From the sea to the slopes
Few ducks are more lovely or striking than the male Harlequin in breeding season. Their bluish black head is garnished by a chestnut stripe, two white dots that give the appearance of ears, and two white patches, which, when viewed straight on, look like a clam grabbed the bird’s head. A similar set of colors grace his body such that he looks like a can of paint magically spilled in geometric gaudiness. The name harlequin, in fact, comes from a clown character in Italian comedy who “usually wears particoloured bespangled tights and a visor,” or so opines the OED.
Equally as striking and unusual is the platypussian lifestyle of the species, as if their evolutionary history got caught in some weird feedback loop. Sea dwellers, they summer in the mountains. Fine flyers, they can dive 70 feet down underwater. Walkers of rocky shores, they nest in hollow trees in the forest.
In the past couple of months, I have been fortunate to encounter these lovely sea ducks in both of their habitual locations. The first time was on San Juan Island around the island’s southern end, near Cattle Point lighthouse. About a dozen males and females were paddling just offshore or strolling along the rocks exposed at low tide. Periodically, one would disappear, diving underwater, and pop back up 20 or 30 seconds later. I tailed after them, on shore, glowing with excitement to see what one book describes as “little companies called the ‘Lords and Ladies’ of the waters.”
Recently I was with friends hiking in the Olympic Mountains along a small river. For some reason, I was describing a time (What else is new, me yammering away?) we had seen Harlequin Ducks near the old mining town of Monte Cristo, at about 2,800 feet in elevation and 40 miles from Puget Sound. In the 13 years since that sighting, I had not seen the ducks again in the mountains, despite regularly looking for them.
Not more than 15 minutes later, we were sitting by the water when we spotted two sooty colored birds standing on mossy rocks midstream: a female Harlequin and what looked like a youngster! The location couldn’t be more different than our previous encounter with the birds standing on a beach in the Salish Sea. The mountain pair rested on their rocks long enough for us to take photographs and exclaim over seeing them on our hike. They eventually moved off the rocks and worked their way upstream, regularly diving under the water in search of food.
Not only was seeing the Harlequins after I just mentioned them pretty darned nifty but I was further struck by how I can relate to their life history, also splitting my time between the sea and mountains. One of the many great aspects of Seattle is that I have the opportunity to stay connected to the maritime world of Puget Sound and the mountainous world of the Cascades and Olympics. I love both regions: the sights and sounds, the flora and fauna, the grace of the deep forest and beauty of the inland sea, the open views of the shorelines and the intimate encounters of the understory, the susurration of waves and the cacophony of a mountain stream.
My affection for Puget Sound and the Cascade Mountains also permeates my daily life and informs my writing. My most recent book was Homewaters: A Human and Natural History of Puget Sound. I am excited to announce that I have started work on a new book, about the human and natural history of the Cascade Mountains, which will range from geology to birds, glaciers to carnivores, fish to mining. From the sea to the slopes, it’ll be.
I expect that I will need about 2 - 2.5 years of research and writing and be forced (along with Marjorie) to get out and hike and camp as much as possible. Such is the life of a writer. Let me know if you want get out in the field. By the way, the book is tentatively titled In the Realm of Fire and Ice: Human and Natural History of the Cascade Mountains. I’ll provide updates as the book progresses.