The deepest diving duck, the Long-tailed Duck, is found wintering in Long Island waters. A beautiful duck, Long-tails have three molts per year, more than any other species of duck. They are sea ducks with a short bill and a short neck. The males from October to March have a plumage that is white on the lower half of the body and black on the top and the dark bill has a pink band around it. In the spring, around April, the male becomes brown-black with a large cheek patch that is white and gray and the undersides are white. In the summer the head and neck turn whiter and the sides become a darker gray. Only the male has the elongated tail feathers. Molts overlap so that Long-tails appear to be changing plumage continuously, wearing their non-breeding plumage from spring thru the breeding season. Females, similar to males, are mostly white in the fall and winter and brown during the spring and summer. Both males and females have un-patterned dark wings.
Long tails through history have had various names, including; “noisy ducks” (Audubon), “old wives” and “old squaws” possibly based on the males “melodious yodeling”. However, the name was recently changed to Long-Tail to be consistent with the European designation.
Long-tails prefer the marine waters along the coast where they feed on clams, mussels, small fish and snails. They usually feed in waters about 30 feet deep but have been known to dive as deep as 200 feet, making them our deepest diving duck. They propel themselves underwater; mostly by using their feet, but will swim underwater with wings partially opened. While foraging, this duck spends the most time underwater in relation to time on surface, staying submerged 3-4 times as much as on the top of the water.
Long-tailed Ducks like to fly in large flocks very high in the sky when migrating over land, but much lower when over water. They form a pretty site, twisting and turning in the air, showing a black back and then turning to show a white belly.
Long-tails breed through Canada up to Labrador in the Arctic and sub arctic wetlands. They migrate early in the spring and later in the fall, and they winter along the eastern coast from Labrador all the way south to North Carolina.
Breeding age for Long-tails isn’t reached until two or three years of age. Pairs are formed on wintering grounds with males “displaying” by shaking their heads and vocalizing as well as throwing their heads back and bringing it forward. They will raise their rear ends up to display their long tail feathers and white rump. Since many Long-tails spend their winters here on LI, we can often watch this behavior from our shores.
Once arriving on the breeding grounds nests are built on dry areas near the water. A depression, often near rocks or plants, is lined with vegetation and while the eggs are being laid, the nest is lined with down from the female. The females lay six to eleven eggs and they are incubated for 24 to 29 days. After hatching the young will swim and dive while the female protects them, and they can fly at 35 to 40 days.
Long-tails are very abundant, particularly in the high Arctic where there may be millions of birds. However, they are vulnerable to oil spills and also may be caught in fishing nets causing them to drown. Long-tails can be found in Long Island Sound, Great South Bay, and at Montauk and Orient Point State Parks.
Since Long-tails are considered to be the most garrulous of all North American ducks, just listen for the “ow ow owolett” off our shores and look for the long tail feathers on the males as they swim, dive or fly. Beautiful Ducks!
More photos on pages 2.3 and 4