Since speaking with Wei Chen this past Monday on CBC’s Ontario Morning about the rare Harlequin Duck overwintering on the Thames River, I have received several emails from fellow birders looking for assistance in locating this bird. Let me start by saying that locating this bird is not as easy as many think. I have been fortunate to locate the male Harlequin Duck most days, but it has required quite a bit of leg work.
If you still need this bird for your life list and are hoping to find it at Springbank Park in London, Ontario I would like to offer a few suggestions based on my experiences. Begin your search at Storybook Gardens and walk the section of river between Springbank Dam and the old pump house. I personally have had the best luck locating the Harlequin Duck early to mid afternoon. Most days I chose the afternoon only because I wanted to wait for the temperatures to warm up, making walking more comfortable. On the few occasions I set out in the morning I was unsuccessful locating the Harlequin.
Be sure to look very close to the near bank as the Harlequin is quite comfortable close to shore in areas where there is thick tree cover. The section of Thames River between the parking lot at Storybook Gardens and the old pump house has a lot of tree cover on the near bank, so take your time and look as closely to the bank as you can. I have had a lot of success locating the Harlequin in the fast moving water west of the pump house, only a few feet from the bank. In open areas, the Harlequin Duck is more likely to find security mixed in with the other waterfowl on the far side of the river. It is here where scanning with binoculars can reveal its location. I personally have not seen the Harlequin Duck upstream from the pump house, so once you reach this point I recommend turning around and heading back downstream.
Further west towards the dam I have repeatedly located the Harlequin Duck in tight to shore, where the the lower road curves and carries on to the dam. If you are not familiar with this location, to the south there is a building up on the hill with washrooms and another parking lot directly behind that. The tree cover on the bank here is especially thick, but a favourite location of the Harlequin Duck. This is the most westerly location in which I have seen the Harlequin; I have yet to see it as far downstream as the dam.
The Harlequin Duck has been associating with a small flock of Common Goldeneyes. Scanning these small flocks will often reveal the Harlequin. Pay attention to flying Goldeneyes too. The wing beats of the Common Goldeneye can be heard when taking off. Learn to recognize this sound and immediately look in the direction when you hear it. On several occasions I’ve observed the Harlequin Duck as the trailing bird in a group of Goldeneyes as they move up or down river.
Despite the Harlequin Duck’s colourful plumage, it appears quite dark from a distance. On cloudy days the dark, shadowed water provides excellent camouflage; looking for its white markings is critical. On sunny days, the slate blue feathers blend in with the bright blue water, making sightings challenging under these conditions as well. Again, the white markings on the head and back are what best gives away the Harlequin Duck’s location.
Locating the Harlequin Duck typically takes a fair bit of legwork. You may be one of the lucky ones who gets out of your car and there it is, but be prepared to spend a few hours searching. On days when more birders are searching for the Harlequin there are many people scanning the river and sharing their sightings, but the increase in foot traffic makes the Harlequin more wary. It is on these days I have found searching as close to shore as possible the most successful.
It looks like we are in for plenty of sunshine on Saturday, so I imagine Springbank Park will be quite busy again with birders hoping to add the endangered Harlequin Duck to their life lists. If you are one of them, keep these suggestions in mind while you search and I think your chances of success will be much greater.