Wildlife and Nature Photography

Rare Harlequin Duck Attracts Birders to London, Ontario

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Over half of the eastern population of Harlequin Ducks overwinter off coastal Maine. Luckily for area birders, this male Harlequin Duck can be observed on the Thames River in London, Ontario.

For the second year in a row, the Thames River in London, Ontario has revealed a rare species of waterfowl. Last winter the Thames was briefly visited by two Red-throated Loons, the first two recorded in Middlesex County since 1898.

This winter, another unique visitor has made the Thames River his temporary home. The male Harlequin Duck is easily identified by his slate blue plumage, rusty red sides and white markings. Despite its brilliant colours, from a distance this duck appears quite dark and can be easily overlooked at a quick glance. Once observed, it is difficult to put into words just how beautiful this duck truly is.

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Male Harlequin Duck setting its wings after preening on the Thames River.

The Harlequin Duck’s breeding range extends from northern Quebec and Labrador to the southern portion of Baffin Island, while typically wintering off the Atlantic coast. According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, more than half of the eastern population of Harlequin Ducks winter in coastal Maine. Harlequin Ducks have been reported in previous years overwintering on the Great Lakes, with occasional sightings coming from Toronto, Burlington, and the Hamilton Harbour areas.

Birders from all over Southwestern Ontario are traveling to London in hopes of getting a glimpse of this rare duck. Over the past couple of weeks I have spoken with fellow birders from Stratford, Wallaceburg, Sarnia, and Waterloo.

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Birders are traveling hundreds of kilometers to London,Ontario in hopes of catching a glimpse of the rare Harlequin Duck.

Since it was first reported two weeks ago, the male Harlequin Duck has been observed daily at Springbank Park in London’s west end. If you are hoping to add this duck to your year or life list, than I recommend parking at Storybook Gardens and walking the section of river between Springbank Dam and the old pump house.

Follow the well packed trail in the snow paralleling the bank. While most areas are covered in knee deep snow, this trail is easy to navigate thanks to the heavy foot traffic of all the birders. Be sure to scan both the near and far banks of the river as this duck moves around frequently, and can be a challenge to locate through the dense brush lining the near bank.

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Winter provides excellent opportunities to view a wide variety of waterfowl on the Thames River. Here a male Redhead is captured flying downstream.

The Thames River in London, Ontario is a waterfowl enthusiasts dream. If you are reluctant to make the trip to London just to see the Harlequin Duck, there is plenty of other waterfowl to see. A complete list of waterfowl observed on the Thames River so far this winter is as follows:

  • American Black Duck

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    Common (pictured here), Red-breasted, and Hooded Mergansers can all be observed on the Thames River.

  • Bufflehead
  • Canada Goose
  • Canvasback
  • Common Goldeneye
  • Common Merganser
  • Greater Scaup
  • Harlequin Duck
  • Hooded Merganser
  • Horned Grebe
  • Long-tailed Duck
  • Mallard
  • Northern Pintail
  • Red-breasted Merganser
  • Redhead
  • Red-necked Grebe

As was the case last winter, the extremely cold temperatures have the Great Lakes freezing over, leaving diving ducks such as the Harlequin Duck migrating to inland rivers in search of open water. Open water is key to the survival of the Harlequin Duck, as they feed on a variety of aquatic life including: molluscs, crustaceans, fish, and other invertebrates. Harlequin Ducks dive below the surface and use their bills to capture prey from beneath rocks and along the river bottom.

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This male Long-tailed Duck was observed slightly downstream from the location where the Harlequin Duck has been frequenting.

Aside from the open water, there is another reason why I believe we are seeing an increase in waterfowl on the Thames River over the past several seasons. Springbank Dam has been non operational since 2008, drastically improving water quality and returning the river to its natural state. As a result, wildlife is thriving in the area. By not damming the river each spring, willows, alders, poplars, and birch trees are all rejuvenating an enlarged riparian zone, an area that with an operational dam would otherwise be underwater.

This naturally reforested riparian zone provides a buffer between humans and waterfowl, giving them a greater sense of security. Allowing the river to flow freely year round improves water quality by preventing algae and sediment from building up on the river bottom. This lack of sediment permits aquatic life to thrive including the crustaceans and invertebrates that many of these diving ducks, including the Harlequin, feed on. An abundance of food, translates to an abundance of ducks. For more on how the Thames River is benefiting without the dam, read my blog post Thames River Much Healthier Without Springbank Dam.

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Horned Grebes are among the waterfowl currently observed on the Thames River at Springbank Park.

When searching for the Harlequin Duck, or other northern waterfowl species on the Thames River, move slowly and quietly up and down the bank. These birds are not as accustomed to humans as the Mallards and Canada Geese are, and can be easily startled. Avoid sudden movements; when searching with binoculars or taking a picture, raise your camera or binoculars slowly to your face. When you do locate the bird and are pointing it out for someone else, raise your arm slowly. Be aware of any noise you may be making, whether crunching snow under your feet or the sound of your clothing brushing against tree branches. These ducks will fly at the slightest movement or unfamiliar sound.

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Female Common Goldeneye.

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The Harlequin Duck on the Thames River has been associating with a small group of Common Goldeneyes. Be sure to look closely at groups of Goldeneyes when searching for the Harlequin Duck.

Remember to be respectful out there, both of the birds and of other birders. I have been really impressed so far with everyone I’ve seen searching the river for this beautiful duck. No one has attempted to get too close, and all of the birders are working together and assisting others who have not yet observed the Harlequin Duck.

If you get the opportunity this weekend, head down to Springbank Park and get a look at this beautiful Harlequin Duck and all of the other wonderful species overwintering on the Thames River.

*Click on the images in this post to view them larger*

Good birding,

Update February 27, 2015: The Harlequin Duck Continues To Elude Some Area Birders, here are some suggestions on how to best locate this rare duck.

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9 Responses to “Rare Harlequin Duck Attracts Birders to London, Ontario”

  1. Debbie Lefebre

    As ever, Paul, anybody who is fascinated by birds has the advantage of your brilliant eye to become both aware of what is out there to be seen and how and where to find it. The range of fascinating species makes London a great natural spot for the growing numbers of birders who will willingly travel great distances for a chance to see a less common species. Bet a lot of them also spend money while on their visits which is yet another indication of how this lovely array of wildlife is an asset to the city. Truly Good Birding on your part!

  2. Paul Roedding

    Thank you for the kind words Debbie. I couldn’t agree with you more. These rare sightings compliment the wonderful birds we expect to see on the Thames River at this time of year. London is becoming a viable birding destination for many birders in Southwestern Ontario which gives our local economy a boost through ecotourism.

  3. Pat Breen

    Thank you for sharing your brilliant photography & informed blog

    • Paul Roedding

      My pleasure Pat. Thank you very much much. I really appreciate you taking the time to comment, and the nice compliment.

  4. Pauline

    Thank you for sharing these gorgeous photos , and for the information to help us see them with our own eyes ( and/or lens ) ! I hope to get there next week . And hope to see some of those other helpful birders too . I’m a newbe at this !

    • Paul Roedding

      My pleasure Pauline. I hope you are successful in locating this beautiful duck. The other birders have been great and will help point you in the right direction. Feel free to contact me before you head out and I can update you on specifics of where the bird has been recently seen.

  5. Leslie

    We didn’t have to go too far. We live in Stratford but were unaware of the Harlequin before we arrived at Springbank to see what might be in the Thames. It was a very lucky coincidence that we ran into the birders who told about the Harlequin.

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