Watching Harlequins on McDonald Creek in Glacier National Park

We watched 8 plump harlequins, two large grizzly bears feeding in avalanche chutes, 9 elk and 6 mountain goats while biking the Going-to-the-Sun Road along McDonald Creek in mid-May. The female harlequins have arrived to join their mates and can be seen feeding, floating and flying back up stream to float down again. Somewhere along the banks, they are tending their well-hidden nests. The grizzly pair spent hours in a lush avalanche zone, visible a 2-mile pedal from Avalanche Creek.

From a long distance by spotting scope, Steve Wirt (retired Forest Service and local naturalist extraordinaire), suspected that they were digging spring beauties. The dusty meadow next to the willow and yew patch is awash with the delicate white flowers, Wirt said. He had seen them earlier, but we watched in vain for about 20 minutes before he headed down and I continued pedaling up the car-less road. I returned to the spot 30 minutes later. Binoculars peeled, I finally won a broad-side view of these magnificent beasts. Spring is a great time to visit Glacier National Park, especially to spot a rare harlequin duck, grizzly bear or moose. Watch the clown-faced ducks surf whitewater on McDonald Creek, one of the best places on Earth to watch these elusive, wilderness-loving ducks.

You'd think they would shy from the roiling waters of spring runoff, but their attitude seems to be: Rage on, mountain waters, rage on! While park crews plow through 30 feet of snow on the cliff-face ribbon of Going-to-the-Sun Road, the lower sections belong to non-motorized travelers of all species. Amble up the road by foot or bicycle from McDonald Lake or Avalanche Creek campground. "Harleys are twice as rare as grizzly bears," says biologist and photographer John Ashley. "To get an eye-level photograph of wild duck, you have to concentrate on nice thoughts and have an acceptable gestalt before the subject will accept you into its space." (Read or download, left John's spring preview of the Crown of the Continent's most colorful waterfowl - harlequins and wood ducks.)

Upstream, as the species-rich avalanche chutes above upper McDonald Valley melt out, they provide a verdant smorgasbord for grizzly and black bears, elk, and the occasional moose. From Avalanche Creek, you can get a great look at a series of avalanche chutes less than two miles up the road. Here, I've spotted many bears.

Don't forget your camera and binoculars! And since bears are around and about, we recommend carrying bear spray and a healthy distance from any bruin you see. This black bear (click on thumbnail photo) was grazing on spring grass along the road. Also, please stay on the road while observing the harlequins and be non-obtrusive while you revel in this treasured opportunity to watch these wildest of ducks in their native habitat. Check out Jay and Hillary's video to appreciate the raw power of Avalanche and McDonald creeks as they drain snowfields high on the Continental Divide.

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Location

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Nearby
Latitude: 48.65580368 Longitude: -113.840232849 Elevation: 3348 ft
the best travel advice comes from the people who live here
Steve Thompson

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Type of Wildlife Often Seen

Ducks, bears and more!

Places and Pointers for Viewing

Spring access on the western side of Glacier National Park is either at McDonald Lake Lodge parking lot or at the Avalanche Campground about 6 miles up the Going To The Sun Road from the Lake McDonald Lodge. Bring a bike if you can!

Driving Directions

Spring access on the western side of Glacier National Park is either at McDonald Lake Lodge parking lot or at the Avalanche Campground about 6 miles up the Going To The Sun Road from the Lake McDonald Lodge. Bring a bike if you can!

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