Looking for Long-tails -Winter 2016

by: Virginia Andrews

Imagine a winter sunset, beginning around three in the afternoon. The beach is empty, the sharp wind cuts like a knife.The ocean churns, tossing back spray tinged in tones of gold, peach and lavender.

Clouds, pewter and silver, are reflected in the swash, while deep green swells roll in, one after another, with nothing much but sea foam between the frozen beach and Spain. Then, low, the first flock shows, a thin, dark, undulating line just above the horizon. It is a broken line at first, then a double tributary led by a clump of dark dots. Soon more lines form: some high in the sky, some distant, some close, appearing and disappearing in the trough of the wave. More and more pass as the minutes tick by, the sun sinking slowly.

The dark line is now a river, a mighty stream of almost uncountable birds. Then, a flock flies right overhead, black and white plumage gilded by the pale winter sun, a haunting, multi-voiced “oodleoodle-ehwhooo” echoing above. The Long-tailed Ducks are on their evening commute.

LONG-TAILED DUCKS are not your average barnyard fowl. They are sea ducks, foraging far from land during the day and roosting in quieter near-shore waters by night. They are surprisingly small in the hand, about 16 inches long and only weighing about a pound and a half. Only the males show the distinctive tailfeathers that give the species its name. With two long, sharp black plumes, the male can be 21 inches from bill-tip to tail-end. Females are not quite as showy, though they are also beautifully patterned.

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