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WEST GLACIER – They first spotted him in 2011, and caught him in 2012.

The harlequin duck, a male, had a silver band around a leg. The band was so old and worn, Glacier National Park biological science technician Lisa Bate couldn’t even make out a number on it.

She clipped it off and re-banded the duck.

The duck was returned to Upper McDonald Creek in the park.

The unreadable band was shipped off to the U.S. Geological Survey, which keeps track of the species.

“They have some etching process where they’re able to raise the number,” Bate says, and when they did, biologists discovered this male harlequin was at least 17 years old – years beyond what was once believed to be the typical 10-year lifespan, and the third-oldest on record.

Fact is, he could still be the oldest banded harlequin duck in the world (the oldest known has a recorded age of 18 years and 10 months). There’s just no way to tell the age of one, unless a band has been placed on the duck, and even then the duck’s age is dated to the time it was banded, not hatched.

“He was already a full adult male when they banded him on Puget Sound in 1996,” Bate says. “It’s the most amazing thing – when we recaptured him this year, he looked like he was in prime health. He’s just gorgeous.”

His new yellow band has a readable number on it now – he’s No. 83 – but in Glacier, they have another name for him.

They call him “the Old Man.”

***

The Old Man returned to Glacier this spring with his mate, who was caught and banded in 2011 during a cooperative research study being conducted by Glacier scientists and University of Montana researchers that wraps up this fall.

She’s known by the letters on her band, “A.H.”

Harlequin ducks, a species of concern in Montana, are unique among waterfowl.

That starts with the vivid coloring of the male – slate blue, with bold white, black and chestnut markings – that makes it virtually impossible to confuse with any other duck.

The females are considerably drabber, with brownish-gray plumage that allows them to blend in with their surroundings as they settle onto their riverside nests for 28 days after laying their eggs.

They’re sea ducks that spend most of their lives feeding in the turbulent Pacific and Atlantic surfs along the coasts of North America, as well as Greenland and Iceland.

So what brings approximately 40 breeding pairs to Glacier National Park each April?

“They only breed on the streams where the females were born,” Bate says. “The males follow the females to their natal grounds.”

That makes A.H. a native Montanan. Where the Old Man hails from, no one knows.

***

He’s been following A.H. to Glacier Park for at least three years, and quite possibly longer. Bate says the team of researchers spotted him and his old silver band in 2011, when the study began and they banded A.H.

But they were unable to capture him that spring.

Of course, their window of opportunity is fairly small. Feel free to make your own jokes, but the males barely stick around long enough to tend to their procreating duties.

Once the eggs are laid and mom parks herself on top of them, the guys are outta here, headed back to the coast.

“By the Fourth of July, the males are all gone,” Bate says.

“It’s one of the reasons they’re a species of concern,” Bate goes on. “With ducks like mallards, the male and female mate, she lays the eggs, and if they lose them, they re-mate and have a second clutch, and sometimes even a third clutch if necessary. With the harlequins, they show up, but once she incubates her first clutch, the males migrate back. There is no second chance.”

Bate says if the eggs don’t survive – be it because of predators, or high water that washes away the nests they build near the riverbanks – the females will return to the coast in August.

If ducklings are successfully hatched, momma will stay in Glacier as late as October to raise her brood.

Then they return to the coast, and reunite with the same poppa.

***

It’s another interesting thing about harlequins, Bate says. While most birds migrate north and south, harlequins go east and west.

What they want is the pounding surf of an ocean, and the whitewater of a river during breeding season. They feed by swimming or diving under water, eating mollusks, crustaceans and insects.

The Old Man and A.H. haven’t successfully hatched offspring in Glacier since the researchers started their study in 2011.

That year, Bate says, “The nest failed. Last year, their nest was initiated,” but was a victim of predation.

“Something ate the eggs,” Bate says.

It’s too early to tell if the couple will be successful this year.

“They’re just starting their egg-laying,” Bate says of the harlequins.

***

The researchers are using radio-telemetry and banding to learn more about Glacier’s harlequin ducks. The park has the highest density of breeding harlequins in the lower 48 states, and the relatively small area of Upper McDonald Creek accounts for 25 percent of the known broods produced in Montana.

Upper McDonald was known as a favorite of the ducks, but Bate says since the project began, they’ve learned the harlequins visit Snyder Creek and Fish Creek as well.

“We had no idea they moved around like that,” Bate says.

Once the ducks are banded, they’re largely observed through spotting scopes that can identify which bird is which.

Harlequins are slow to mature, sensitive to human disturbance and especially vulnerable to climate change.

“It’s because they like to nest close to streams,” Bate says. “Last year, we had a spring where it was extremely difficult for harlequins to be successful. We’d get high water, then it would recede, then we’d get more high water, then it would recede again.”

This year, Bate says, “It’s not our highest snowpack, and it’s not our wettest June.”

Maybe the Old Man and A.H. will get a brood of ducklings in 2013.

If they do, of course, he won’t know about it. The Old Man will soon be headed for Puget Sound.

As far as he’s concerned, his work in Montana will be done long before anything hatches. 

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Reach the Missoulian newsroom at @missoulian, at newsdesk@missoulian.com or at (406) 523-5240

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