The Harlequins of Sachuest

Focusing In
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Adrenaline pumping, I set up my scope with nervous hands, fearing that if I don't act quickly they will move before I get a closer look. Soon I realize it's a false urgency, because glancing around the point I see several rafts of harlequins. Though constantly in motion—riding the waves, diving for mollusks and crustaceans, flying back and forth along the shoreline—they are invisibly tethered to this rocky coast. These crashing waves and swirling waters are their winter home, unfrozen substitute for the rushing streams and turbulent rivers of Canada, where they breed.

Although the black, gray, chestnut, and white plumage of the male harlequin lacks the intensity and garishness of the wood duck or even the mallard, harlequin nonetheless project a wildly colorful appearance. The reason, I believe, is the male harlequin's bizarre patterning. His white crescents, circles, and rings give an impression of color that the bird does not actually possess.

At other Atlantic vantage points—such as Cape Ann, Massachusetts, and Long Island's Point Lookout and Montauk Point—you can see a few harlequins if you're lucky, but here, a mere two-and-a-half-hour drive from my town in southwestern Connecticut, I've already counted 60. A passing birder tells me that the current count is more than 90 individuals; at times, the number of wintering harlequin ducks at Sachuest exceeds 100.

Like the breaking waves that overwhelm the land, the power and stark beauty of the refuge overwhelm the human visitor. I'm sure a cold day on the point can be brutal, but despite what the calendar says, this midwinter day is downright balmy, with a light breeze and brilliant sun. The air is pure, and the pounding surf produces a clean white foam. When the bubbles disperse, the water is tinged with turquoise, so clear I can see the harlequins' paddling feet. Farther out the water turns ocean-blue, and in the ear there is always the fresh sound of water meeting rocks. Nature smiles on Sachuest, and the harlequins, cavorting in the surf, seem to know it. Do I hear one confirm this with a high-pitched whistle?

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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