As a former duck hunter, I have always had an attraction to beautiful ducks. Some are so touched with patterns and colors that they don’t look real. A prime example is the Harlequin Duck. The first time I saw one of these little sea ducks was at Sylvan Heights Waterfowl Park in Scotland Neck, NC. From that moment I wanted to make their picture in the wild.
Harlequin Ducks live in the very northern regions of North America. They range from Alaska down to the northern-most states in the western U.S. and from Greenland to the northern-most states in the eastern U.S. The vast majority of these ducks live on the Pacific Coast while the eastern population is declining and considered endangered. More than half of this eastern population winter in coastal Maine mostly around Penobscot and Jericho bays. New Jersey is pretty much as far south as they go.
This month we hit the road to track down a raft of Harlequins. Luckily, the nearest location was only a 14.5 hour drive away in the Garden State. One of the barrier islands along the New Jersey coast is the home to Barnegat Island Lighthouse and lots of interesting waterfowl. We arrived on a Sunday afternoon and were blessed with good light but, high winds, heavy surf and temperatures in the 20’s(F).
Anyone planning a bird-watching or photo expedition to Barnegat must first be aware of the conditions they will face. The lighthouse park has a beautiful parking lot but, the gates close at 4:30pm so you have to park outside this area or risk getting locked in. There are 2 sets of nice restrooms but, they are only open on the weekends during the winter. It’s approximately a 500 yard walk from your car out to the beach and onto the start of the jetty.
Many of the small details look like an oil painting
The jetty is about 0.7 miles long and is constructed of huge boulders with relatively flat top surfaces. The Harlequin Ducks are usually found near the final 200-400 yards at the eastern end of the jetty. BE CAREFUL! Walking on the jetty can be hazardous to your health! Huge gaps, uneven surfaces, water, ice, moss, algae and bird poop are all waiting to make you slip, fall and hurt yourself.
Even after watching the Harlequins for a couple of days I am still in awe of their beauty. Many of the small details look like an oil painting. You can actually see what appears to be brush strokes in some areas. When looking at still images, it’s hard to imagine that these are living creatures.
Obviously, the main reason we went to Barnegat was to see the Harlequin Ducks but wait, there’s more…
Monday we spent all day on the jetty. In spite of the fact that temperatures were in the low teens with brisk winds AND there were duck hunters shooting from their boat-blind only a few hundred yards from the jetty, we still saw several different kinds of ducks.
Way out in the middle of the channel were some Long-tailed Ducks or “Oldsquaw” as they were formerly known. These graceful medium-sized ducks breed in the Arctic and also don’t come any further south than NJ. They were WAY out of range of my 500mm lens even with the 2x teleconverter but, I snapped a few images anyway. Maybe next trip we can get a bit closer.
We had a fantastic visit to Barnegat, NJ and feel quite fortunate that we were able to see the Harlequin Ducks. Wildlife and nature in general don’t care that you drove nearly 30 hours round-trip to see them. It’s not uncommon to come up empty on a trip like this but, not this time!
…that’s all for now.