Dear Readers, to see these impressive ducks at this time of year you need to be bobbing about in a boat turning gently green, preferably in the far north of Scotland, Orkney maybe, or Shetland. In the summer, long-tailed ducks breed in Iceland and Greenland, the tundra of Canada and the taiga of Russia, but they flee the extremes of cold in these parts to winter at sea in (slightly) warmer climes. What grace they bring to a mid-winter boat trip!
These are marine ducks, capable of diving up to 55 metres below the surface in pursuit of small fish, crustaceans and molluscs. Alas, they are not just becoming rare in UK waters, but are red-listed because they are globally threatened – their deep dives lead to them becoming entangled in fishing nets, and trawling and over-fishing are damaging the food reserves upon which they rely.
Long-tailed ducks are raucous and boisterous ducks. In the Crossley Guide to British and Irish Birds, Richard Crossley and Dominic Couzens describe their antics thus:
“Groups often chase one another around in agile pursuit-flight, twisting from side to side. Makes a belly flop and big splash in water when landing. Very vocal, with beautiful yodelling call”.
As you can see from the illustration below, long-tailed ducks come in a whole variety of colours and patterns, depending on age and sex. Most ducks only have a ‘breeding’ plumage and a ‘winter’ plumage, but the long-tailed duck has three, with an additional ‘supplemental’ plumage.
And you can hear that yodelling cry below, recorded by Jarek Matusiak. To me, it sounds like the quintessence of the northlands. In Iceland, the duck is called ‘hávella’, after its call, and a particularly raucous gathering is thought to indicate wild weather to come. On the Birdnote blog, it mentions that the call has led to a variety of names for the bird, including ‘John Connally’, ‘My Aunt Huldy’ and the Cree name ‘Ha-Hah-Way’. See what you think.
Long-tailed ducks are hunted across much of their range – their gatherings must seem extensive, though I’m sure that even the hunters might realise how their numbers have declined over the years. Fortunately there is an agreement on the shooting of migratory waterbirds which has banned lead shot (waterfowl that aren’t shot are often poisoned by ingesting lead pellets), and which works to conserve birds like the long-tailed duck which cross international boundaries during their migrations.
What an extraordinary bird this is! It spends about four times as long under the water as it does on the surface, it yodels and it changes its plumage about as often as we change our outer garments in a week in winter in the UK. There are a variety of projects going on to try to save the long-tailed duck, including one by the RSPB which involves equipping gill nets (which catch not only long-tailed ducks but all manner of other marine life, including dolphins and porpoises) with a googly-eyed device that scares the birds away from the nets. However, I am in broad agreement with this blog by Simon Mustoe, which argues that this is a bit back-to-front – scaring the ducks away from their food source is no way to preserve them and the whole ecosystem. Surely controlling and limiting fishing would be a better idea?