2017-03-23 / Nature

The Surfer’s Bird

By Charles Avenengo

Harlequin ducks are at home in fast-moving water and along rocky coastlines like Sachuest Point. 
(Photo by Bob Weaver) Harlequin ducks are at home in fast-moving water and along rocky coastlines like Sachuest Point. (Photo by Bob Weaver) Recent wildlife studies showed that harlequin ducks suffer more broken bones than any other bird. Given their surfing lifestyle, which usually includes crashing against the rocks in the Atlantic Ocean, this might not come as a surprise. Happily, the research also revealed that many of the broken bones heal with no adverse effects.

Throughout winter, these ducks can be seen by local wildlife enthusiasts at various locations. It is amusing to watch the harlequins diving and bobbing in and out of the surf, barely missing the crashing waves. Considered to be second only to the male wood duck as the most beautiful of the North America ducks, their rugged existence might lead some to draw comparisons with local surfers. When the surf is up, both species share the maelstrom along the rocky coast.

Although not many local surfers know what a harlequin duck is, they certainly can identify with the waterfowl’s lifestyle along the edge of the wintry North Atlantic rollers. Local biologist Nick Ernst, Rhode Island Refuge complex biologist, was asked about that daring lifestyle. “They have adapted and evolved to exploit that niche. The wave energy is a dynamic environment that they live in, with not a lot of other species for competition.” he said.

The harlequin’s diet consists of marine invertebrates, fish and insects, which Ernst said allows them to help with “predator avoidance.”

Their rocky existence doesn’t end after a winter of being tossed around by endless breakers. Once spring arrives, they wing 1,000 miles north to the wilderness tracks of Labrador and Quebec to do it all over again. There, for nesting season, they set up shop in the torrential whitewater and are tossed around like bobbins. They can be found near waterfalls, while their nests have actually been discovered behind the cascades. Similar to here, the oxygen-rich waters provide a rich diet without much competition.

Sachuest Point Wildlife Refuge is considered the premier location on the east coast to see harlequins. A 2001 story in Newport This Week reported that 70,000 people visited Sachuest Point annually, with the harlequin duck as the target species. According to logs, the highest reported count of harlequins in the area was 107 in 1999.

Since that time, the numbers have grown. While still considered a species of special concern, the eastern population is currently estimated at over 1,000 birds, an increase of 400 in 15 years. With that increase, the ducks have spread further down the eastern seaboard and are now seen regularly as far south as North Carolina. And while this increase is good news for the ducks, is also means that their expansion could siphon off potential visitors to Sachuest Point.

But the refuge hasn’t missed a beat. “[We] receive quite a lot of visitors to see the harlequins. We recently had Connecticut Audubon and school groups visit,” said refuge manager Steve Brown, who pointed out that 860 people visited on President’s Day last month.

“And that was only the people who signed in at the Visitor’s Center,” he said.

Rhode Island Refuge Complex officials estimate that Sachuest Point currently receives 196,000 visitors a year, nearly three times more than in 2001.

Of course, not all visitors come to see only the harlequins. Sachuest Point features ample parking, comfortable trails and allows for close observation, which makes it a popular draw. The Visitor’s Center also offers loaner birder backpack kits to view wildlife. Included in the backpack are checklists, trail maps and binoculars. The innovative backpack program has been copied nationally at other refuges.

So Sachuest Point is thriving and harlequins are increasing. As for their kindred spirits, the surfers? After last week’s winter storm brought in the largest waves of the year, a dozen hardy surfers were relishing the massive swell in 30-degree water. It’s something that can only be enjoyed by surfers and ducks.

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