A Long-Tailed Duck (Clangula hyemalis) gulps down a gizzard shad at Lion’s Lake in Washington, Missouri. A serendipitous series of conversations led me to water’s edge, where I photographed this sea duck, formerly known as the oldsquaw, on a chilly afternoon last March.
A few days earlier, I had received an email from my friend Brad, asking to verify his identification of a juvenile long-tailed duck he had observed on Creve Coeur Lake in St. Louis. I agreed with his identification, but I also checked with my friend Mark to be positive. Mark told me another longtail had been spotted at Lion’s Lake, a city park lake in Washington, only 15 minutes from my home. Excited, I packed my camera gear and headed for the site. Upon arrival, I discovered not one, but three long-tailed ducks diving for shad in the middle of the lake.
If you are not a waterfowler or serious birder, you might be wondering, “Why all the excitement about a duck?” Well, the long-tailed duck isn’t just any duck you might see in Missouri, such as a mallard or gadwall. The longtail breeds far north in the Arctic, and its idea of warm, wintering ground is coastal Canada and the northern coastlines of the United States.
The long-tailed duck is listed in Birds in Missouri as a rare migrant, usually spotted on large reservoirs or the upper Mississippi River. Its black and white plumage varies depending on the season. The male I’ve featured here is in winter plumage with its white head, gray face, black patch along the neck, and black back feathers leading to a long whip of a black tail. Later in spring, both the male and female become much darker, the male’s head and neck turning completely black. My favorite feature of the long-tailed duck is the bubblegum-colored ring around the male’s bill.
The long-tailed duck dives for prey, and it is known for spending more time underwater than on the surface, at least when actively feeding. I found this to be the case, as well. Often, I had to reposition my tripod for a shot as an individual surfaced at an unexpected location, far from its
Skillful in technique, one rarely surfaced without a squirming gizzard shad. I was enthralled as each longtail finished off its meal, facilitating the process by lifting its head and tail to form a graceful arc (see inset photo). I feel fortunate to have seen the longtails so close to my home, and I often wonder what they were doing so far south along the central flyway.
Although I’d heard stories from duck hunters about occasional sightings of oldsquaws in Missouri, I never thought I’d see one myself. It’s hard to believe that after all those years I now feel completely in touch with these long-distance travelers from the Arctic. I sure hope I see them again someday. You can bet I’ll be checking Lion’s Lake this spring. —Story and photographs by Danny Brown
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