Tail feathers key to identifying long-tail duck

December 18, 2007 


    Scientific name: Clangula hyemalis
    Where found: In the ocean over sandy substrates when they winter on both coasts of North America; otherwise shallow ponds and lakes in the Arctic when breeding
    Places to look: Point Roberts, Bellingham Bay, Drayton Harbor/Semiahmoo Bay in Blaine

If you wonder how the long-tailed duck got its name, take a gander at the tail feathers of the male. Such distinctive tail feathers on the males are among the features that make these medium-sized diving ducks stand out.

Others are:

• Their ability to dive deeper than most other ducks while foraging, more than 200 feet.

• Their affinity for hanging out under water while searching for food, spending up to four times longer below the surface than on top — longer than any other diving duck.

• The fact that they molt more than twice a year, unlike other ducks, because they have four different-looking plumages. Think of it as nature’s change of clothing, one that has the ducks molting April through October.

These ducks breed in the Arctic, where their population numbers in the millions. In Washington state, these common winter visitors may be found from October to May, usually in deep salt water in areas that are sheltered and sometimes with scoters, which also are ducks.

Large numbers of the birds have been found in Bellingham Bay and off Point Roberts. There was a high of 1,200 long-tailed ducks counted on Bellingham Bay in February 1987.

More recently, Bellingham Christmas Bird Count numbers totaled 48 last year, 52 the year prior, and 17 in 2004.

The number of long-tailed ducks is believed to have declined. Because they gather in such large numbers in the Arctic, they could be endangered by oil spills. Fishing nets that catch and drown the ducks when they’re diving also pose dangers to the overall population.

Long-tailed ducks like to eat crustaceans and mollusks while wintering in coastal waters. In summer, they will eat some plants, aquatic insects and other aquatic invertebrates.

These medium-sized ducks have wing spans of 28 inches and they weigh up to 39 ounces.

Unlike other waterfowl, their breeding plumage — what non-birders might think of as their fancy feathers — occurs only in winter. So while they’re in Whatcom County coastal waters, males have big white spots of color on their backs and white feathers on the tops of their heads. Their cheeks are dark gray. They have a pink band near the tip of their bills.

The adult females’ looks are less dramatic. Their tail feathers are much shorter, and while they have white faces, white underbellies and brown/black wings, their winter markings are not as cleanly distinct as those of the males.

In spring, the brown/black feathers of both sexes dominate their plumage.

Sources: “The Sibley Guide to Birds,” by David Allen Sibley; Birdweb.org; “Birds of Washington: Status and Distribution,” edited by Terence R. Wahl, Bill Tweit and Steven G. Mlodinow; Cornell Lab of Ornithology online

Reach Kie Relyea at kie.relyea@bellinghamherald.com or 715-2234.

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