observe and appreciate this unique species.


Many Rhode Islanders frequent the coast solely during the summer, under the impression that there is not much to see or enjoy during the off-season. In fact, some of the most exciting coastal wildlife viewing opportunities occur during the winter! The Rhode Island coast supports a wide variety of wildlife species throughout the year, with the rocky coastline providing important wintering habitat for thousands of migratory sea ducks. Hunters and bird watchers alike seek opportunities to observe eiders and scoters diving beneath the frigid waves as they feed on shellfish and aquatic vegetation throughout the winter. The harlequin duck (Histrionicus histrionicus), as its name suggests, is one of the most colorful and charismatic species that visits RI waters. Males are a dark slate-blue with bright chestnut sides and large white patches on the back and wings. Males also have a crisp white crescent in front of the eyes. Females are brown with a muted, patchier white crescent. Both males and females have a round white spot behind the ear; the ear spot on males is much more prominent than on females. Harlequin breed along mountain streams and rivers in Canada, migrating to spend their winters in rocky waters along the coasts of Canada and New England.

While sea duck hunting is permitted in Rhode Island, the season is closed for harlequin ducks. The east coast harlequin population is below desired levels and cannot sustain harvest from hunting. In contrast, scoter and eider populations are much more robust, thus allowing a 60 day hunting season. Hunters should be aware that several species, including scoters, bufflehead, and goldeneye, can resemble the harlequin at a distance or in poor lighting. Extreme caution should be used; hunters should be sure to carefully identify birds before pulling the trigger to avoid accidental harvest of harlequin. Sachuest Point National Wildlife Refuge, owned and managed by the United States Fish and Wildlife Service, and Beavertail State Park, managed by the RI Department of Environmental Management, are the two predominant locations supporting winter harlequin populations in RI; both offer excellent viewing opportunities. Beavertail boasts a picturesque coastline of cliffs, with places to park and drive along the peninsula. At Sachuest, visitors are invited to walk along several well-maintained trails and utilize designated observation platforms all year round.
Sea ducks may be hunted in tidal waters during the sea duck season with a daily bag limit of 5 sea ducks/day of which no more than 4 may be scoter or eider or long tailed ducks. Sea duck hunters are reminded that there is no hunting permitted above mean low water (no hunting along the shoreline) at Sachuest Point NWR, and that firearm discharge within 500 feet of an occupied dwelling is prohibited statewide.
The Division of Fish and Wildlife recently began developing public outreach programs, with the intent of connecting people of all ages with Rhode Island’s incredible wildlife resources. The Division is offering programs such as “Come Birding with Me” at various state wildlife management areas and parks, including Beavertail. During this year’s program, participants were guided through basic sea duck identification, natural history, and conservation practices. Birds observed included eiders, scoters, mergansers, loons, brant, and harlequin. These informal, free programs are perfect for hunters looking to refresh their identification skills, as well as for novice bird watchers and families. Be sure to check out the Rhode Island Division of Fish and Wildlife Outdoor Education page on Facebook for updates on exciting and informative programs being offered year round! To join the wildlife outreach email list, send an email to Mary.Grande@dem.ri.gov.