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In Search Of The Harlequin Duck In The Tetons

Tennessee Watson
In Grand Teton National Park, Gus Smith, Sarah Hegg and Susan Patla walk up a creek bed in search of Harlequin duck broods. Smith and Hegg work for the park. Patla is retired from Wyoming Game and Fish.

It's the end of August, and I've joined a handful of biologists for an expedition in Grand Teton National Park in northwestern Wyoming.

The journey starts with a paddle across the north end of Jackson Lake to the mouth of a drainage. We ditch the canoe, pull on our neoprene socks, extend our trekking poles and start wading up a creek bed — ankle-deep in the cool water — in search of the elusive Harlequin duck.

Retired Wyoming Game and Fish Biologist Susan Patla tells me to keep my eye on the rock bars that jut out into the creek.

"It's a tough species. One of the toughest," Patla tells me in a hushed voice in an effort to sneak up on the ducks. For close to 20 years, she monitored Wyoming's Harlequin population and worked to protect their summer breeding grounds in the Tetons. Arriving from the Pacific Coast, Wyoming is the farthest east the ducks migrate.

The drakes are blue and rust-colored and the hens are golden-brown. Both have white markings that help them disappear amidst the turbulent white water and rocks.

"Their whole strategy is secrecy," explains Patla.

Predators like peregrine falcons have a hard time seeing the Harlequins, and so do we. Which is why we're spending hours scanning every last pebble for a sign of the bird.

Grand Teton National Park Biologist Sarah Hegg signals me to stop. I freeze as best as one can standing on loose rocks in rushing water. I watch as she pulls out her binoculars and I think to myself: "This is it. A harlequin."

Hegg gestures that I can move now. "Just a stick," she says with a chuckle. "Almost looked like a bird head."

Hegg has already been out here for two days and only counted one brood - that is, a hen and her ducklings.

"There is a lot of slow plodding, and peeking around corners. Seeing ducks a very small percentage of the time," says Hegg.

She picks up a rock hoping for a clue.

"What do you got?" I ask.

"I think it's the outer shell of aquatic invertebrate. But it must have hatched already," says Hegg.

Tiny aquatic creatures like this one fortify Harlequin ducklings before they fly over 800 miles back to their winter homes on the rocky Pacific coast. Hegg thinks the ducks may have moved on to another part of the creek where there's more to eat.

Several years ago Hegg and Patla worked with the Biodiversity Research Institute and the Grand Teton National park to implant transmitters on some of the male ducks. Patla says they tracked their movements from 2016 to 2019.

"We were afraid that this population was genetically isolated," says Patla. "But now we know their migrations are widespread. Their winter grounds are widespread"

They fan themselves out along the coast from Central Oregon to northern British Columbia.

Patla says that's great, "because oil spills on the ocean would be the biggest threat on the ocean especially if they all wintered in one small area."

Patla says even small populations, like Wyoming's estimated 70 breeding pairs of harlequins, make a big contribution to biodiversity because it's the more isolated fringe populations that survive catastrophic events.

"Whether they be man-caused or climatic, so that's why it's very important to keep as much of the genetic diversity and distribution of the species. Because who knows, maybe these will be the pairs that survive."

After a full day of slow, slippery creek exploration, we admit defeat. Not one Harlequin sighting. Patla says it wasn't a day wasted. It's also important to get out and check on the health of the habitat.

As we paddle back across Jackson Lake, we recount all the other amazing birds we saw today, from Sandhill cranes to a Western Grebe and Sharp-shinned hawk carrying prey to its young.

For now, the Tetons still provide the secluded habitat that Harlequins and lots of other species need to thrive.

Tennessee -- despite what the name might make you think -- was born and raised in the Northeast. She most recently called Vermont home. For the last 15 years she's been making radio -- as a youth radio educator, documentary producer, and now reporter. Her work has aired on Reveal, The Heart, LatinoUSA, Across Women's Lives from PRI, and American RadioWorks. One of her ongoing creative projects is co-producing Wage/Working (a jukebox-based oral history project about workers and income inequality). When she's not reporting, Tennessee likes to go on exploratory running adventures with her mutt Murray.
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