Arlequins plongeurs aperçus au N.-B.

Des rumeurs persistent depuis des années que des arlequins plongeurs (canards) ont été aperçus dans le nord du Nouveau-
Brunswick, même s'il n'y a jamais eu une preuve que des arlequins nichaient au Nouveau-
Brunswick.

L'auteur Mike Lushington a eu la bonne fortune de voir des arlequins à plusieurs occasions. 

Il se peut bien qu'il soit "la seule personne vivante au Nouveau-
Brunswick à avoir observé treize canards arlequins, soit deux femelles et onze petits, qui nageaient ensemble dans les eaux de la province durant la saison de reproduction." 

Il déclare que, 
"la situation du arlequin plongeur dans le nord du Nouveau-
Brunswick exige une étude approfondie."

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

"She displayed the three distinct white patch marks on her head, one behind her eye and one below it, the third in front, extending up toward her forehead. There could be no doubt..."

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Harlequin Duck
Sightings in NB


Mike Lushington
CCNB Board Member
December, 2000


t was a beautiful late afternoon in July 1996. 
My wife Carla, and I had been working around in the garden since early morning and had just decided to take in the weekly "Fun Run" (a congenial gathering of folk who get together each Wednesday evening in the summer for a short run along the beaches and byroads nearby and then have supper at a restaurant), when the phone rang.


(photo: exn.ca)


"Mike? Jim Clifford here. I just got back from the Charlo River and you're not going to believe me, but I got photos - a family of Harlequin ducks is swimming in the little run at the mouth of the river just where it empties into the marsh."

I wanted to believe him so much, but Harlequins? A family? Still, Jim is a good birder and not one to jump quickly to conclusions, especially on something as potentially important as this. "Sorry for this, Jim, but you know I have to ask. Are you sure they're not Goldeneyes?"

"No, they're not Goldeneyes. I thought of that myself and really checked them out. Besides, they were right by the side of the road and not shy at all. I had a great long look at them. They're Harlequins for sure!"

"Carla and I are going down to the restaurant for supper. We'll take a swing down by the river right afterwards and see if they are still around. I'll let you know what I find."

After a rather distracted social gathering, for me at least (I couldn't stop thinking about Harlequins), we made our excuses and jumped into the car for the short drive down to the Charlo River Estuary here in north eastern Restigouche County, to see what we could see before dusk. As we drove, I reviewed all the pertinent field marks for female and immature Harlequins, especially those that separated them from their sometime look alike relatives, the common Goldeneyes, which frequented the estuary at this time of the year.

*   *   *   *   *

For years, rumours had persisted about sightings of Harlequin ducks (Histrionicus histrionicus) in northern New Brunswick. Stray individuals have been seen, especially in spring and again in fall, in the Benjamin and the Nepisiguit Rivers in northern New Brunswick on an annual basis. They have also been seen in coastal waters around the province and there is a well documented, small overwintering population in the Bay of Fundy. As well, Harlequins are known to breed, again in small numbers, along some of the rivers on the south shore of the Gaspé Peninsula, across the Baie des Chaleurs from here. Historically, that population has always been considered to be the southernmost extension of the summer breeding range. From there, the birds extend north, along the coastlines of Quebec, Newfoundland and Labrador.

It seems that they have never been plentiful in eastern North America, although there is a healthy population along the Pacific coast. In recent decades, the population seems to have been in decline, an unfortunate trend common with many seaducks at present. With Harlequins, the situation is serious enough that the eastern (Atlantic) population is on the Endangered Species List.

 

Harlequin Ducks. 
Note the male at left with its antenna. 


(photo : Serge Brodeur, c/o Environment Canada site)

 

Furthermore, there had never been an authenticated record of Harlequins breeding in New Brunswick. Thus there was ample reason for my excitement over Jim's telephone call and for our concern that we "get this one right" before saying too much about it to anyone.

We turned off Route 134 toward the estuary, drove down the short dirt road that opened onto the marsh, crossed the railway tracks and the small iron bridge - and abruptly slammed on my brakes. There, right in front of us, about a hundred meters away was a group of small, dark ducks on the water - five, six, no - eight of them, diving and swimming in the little run created by the river as it flowed into the still waters of the estuary.

I was half out of the car before it had decently stopped, grabbing for my scope and struggling to extend the tripod. I took a deep breath, paused to gather my thoughts and to find the birds in the scope. The first bird I saw was small, dark brown, indistinct smudges on the head, a nicely rounded head, short, stubby bill. The second, very much like the first - young birds, with still indistinct markings. Quickly I scanned the rest, looking for one that was larger - the mother…and there she was. She displayed the three distinct white patch marks on her head, one behind her eye and one below it, the third in front, extending up toward her forehead. There could be no doubt. Jim had been right; we were looking at a family of Harlequin ducks where none had ever been seen previously - or, if they had been, the viewer had not realized what he or she was seeing.

Back home, I contacted David Christie of the New Brunswick Federation of Naturalists, to tell him of the birds and to ask for guidance on how to handle the sighting. On the one hand, the birds were vulnerable because they were in close proximity to the road. Hordes of birders trying to add them to life lists and to get pictures might very well drive them into seclusion or out of the area entirely. Even worse, that kind of attention might cause the female to abandon the youngsters at a time when they still relied on her for leadership and guidance. On the other hand, the birds seemed to be at home and under no stress.

In the end, we decided to let the existence of the birds be known but not to announce the exact location; instead, seriously interested birders were asked to contact me and I would be willing to take them in to see them, something which happened several times before the birds departed in late August.

The following year, two females hatched clutches in the same area. I may very well be the only living person in New Brunswick to have seen thirteen Harlequin ducks, two females and eleven young birds, swimming together in New Brunswick waters in breeding season. I happened upon that remarkable sight in August of 1997, on an evening when I happened to be simply scouting around for whatever might be in the area.

In 1998, we found a female in the Charlo Estuary and I also found one, with four ducklings in the Benjamin, confirming the suitability of that river as a breeding site.

In 1999, we had one family in the Charlo, for the fourth consecutive year. And that, for the moment, has been the end of the streak. We could not confirm anything this past summer. I am not unduly alarmed by this because I don't know of any drastic reason for their not showing up; certainly nothing untoward has happened to the local environment. Rather, I suspect that the female that started all of this may well have reached the end of her days and that the pattern for returning to this area has not been fully imprinted on her offspring. Furthermore I think that it is simply a matter of time before we find them again - perhaps not every year, but on a regularly recurring basis.


(photo: The James L. Baillie Memorial Fund
for Bird Research and Preservation)

The Harlequin duck situation in northern New Brunswick cries out for a detailed study, especially in May and through the summer. There are several candidate rivers which should be thoroughly and carefully surveyed for breeding populations. Unfortunately, this would be tough work. The weather in May in this area can be decidedly unpleasant; the rivers are high and river banks are densely covered with bush; indeed most areas are all but inaccessible.

Still, there is a very important challenge here for a dedicated field researcher. We now have a good idea of where to look for birds; we know when to look for them, and we know that they are there - or at least that the potential for their presence is very real. However, a detailed systematic study is what we require, something along the lines of work which I am currently doing with Black scoters in the Restigouche Estuary and that is being done with other birds in different places.

So if there is anyone out there who is looking for a wonderful opportunity to get up close and personal with the rarest duck in New Brunswick, let's talk!

Mike Lushington is a retired high school teacher
and is a member of the Board of Directors for the  Conservation Council of N.B. 
He lives Pt. LaNim, NB, near Dalhousie
.