These beautiful ducks are found in western Montana in high mountain streams and rivers. (Okay, they're not really in the streams and rivers; they're on them.) The name "harlequin" comes from the male plumage, said to resemble the brightly-colored dress of court jesters. Male harlequins are dark blue-gray, with bold accents. Their faces are white, and the bills are dark gray. White markings include a spot over the ear, a patch on the side of the neck, a collar, and a streak from the shoulder to the breast. In addition, their black crowns are highlighted by rust. Females are generally more subdued in their coloring; they are a uniform grayish black, with light cheeks and spots above the eye and the ear.
Harlequins feed mainly on under-water insect larvae, so they depend on environments with moving, oxygen-rich water. They nest on the ground near the water's edge or sometimes in the hollows of dead trees, but you probably won't spot one of their nests; they're known for extremely well-hidden nest sites. Spotting a harlequin while on a hike or float trip is a real treat, and because of their distinctive looks,they are one of the easiest waterfowl species to identify.
It's very important not to harass harlequins, or scare them from their natural homes. As kayaking, rafting and canoeing continue to increase in popularity, it's important for people to remember they're sharing the river with animals such as harlequin ducks.