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Jesters of the Jetties

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Dec 19, 2008 | by Adrian Binns

While not leading trips out of the country, I enjoy visiting the local winter hotspots for birding and photography on sunny days. The jetty at Barnegat Light on the Atlantic coast in New Jersey north of Atlantic City remains one of the easiest locations to see exquisite Harlequin Ducks in winter. This fascinating uncommon (in eastern North America) sea duck is unique in that it inhabits fast flowing freshwater streams in northeastern Canada during the breeding season and winters in salt water along the eastern seaboard.

A recent visit produced striking looks at the brightly colored males bobbing up and down on the swirling water. Between 30 and 50 overwinter at Barnegat congregating along the rocky ledges and jetties where they dive to feed on mussels and gastropods in the shallow turbulent waters. They are relatively tame and while walking to the end of the jetty I came across several small family groups resting on wet algae covered rocks. The females are a rather drab brownish gray color with a small white patch at the base of the bill and behind the eye. The males, on the other hand, are a dark slate blue with distinctive chestnut flanks, along with white streaks on the body and a white crescent shape patch at the base of a bill.

It gets both its common and scientific name from the classic character actors of the Italian theatre centuries ago. Harlequin, from the multi colored and patterned costumes comedic actors wore on stage and Histrionicus meaning histrionics from the Latin for actor. It also has other colloquial names such as “Squeaker” and “Sea Mice” after their high pitched mouse like calls, and “Rock Duck” from their habit of hauling themselves out onto rocks. I’ll blog more about bird names, a favorite subject of mine, in the near future.
photos © adrian binns

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