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Harlequin Ducks and Cutthroat Trout at LeHardy Rapids

The harlequin ducks, I was pleased to see, were still at LeHardy Rapids.

It had been three years since I saw them last at this spot on the Yellowstone River, a few miles downstream of Fishing Bridge in Yellowstone National Park.  I had looked for them in 2010 but they hadn’t been in residence on the few days that I stopped by; in 2011, I spent my summer in Sequoia National Park in California’s Sierra Nevada.

A male and female rested on a boulder forty feet from shore, surrounded by raging whitewater.  It was the exact same tiny island on which I had seen the harlequins in 2006, 2007, and 2009.  There were other, smaller rocky outcrops nearby, but I’d never seen the ducks take advantage of them.  The male was awake and preening, running his dainty bill over the slate-blue feathers of his right wing, giving himself a good shake, then starting work on his other side.  The female’s head was tucked tidily along her muddy brown back, her weight sunk low onto the rock.  The birds were relaxed and wholly in their element.

Two men with expensive cameras and long lenses sat on the riverbank, their tripods collapsed to the lowest possible height.  They alternately peered through their viewfinders and chatted.  It appeared they had already gotten all the pictures of Harlequin Ducks at Rest that they wanted; they were now waiting for the birds to do something more interesting.  I, too, decided to wait.  I meandered upstream a little ways and found a nice spot on the wooden fish-viewing platform overhanging the main rapids.  From there, I could see the ducks, but I could also watch cutthroat trout that lurked in the pools below the biggest tumbles of water.  The eighteen-inch fish waited, waited … and then, suddenly and startlingly, one would hurl itself out of the water, a great uncoiling spring released.  Most jumps failed to clear the three-foot waterfall, and the fish would be pushed back into the comparatively still waters of the pool below, to wait and rest and try again.

Two families with elementary-school-age kids, apparently traveling together, came straggling down the trail to the riverside.  Yelling, the older boys ran ahead, passing by the harlequin ducks with barely a glance and heading for the platform on which I stood.  They leaned over the rails and hollered back at their slow-moving parents and younger siblings.  “I see a fish!”  “There’s one!  There’s one!”  They pounded farther up the boardwalk.

Distracted by the hubbub, I missed seeing the harlequins slip off their rock and into the white fury of the Yellowstone.  The brightly-colored male’s markings, so bold on dry land, made for cryptic camouflage when the bird was afloat among the splashes and airborne droplets of the whitewater.  The dark, drab female swam alongside her mate.  Staying almost perfectly still relative to shore, the two birds must have been paddling furiously with their feet against that whitewater, but you wouldn’t know it from watching them—they looked completely at ease.

As one, the ducks dove beneath the surface.  Thirty seconds later, they came up again, within two feet of the spot where they had submerged.  They repeated their dives, always going under and resurfacing together, always with the female on the left, the male on the right.  I smiled without realizing it, delighted by the romance I read into the scene.

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