The Harlequins of Sachuest

Quality Time with Harlequins
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Though I want to explore Sachuest for other wild treasures, I'm stuck on the harlequins with a grin on my face, incredulous that my count has risen to 90, the birds almost evenly divided between males and females. Harlequin ducks are not the only rarity found here in numbers. Along the refuge's Ocean Ridge Trail comes a steady procession of birders—dozens of people wearing binoculars and toting scopes. It's as if I'm on another planet where harlequin ducks and birders are the dominant life forms.

All of the birders I speak to are Rhode Islanders, and many are as excited about the harlequins as I. One is rightly proud that her tiny state has such a big attraction for out-of-town birders. To some who bird here regularly, perhaps the harlequin is no longer so exotic. A woman wearing binoculars asks me, "Is there anything here besides harlequin ducks?"

A small group of harlequins, only yards offshore, is being photographed by a woman perched on a wet boulder. Surprisingly tame, they don't seem to fear her and make no effort to move away. They may be curious about her, one of the many flightless vertical creatures who shun water and follow them all along the refuge shoreline.

Most of the harlequins stay just beyond the breakers, but now and then one rides inside the arc of a wave or dives under a wave that is about to break. Like many diving ducks, they take a short vertical leap before entering the water, which must give them momentum and allow them to enter cleanly. For a small duck they seem heavy in flight, and resting on rocks they look graceless. Once in the water, however, they are Olympian swimmers with abundant personality.

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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