The Harlequins of Sachuest

Sea Ducks of the Winter Surf
A male harlequin duck, in all its finery
Nature's whimsy — a male harlequin

Histrionicus histrionicus—that's the Latin name given to one of the rarer and more entertaining birds that visits the East Coast, the harlequin duck. It's an apt handle for this small, garishly plumaged, and theatrical diving duck. And on this mild and sunny January Sunday, I'd decided to drive from my Connecticut home to the Atlantic Ocean, bound for Rhode Island's Sachuest Point National Wildlife Refuge—perhaps the best place on the Northeast coast to observe wintering harlequins.

Sachuest Point (pronounced SATCH-you-EST) is in Middletown, Rhode Island. A short drive from downtown Newport, it occupies the southeast tip of Aquidneck Island. I pass a beach where surfers in wet suits paddle into winter waves, and as I draw near the refuge, buildings disappear and the ocean-washed lowland unfolds.

Among birders, harlequin sightings are highly prized. Almost unheard of along my Long Island Sound stamping grounds, harlequins are found at Sachuest in an exceptionally large concentration. My excitement builds as I turn right at a fork and follow a sandy road straight into the refuge parking lot. Though close to civilization, Sachuest Point feels isolated—a mound of low coastal vegetation fronting the Atlantic, between Sachuest Bay to the west and the Sakonnet River to the east. Comprising about 250 acres, with its southern end encircled by a nature trail, it is small for a national wildlife refuge and can be covered on foot in a couple of hours, yet I will learn that the saunterer seeking escape can lose himself in its concentrated wildness.

I ask a birder returning to his car where I can find the harlequin ducks. He points past an observation platform to the sea and simply says, "Nice!" I needn't have asked. Cutting through the shrubbery to the ocean, in minutes I walk onto a promontory that plows the waves. Some 50 feet below and 150 yards offshore, just beyond waves and salt-sprayed rock, the dark and chubby harlequins are the first birds I see.

Published: 28 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication

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