Laura Erickson's For the Birds

Wednesday, May 3, 2017

Long-tailed Duck?!


On our Duluth Audubon Warbler Walks at the Western Waterfront Trail last week and this, we spotted, both times from a distance, a weird duck. My first thought when I first saw it was a Long-tailed Duck, but I dismissed that out of hand because 1) it was in very shallow water by the cattails where we usually see Wood Ducks, Blue-winged Teal, and Mallards and where I have never ever seen a Long-tailed Duck; 2) we never once saw it dive; 3) it was always alone or not far from Wood Ducks. What was I to believe—circumstantial evidence or my own cataract-clouded eyes?

I didn't have my camera along when we first saw it, and we never got very good looks—it had been raining when we started off, and even a bit of water can spell doom for a camera's electronics. And even this week the bird was never close enough for decent photos: the one above is the best I got. We speculated about the large pale patch on the eye, oversized but shaped rather like the teardrop-shaped eye-ring on a female Wood Duck, and the somewhat speckled breast, and passed it off as a weird leucistic female Wood Duck.

To do that, we had to ignore some useful field marks: the dark area on the lower breast and the white area beneath the tail are present in all plumages of Long-tailed Duck and never on Wood Ducks (though we were thinking both could be explained by the bird being leucistic), and the stubby pink and black bill are found on adult male Long-tailed Ducks--never on Wood Ducks, though from the distance in the poor light, we weren't sure that the bill wasn't a bit like a male Wood Duck's. This time of year, according to the field guides, male Long-tailed Ducks are supposed to have a long tail and more striking plumage, and females are not supposed to have that two-toned bill. This bird is clearly functionally illiterate and has not read the guides. But regardless, I'm changing my mind and calling this one a Long-tailed Duck, unless someone who knows more than me can make a case for something else.

So in a way that is both cool and embarrassing, our list of birds for last week and this is officially augmented by one.