Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Long-tailed Ducks

I've always had a thing about ducks. Maybe it's because the only really birdy places when I was growing up were the local lakes and gravel pits that surround Oxford in great abundance. Here I would spend time getting to know the local duck species and methodically searching through the flocks for anything different. The first national rarity I ever found was a duck - a Ring-necked Duck at Blenheim Palace lake in 1979, while the first Long-tailed Duck I ever saw was a female on the now long-gone gravel pits that used to be situated where Farmoor II reservoir now stands. There was no access to these pits in those days, but as boys we used to nip under the wire any way and have a good look round - we knew all the tricks!!

Since then, I've seen Long-tailed Ducks regularly, but in England they're pretty thin on the ground and a flock of 20 is certainly noteworthy. In addition, they often tend to be well offshore, particularly in the relatively shallow North Sea where I did most of my birding in the last 20 years or more. I remember once seeing a large flock of well over 100 birds in the Firth of Forth on the East coast of Scotland one winter in the 1990s, but it wasn't until this winter that I really fulfilled a desire to see these birds really well.

Long-tailed Ducks winter in good numbers along the New Jersey coast and, armed with my trusty camera, I spent some time over the past couple of days photographing them. Despite the really cold weather at the moment, I had no choice but to wade knee-deep into the Atlantic Ocean to get close enough for pictures at Corson's Inlet; the water was so cold it was painful - but it was worth it!! The following day, I was photographing Red-throated Divers/Loons (choose your preferred name!) at Townsend's Inlet, when a group of five amorous males chased down a single female and much cooing and courting took place right in front of me, before they eventually flew off out to the breakers again. The call of courting Long-tailed Ducks is a truly fabulous sound - I recommend it to anyone who has never yet heard it. So here's some shots of a fabulous duck; an unashamed celebration of a little cutie!

Wading into the sea allowed me to get my first shots of loafing Long-tailed Ducks - here a nice group of four males.

Other birds passing by gave some nice flight views. Long-tailed Ducks are easily identified even at great range by their all dark wings with no wing bars or white markings, which contrast with the pale bodies.

Rising up higher, this male allowed me to get some of the feel of the habitat into the shot.

As these two peeled away, the crashing breakers came into full view - I needed to keep an eye on them as well as the ducks while I was in the water!!

With a strong swell on the water, timing the shots was tricky, but I was pleased to get this pair riding over the top of a wave just before it broke.

The first full view of a female for you - the left hand bird with the white face and brown back. This is most of the group of six birds that dropped down in front of me at Townsend's Inlet as I sheltered from a hideous cold wind!

Much pushing, shoving, cooing and generally showing off followed!

The female makes a getaway during a particularly boisterous moment, but she didn't go far before dropping into the water again - I think she quite liked the attention! Most of our northern ducks court and pair up during the winter; this allows for better use of their time during the relatively short summer that they spend in the high Arctic. If they are already paired up, they can go north in the spring and just get on with the family raising chores. (Or at least the females can; the males don't have much to do with it, but that's another story!

The female's certainly the centre of attention here!

The female dives....

...and the lads are left looking for her!

Well, there you go, that's Long-tailed Ducks for you - though I reckon they will feature again soon!