In last week’s column I mentioned that a rare northern visitor, a Long-tailed Duck, had made its way to the Fredericksburg waste water treatment pond on the east side of the city. This northern duck rarely makes its way to the Gulf Coast Region from Florida to Texas; however this winter seems to be an exception as several sightings have been made in Texas, three of which were in the Hill Country. I recall adding this bird to my life list about ten years ago when one appeared at Mitchell Lake on the east side of San Antonio.
I consulted my bird books and found that these ducks have an interesting background and life history. One interesting tidbit is this species has the highest population numbers among all ducks. The likely reason is that the bird’s range covers the northern latitudes across both hemispheres giving it a very large distribution area across Asia, Europe, and North America. Its breeding range is in the Arctic tundra and it winters along coastlines of both the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. The Great Lakes region also serves as wintering grounds for the ducks.
In Europe, the Long-tailed duck is called the Old Squaw, a name that was also used in North America until recently. Older fieldguide books will likely refer to the name Old Squaw. Interestingly the scientific name, Clangula hyemalis, means “noisy winter duck.” I read that this duck has been described as being friendly, gay, chatty and happy-go-lucky. The basis for the scientific name comes from its noisy and garrulous behavior. In some places the ducks are known as the “harbingers of winter” as it gathers in large offshore flocks along the northern coast lines.
The Long-tailed Duck’s tail is very similar to our North American Northern Pintail’s; however, these ducks are not that closely related genetically. As with our pintails, the longtail males have long wispy tail feathers which they use in their courtship rituals. The breeding male Long-tailed Duck has a black head, neck and breast with a large white tear-drop face patch. His bill has a pink tip, whereas his mate’s bill is black. Both genders have white underbellies and brown backs. In the winter season the male’s head and neck are white with a large black spot behind his eye and upper neck.
The Long-tailed Duck that appeared in Junction at the end of the year was thought to be a female, as well as was the individual at Inks Lake fish hatchery. The Fredericksburg visitor is definitely a male with pink bill and dark head and white teardrop-shaped face patch. I am hopeful the male stays here long enough to molt into his full breeding plumage, as it would be my first look at this plumage. I have little likelihood of seeing them in the Arctic tundra where they breed.
Long-tailed Ducks are also the champion divers among all of the duck species. They can disappear in a flash and dive to depths of 60 meters in search of aquatic mollusks and crustaceans, their favorite food. To dive to depths of 180 feet requires much time underwater; thus they must have special capacity lungs to hold air to complete a long underwater dive. Because of this ability to submerge for long periods, they are very difficult to locate while they are feeding. In a few seconds they can replenish their air supply and resume diving.
I have no idea when our visitors will depart the Hill Country, but being winter ducks, my intuition says as soon as the days and water get warmer, they will seek colder water. Their breeding hormones will begin to take affect and tell them it is time to head north. My research says most are gone by April, but little is known about their infrequent stays in our southern regions.
I gave directions last week to the Fort Martin Scott grounds in Fredericksburg where this duck can be seen on the adjacent water treatment pond. It is best to have a telescope for better views, but good binoculars can give you good views as well. The treatment plant facility grounds are not open to the public. I will give you an update next week on his presence.