When a cool wildlife biologist comes down the hall looking for help in the field, say “Yes”. Aja wanted to know if anyone was interested in joining him for harlequin duck surveys. I said I was, and today was our day to go hunting. He’d chosen a reach of the Cle Elum River to survey, made maps, and prepared field forms. I got a quick tutorial: walk along the river bank, scan the water with binoculars. In places with a good view, sit and watch for awhile. Ducks may come floating by. If you spot a pair, hit the button on the GPS and record the location. This sounded much more satisfying than the tasks I’ve been doing in the office.
Harlequin ducks are rough water specialists. They winter along rocky coastlines in North America and fly inland to breed on swift rivers. Right now the pairs are locating their nest sites and once the female is established, the male will return to the sea leaving her to raise the young. They will meet back up in the fall. Male harlequins are unmistakable in their slate blue plumage with chestnut sides and highly contrasting white markings. The females are brown, with a white cheek spot, perfect for hiding on a riverbank nest in a stump or in the brush. The population is thought to be stable in Washington state, but their habitat is vulnerable to coastal development, oil spills, and logging.
I really wanted to spot a pair.
It was a warm day and the water was high from melting snow. I clambered along gravel bars, and wriggled through willow thickets. Where the bank was too steep, I detoured through the cool shady woods pushing aside cedar boughs and picking my way through among snow patches. The air was thick with the sound of recently returned warblers, vireos and sparrows. Aja can identify these without seeing the bird– a few bright notes in the treetops and he says, “Townsend’s warbler.” Then “White-eyed vireo”. I am in awe. I kept listening, and it sounded like full-on spring to me.
Approaching a big doug-fir log on a gravel bar, my eye was caught by a pair of ducks floating downstream–mallards. Another pair flew over. But no slate gray, no white cheek patch.
I finally emerged up onto the road where Aja had left the truck, after exploring an old beaver dam in a side channel. I was sticky with the sweet resin that covers cottonwood buds. A few trees are beginning to leaf out, but it is still the time of tight buds.
We both only saw mallards. No harlequins this day. On the way back down the valley we spotted a tundra swan hanging out with the geese on Lake Cle Elum. Canada geese are fairly large birds, but the big white swan dwarfed them.
It is May. When I open my door in the mornings, I smell the sweet scent of unfurling cottonwoods and know that the rivers are running high. And birds are returning.