I try to make one visit a year to the Ocean City Inlet, preferably after a storm, to see what the wind has blown in. This year I was especially interested in seeing the Harlequin Ducks, reported at this location by several birders on eBird. This duck is on my target list for life birds. Most birders have a list of birds that have somehow eluded detection over the years. Harlequin Ducks tend to hug the coast in winter from the Jersey Shore northward to Maine, so this was my great opportunity. As you probably know this duck is often called the “clown duck” due to the male’s bright and garish coloring. I prefer to think of it as a saltwater Wood Duck. The eastern population breeds in Canada, New Brunswick, Newfoundland, and north. In winter it prefers the rocky coast and surf. In any case, I left St. Michaels at the crack of dawn Sunday with my fingers crossed, hoping to glimpse this bird at the end of the 80 mile trip to the inlet.
The Ocean City jetty and inlet have been a good site for birders for years. I have several life birds first seen there including Long-tailed Duck and Purple Sandpiper. There’s a large parking lot right at the jetty with plenty of free parking this time of year. Only the birders and a few beach combers are of the disposition to be out there in January. My initial survey found Surf Scoters, Brant, Common and Red-necked Loons, and plenty of Red-breasted Merganser’s, but no Harlequins. I usually bird alone, but there were two other birders there with scopes, obviously locals, and I sheepishly let them know that I was looking for the Harlequins as a life bird. They reported they had seen none today, but pointed me down the inlet 200 yards to where they had been seen other days. Twenty minutes later I heard yelling and looked back to see the birders waving and gesturing wildly to me. I hoped and guessed what it was all about and made haste back to their position with my scope, binoculars, and camera in tow. Sure enough, a small flock of 6 flew in (a male and 5 females), right at foot of the jetty, within 30 feet. I got more photos than I care to relate, good sun and all, until they flew away. It was my lucky day.
Just an observation about birders. I think my two friends got almost as much satisfaction in getting me a life bird, as I did. The Harlequin to them may be as mundane as a Robin, but they made sure I saw my bird. Birders are like that.
One last note about this trip. When I filed my observations into eBird later that day I got the automatic nuisance note that 6 Harlequin Ducks is an unusual siting for this location. I filled in the required field and smugly added that I had pictures, actually several hundred of them, nailing down the ID. The next day I got a friendly email from the eBird referee saying that my siting was very unusual for MONTEREY BAY, CALIFORNIA. And by the way, they don’t usually have Herring Gulls at that location either. Whoops, I had clicked on the wrong location in eBird, and humbly apologized and set the record straight. Actually these eBird referees are very tactful and supportive and serve a valuable function. Some of our observations are just plain wrong.