Nature Notes

Ashford, Washington

Vol. II April-May 1984 No. 3

Nature Notes is issued bimonthly by the Naturalist Staff of Mount Rainier National Park. Material contained herein may be used freely in any manner, provided credit is given to this pamphlet and the author.
William Dengler
Chief Naturalist
William Briggle


Clowns. Fools and jesters. Punch and Judy. Falstaff. Pagliacci. Petrouschka. Can there be room in that glad company for a duck?

harlequin ducks

Each of the world's many clowns is unique, with make-up and costume all his own. And so it is with the Harlequin Duck. If be clown, it is more in the mold of Emmett Kelly than of Ronald McDonald. R. T. Peterson calls it "dark and bizarre" and that's true, too. Up close, the male is splashed in steel blue-grey and rust, with white bars and streaks in unusual places. At a distance his grey and rust blend to an unremarkable "dark" but the unique white marks remain. Momma is the usual ducky blah brown. A white spot and two buffy patches on her head separate her from all other ducks (including scoters, goldeneyes and lady buffleheads) at any distance. The white head markings make both male and female easy to identify; unfortunately, hardly anyone ever identifies them.

Somehow, gaudy as they appear, clowns blend right into the circus atmosphere; they become an expected part of the scenery. Perhaps that's why the showy little ducks get missed. If they associate with others out at sea they are usually found with scoters and often, therefore, they are mistaken for scoters. After all, they're dark, aren't they? Scoters, though, are a third larger (16" plus or minus, in contrast with the Harlequin Duck's 12 inches) and the white marks, if any, are different.

The ducks bob offshore during winter in heavy seas--the heavier the better, it would seem. They ride the dramamine express from central California north into eastern Asia, though they are rare on the Atlantic side of the world.

In spring they migrate to their vacation estates. Observers find them either at sea, or at their summer place; rarely are they ever observed en route somewhere. Local ducks wend their way to our own plunging, cascading mountain streams. Others travel to the Arctic Circle to nest. Some claim that a successful clown must possess a streak of masochism. Yep.

Here in our mountains the ducks might nest on the ground, or in a hole in a cliff, cutbank or tree. Momma lays 5 to 10 buffy eggs. Just as soon as they leave the nest, the fluffy little youngsters take to the rushing mountain water. They ride the sweeping cascades, get pummelled against the rocks, flounder and dive in swirling currents. It's fortunate they bounce.

harlequin ducks in flight

The ducklings, like their parents, are agile, athletic and inventive, as a good clown must be. In the mountains they eat insects for the most part--not so hard to do. But at sea they often dive to great depths for their primary food, mussels. Imaging trying to break into a mussel using only a duck bill.

Many of us grew up watching Buffalo Bob try to communicate with Clarabell's tiny bicycle horn. Clowns are supposed to sound ridiculous; it's part of the schtick. Whereas ducks are expected to quack or something, the Harlequin Duck puts forth a most unducky squeak. It used to be called Squealer or Sea Mouse for that reason. Now and again, it might laugh at itself with a chortling kwakwakwa.

Carolus Linnaeus named the duck Histrionicus histrionicus primarily because of its ludicrous paint job--dramatic colouring, if you will. But histrionics are wild action for dramatic effect. This duck is rare in Linnaeus's native Sweden. Did he know about its dramatic antics in howling rivers and crashing seas? There were imitators galore, but no other clown in history could sweep a spotlight under a rug like Weary Willie; did Linneaus appreciate our little clown's uniqueness?

Whether Linnaeus ever realized how well he named the duck, you can appreciate it when you see it in our high country this summer or out on Puget Sound next fall. The duck won't engender a lot of gags and pratfalls; it's not a laff-a-minit clown. Rather, it will bring you a warm, pleasant smile--a happy feeling--like the best clowns do. And if you would, please stop at a visitor center and record your sighting on a Wildlife Observation Card. The naturalists are seeking to know more about this unique little duck, and your observations can help. Besides, naturalists enjoy sharing your pleasure--they love clowns, too.

Sandy Dengler


Wildlife sightings have been a bit slow this winter, but a few critters have been reported. With spring's arrival, a pair of mallard ducks stopped off at the beaver ponds in Longmire Meadow. A pair of Barrows goldeneye have been seen swimming in the pond at the Stevens Canyon Entrance. A pied-billed grebe mistook the rain-wet road in the Ohanapecosh housing area for a watery landing strip. It crashed, but was rescued by Ohanapecosh residents and helped on its way. A hairy woodpecker was sighted looking for lunch in a Douglas fir snag on the Trail of the Shadows, and a sawwhet owl was heard near the tennis court at Tahoma Woods.

The predators are moving around too. Coyotes have been seen near the "goat overlook" below Longmire, along the Stevens Canyon Road, and at Box Canyon. A bobcat was observed near the treatment plant at Ohanapecosh, and a mountain lion was reported crossing the road west of Kautz Creek.

Goats made up the largest number of observations. Thirty-nine animals were recorded. Twenty-two were seen at Tum Tum. The largest group there was thirteen goats; twelve adults and one kid.

This appears to be an unusually large group for Tum Tum. Five goats were reported from Mt. Wow. Five were seen above the Stevens Canyon Entrance, and seven between Box Canyon picnic area and the upper tunnel on the Stevens Canyon Road.

As the snow melts, animals may be more active. Bears, for one, should be beginning to move around. No bear observations have been received yet this spring. Are they all gone? Hungry bears sometimes peel bark from trees. This may be in the tops, like porcupine, but bigger bites, or on the base of the tree. Fresh, white, peeled trees at this time of year probably is an indication of bear activity. We would appreciate bear observation reports, especially early in the year, to document when they emerge from hibernation.

Stan Schlegel

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