Species Profile: Long-tailed Duck


Waterfowl are perhaps the most interesting animals on the planet. From high north to the deep south, and from desert to wetlands, you can find waterfowl almost anywhere. My favourite of all is a rather hard-to-find resident of British Columbia’s coast: the Long-tailed Duck (Clangula hyemalis).

Range of the Long-tailed Duck. (Source: South Dakota Birds and Birding)
Range of the Long-tailed Duck. (Source: South Dakota Birds and Birding)

As can be seen in the range map, the Long-tailed Duck is a “nonbreeding resident” on the coast of BC. A migratory species, they make the journey here in the winter months; however, they are not confined to just North America. Outside of Canada and the U.S., the ducks can also be spotted in Northern Europe and Russia.

Perhaps the greatest – and most astonishing – attribute of the Long-tailed Duck is its astonishing diving ability. The Long-tailed Duck is the best diver of all waterfowl, and has been tracked at depths near 76 metres (250 feet)! To put that in perspective, a recreational human diver will typically dive to depths 18 metres (60 feet), about 1/4 that of the Long-tailed Duck (and if you are anything like myself, you probably cannot get anywhere near 60 feet as the pressure is intolerable). These ducks truly love the water; not only are they capable of deep-diving, they also spend the most time underwater relative to time on the surface of all ducks. When foraging, it may be submerged four times as much as it is on the water’s surface!

Given their aptitude for being underwater and their limited time spent in BC, they are not an easy duck to spot. To make it more difficult, the Long-tailed Duck has three plumages each year, achieved in a series of overlapping partial molts. Given the complex overlapping (sometimes with portions of all molts visible), their change in plumage seems continuous from April to October. In the winter months, however, expect to see them in their Alternate plumage. The males will have a dark cheek patch on a white head and neck, and a mostly white body with a dark breast. The females in winter will also have a white head and neck, accompanied by a dark crown. Perhaps their most defining feature – and that which they are named after – are their tails, which measure up to 15 centimetres in length!

Given the short winter days in BC, why not try to make the most of the hours of sunlight and see if you can spot a Long-tailed Duck. Be forewarned: the short days may not give you enough time to spot these underwater-loving waterfowl!

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