HARLEQUIN DUCKS: Life in the Fast Current
A Harlequin Duck floating through the rapids of
the Dosewallips River– note the “water off a duck’s back”
The Dosewallips River tumbles and roars out of the steep Olympic Mountains in northwest Washington, blue-green as it carries glacial silt from the high country. Nearby the Hamma Hamma, Duckabush, and Skokomish Rivers, also retaining Indian names, emerge with equal thunder from the great Olympic Range.
The Dosewallips has long had a place in my heart. Back in 1990, I camped at Elkhorn Campground, a remote Olympic National Forest campground along the river. The highlight of that trip was seeing Harlequin Ducks for the first time. We observed the ducks resting on the mossy banks of the opposite shore and watched them zoom past, carried by the fast current. Elkhorn Campground itself was also stunning, with its huge Douglas Firs overhead and light filtering down through Vine Maples along the river.
During the next few years I went back perhaps half-a-dozen times to photograph the Harlequin Ducks. This spring ritual was disrupted when business started taking me all over the country, but in 2009 I was home and able to visit the Dosewallips again.
Karen and I knew that in 2002, the raging river had washed out the Dosewallips Road below the campground during a fierce storm, in which the river changed course and cut deeply into the high bank that once towered above the road. This cut off the Elkhorn Campground and the National Park Service’s Dosewallips Campground a few miles higher on the road. After discussion of alternatives for replacing the road, which would have involved routing a new road through old-growth forest, the agencies agreed to just do nothing, retaining the old roadbed as a trail route. Now Elkhorn Campground is accessible by a 1.5 mile hike around the washout using a steep, switchbacked trail.
We walked the trail in late May; upon reaching the campground we found that the picnic tables were still there, though the pit toilets were closed and the water system had been shut off. Wildflowers and ferns were growing up in old campsites that had not suffered from overuse and soil compaction in the campground’s heyday, so it was actually a lovely place. This would be a wonderful easy backpacking trip for a family, as people can still use the beautiful old campsites along the river.
As we approached the river, I readied my long lens and crouch-walked to the riverbank, using a fallen Douglas Fir to hide my advance. I ventured to look over the log … and right before me, just 15 feet away, were two female Harlequins! I motioned like a soldier in combat for Karen to come up with her video camera, and we photographed without evident concern from the ducks. This was to be the pattern of the rest of the day and on a second day of visiting soon after.
Taking a brief break from foraging in the fast current of the Dosewallips River
The Harlequins were just not afraid of us, as long as we stayed just beyond their comfort zone of about 12 feet. They chatted to each other about the “big, stupid land creatures” that they saw sneaking up.
These two Harlequins were adult females, as far as I could tell, but they did not have young. Perhaps they were adolescent sisters. Farther down the river we observed and photographed a mother Harlequin with two fuzzy young, but here
The mother Harlequin Duck forages with her young along the riverbank
there were no young in the campground stretch of the river. Nor were there any adult males; they may have already left the river to spend the rest of the year on Puget Sound.
My real interest was in getting action shots of the ducks. That was always a real challenge back in the days of 100 ISO film, but now that I use a digital camera, I can work well under more challenging conditions. I spent perhaps ten hours
Even a duck has to take a bath!
photographing the ducks and campground, and the photographs here represent my favorites. As is often the case, my best photographs were taken while lying on my stomach on the gravel–which gave me a duck’s eye view of the action and a wet and dirty belly. The combination of ducks feeding in the fast current of an aqua-blue river was wonderful!
Just a few notes about Harlequin biology. These northern ducks breed in the Pacific Northwest, yes, but they are also nesting in Siberia, Kamchatka, Baffin Island, Alaska, Greenland, and Iceland. They winter in Puget Sound, but also in the waters of the northern Atlantic and Pacific coast. They walk along the bottoms of fast streams–much like American Dippers, dislodging insect larvae and catching
A successful fishing trip on the Dosewallips
small fish and mollusks. And they quietly nest along raging streams like the Dosewallips, hatching six to eight young, on average. We are fortunate that we can see these beautiful birds year-round in the Pacific Northwest.
American Dipper foraging along the edge of the river
Wildflowers and ferns are growing in unused campsites in Elkhorn Campground
My favorite photograph of a Harlequin in the rapids
The Dosewallips River has the aqua-blue color of glacial flour
Sword Ferns rising around towering Douglas Firs in the beautiful campsites
A stunning wild river, the Dosewallips plunges down its valley toward Hood Canal
The Asian design of Vine Maples above the aqua waters of the river
Pausing for a brief rest between dives in the fast river
I built a stone cairn in the late afternoon reflections on the river
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Click on the photographs below to see them in a larger size, with captions.