The beautiful and hardy harlequin ducks and long-tailed ducks are small species that adapted to wintering in specific saltwater niches along North America’s Atlantic Coast, from Canada to Virginia.

The two kinds of ducks overlap each other, and both species are enjoyable to see bobbing in swells along the Atlantic shoreline.

Harlequins’ wintering niche is rocky shores, where ocean waves pound against boulders and rock jetties, which protect sandy beaches from those waves. There, little groups of handsome harlequins are tossed about in the wind-created waves as they use their beaks to tear off and consume mussels (a kind of mollusk) from the rocks.

Flocks of lovely long-tails winter on inlets, harbors, and the ocean along beaches where breakers crash and slide. Long-tails are most exciting to see when flying swiftly in long, low-to-the-water lines before a breaking wave.

Long-tails bounce on the waves of open water and dive under to seek out mollusks, crustaceans, and other kinds of bottom invertebrates to eat. Under water, they propel themselves with their webbed feet, but their wings are partly open, perhaps to stabilize themselves in the water.

Though wintering harlequins and long-tails consume mollusks, crustaceans, and other kinds of marine invertebrates, they generally don’t compete directly for those foods because of their different niches.

Drakes of both species are striking in appearance to be attractive to females for mating. The handsome male harlequins have dark-gray feathering, with chestnut flanks and white markings. Female harlequins are mostly dull-brown, which camouflages them when incubating eggs and raising ducklings.

Drake long-tails do have long tail feathers and attractive, white and dark-chocolate feather patterns. Hen long-tails are mostly brown with white patterns, which camouflage them.

Harlequins and long-tails nest in the far north but, again, in different niches. Harlequins raise ducklings along turbulent streams in woods in the mountains of eastern Siberia, the northwest coasts of Alaska and Canada, the east coast of Canada, and the shores of Greenland and Iceland.

Long-tailed ducks hatch young around ponds and lakes across the Arctic tundra of Canada, Alaska, Eurasia, Iceland, and Greenland. The adults and ducklings of both kinds mostly ingest freshwater mollusks, crustaceans, and other invertebrates in summer. The rugged harlequins get a lot of that food from those mountain streams.

As might be expected, the hardy harlequins winter along the east coast of Asia, the west coast of North America, the northeast shore of the United States, and the shores of Iceland and Greenland. And the long-tails winter along the east and west shores of North America.

I have to admire these lovely and tough little ducks in winter’s cold winds and ocean swells. I enjoy seeing them along the shores of New Jersey in winter. Readers can, too. And one can see videos of them online.


Clyde McMillan-Gamber is a retired Lancaster County Parks naturalist.

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