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Nature Notes: Long-tailed Duck

Ed Robinson
January 4, 2023

Over the years I have written several articles about the unique black and white beauties found on Harpswell’s winter waters. I have great appreciation for these hardy birds that include common loons, buffleheads, and common eiders. They may not add a splash of color to a season that is mostly shades of gray, but they are lovely creatures doing their best to survive despite often harsh conditions. There is one more bird we need to add to the list, one that is likely less familiar to you but deserving of your attention.

Long known as the oldsquaw, no longer an acceptable name, the long-tailed duck is labeled with the scientific name Clangula hyemalis. It is the only duck in the genus, meaning it has no close relatives in the waterfowl ranks. Its breeding season runs for three to four months in late spring and summer, normally 1,500 miles or more from here in wetlands of the tundra and taiga areas up to 80 degrees N in northern Canada, Alaska, Greenland, Iceland, Northern Europe, and Russia. Some birds have been documented nesting on large mountain lakes up north, and along sheltered ocean shores. Between November and March, the birds can be found in quiet waters along the upper East and West coasts, or in the Great Lakes, until they depart for the long migration flight to begin the cycle of life once again.

white and brown duck floats on water

A male long-tailed duck (Em Kaplin photo)

I look forward to seeing these slender, graceful birds with the arrival of winter. Unlike the eiders and buffleheads that are easily spotted close to the shoreline, long-tailed ducks are more reclusive, feeding in deeper water and sometimes gathering in larger flocks offshore for the night. Part of this is due to their superb diving ability – unlike most diving ducks that propel themselves exclusively with their large, webbed feet, the long-tail uses its wings as we use our arms. This adaptation allows them to move faster underwater and they have been documented diving well past 200 feet when searching for food. This is part of the diversification among all wild creatures, allowing them to co-exist in adjacent habitats without excess use of limited resources.

These are smaller sea ducks, with adults weighing under two pounds compared to eiders at six pounds. The body is about 20 inches long and plump, with the drakes sporting their namesake pointed tail that may be six inches long. For breeding the drake displays a contrasting dark cheek patch on a mostly white neck and head, dark chest and mostly white body when viewed from the side. The feet and legs are gray and the eyes are orange. Beyond the distinctive tail, breeding males also display an unusual pink band over the top of their short, dark gray bills. After the spring molt the male color scheme is nearly the reverse, and there is a second molt in late summer to an intermediate plumage. Females are far less gaudy than the males, as with most birds, to aid them in survival during the nesting and rearing phases.

Males begin seeking mates with their displays in early winter, and pair bonds are generally made by February. The drakes kick off breeding season by choosing a small area in a marsh or pond, then defending it with various head shaking and bill-tossing. After breeding in May or June, the males separate themselves for molting. The hens select sheltered areas to prepare modest nests in low spots, lined with nearby leaves or other vegetation. The early eggs may be covered with grass and the hen’s own downy feathers to keep them warm until she completes her clutch of six to nine eggs. Incubation of the eggs is around four weeks, and the ducklings can leave the nest within a couple days to feed themselves with mother close at hand. Initial flights take place about one month later.

When long-tails are foraging those deep dives result in the birds spending much of their time underwater, seeking crustaceans, mussels, clams, periwinkles, fish, and zooplankton. On their breeding grounds scientists have observed them taking fish eggs, fairy shrimp, aquatic insects, and plant matter. Unfortunately, their diving skills put them in harm’s way in areas where gill nets are used for fishing, e.g., the Baltic Sea where as many as five million birds used to gather. Because the birds spend so much time away from land, scientists still know relatively little about the birds compared to more accessible species. One banded hen was recorded 17 years after her initial capture, a ripe old age for such a small bird.

a small brown and white duck floats on water

A female long-tailed duck (Ed Robinson photo)

Scientists struggle to make specific forecasts of the vulnerable long-tailed duck population due to the remote nature of the birds’ habitat. Bird conservation group Partners in Flight published an estimate of 3.2 million birds globally, and rated the species as a “Common Bird in Steep Decline.” Since surveys were begun in Alaska in 1957, long-tail counts have dropped 80 percent. The birds are hunted in some regions where they are found in winter but the harvest numbers are too small to have a meaningful impact on the population. Bigger issues are over-fishing, pollution such as heavy metals, oil spills and micro-plastics, and changes in ocean conditions caused by climate change. Some years ago, concerned scientists petitioned the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service to protect the long-tailed duck under the Endangered Species Act of 1973 but USFWS declined to act in the absence of compelling scientific information that such a listing was then warranted.

If you have not observed these lovely birds, I suggest making the effort to do so. On the water they are quite active, diving repeatedly for food. I love to watch them in flight since they are capable of high-speed acrobatics that would do any Navy pilot proud. Cornell’s Birds of the World reports the birds average nearly 50 mph in flight! Take a good pair of binoculars, 10×42 power is a good choice, or a spotting scope with a tripod.  While I have seen the birds off the Cundy’s Harbor waterfront, the most reliable spots for me are in front of the Salt Cod Café at the southern tip of Orr’s Island or north of the beach at Stover’s Point Preserve (a great place year-round for many species of birds). At Reid State Park in Georgetown, I have photographed birds early in the morning right along the rocks. If the wind is down, listen carefully for the regular calls of the vocal males, among them a call that has been described as a yodel.

These beautiful birds have twice graced the winning US Migratory Bird Hunting and Conservation Stamp, more commonly called the federal duck stamp, as recently as 2009-2010. They were also featured on the winning Maine duck stamp in 2021. With growing focus on climate change and environmental protection efforts, we can hope the long-tailed duck will continue to grace our shorelines for generations to come.

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