The long-tailed duck (Clangula hyemalis) takes its name from the lengthy, pointed appendage of the male. This bird is quite variable in appearance, as it goes through several phases of plumage throughout the year. The consistent themes, however, are black wings with no markings, plus a good deal of white on the body. In summer, this duck’s head is mostly black with a large white patch, but in winter the pattern reverses, becoming a white head with a dark patch. Most males also display a wide band of pink near the tip of the bill.
The female long-tailed duck is also variable in appearance, although she tends to be darker than her mate. However, she, too, is characterized by dark wings and bright white sides. Her face, largely dark in the breeding season, fades to a pale color with a dark spot on the cheek in winter. Unlike the male, her bill is entirely dark with no pink.
The immature long-tailed duck is somewhat similar to the female in appearance, being largely brown with white scattered across the face, breast, and underparts.
Best Field Marks
- White-and-black plumage of male.
- Black wings with no markings.
The long-tailed duck is famous for keeping up a steady stream of noise, sort of a musical yodel sometimes written out as owl-omelet. This sound can be heard for miles. However, most long-tailed ducks in Kansas are not quite so vociferous.
Distribution & Occurrence
This species is a duck of salt water and large lakes. Nevertheless, the occasional bird (generally one in its first year) can be found passing through Kansas here and there from late October to mid-April, but primarily in November. While sightings have been reported from across the state, Cheyenne Bottoms and Milford Reservoir appear to be particularly attractive to migrating long-tailed ducks.
Long-tailed ducks are highly social and active, calling frequently as they fly together in tight flocks. They move low over the water, rocking their bodies from side to side and turning rapidly as a group.
These ducks are likewise busy when on the water, bobbing up and down frequently as they dive for their food. They will go to great depths to look for shellfish and similar animals.
Attracting long-tailed ducks is not generally a backyard pursuit.
Hunters lure these ducks with decoys.
Given the similarity in the tails of the males of these two species, it is understandable how some could mistake one for the other. However, closer attention to field marks will readily clear up any confusion. The pintail has a dark head and a greenish brown speculum on the wing. Contrast these characteristics with the white-patched face and solid dark wings of the long-tailed duck. If the duck in question has a striking pied pattern, it is unquestionably a long-tailed.
Photos, audio, and more information from Cornell’s All About Birds site.