Long-tailed ducks make rare UP appearance

Northwoods Notebook

A flock of long-tailed ducks — a deep-diving sea species more at home on the ocean or arctic — does a flyover on Six Mile Lake in north Dickinson County. (Betsy Bloom/Daily News photo)

Each fall and spring holds the tantalizing possibility an unusual bird will decide to pass by during migration, perhaps even make a short stop to feed or rest before moving on to wherever the final destination might be.

The pickings this fall, however, have been pretty scant. Maybe the cool, gray days have convinced the birds to keep pressing on, but avian visitors have been few and far between.

Timing and luck often makes the difference. Saturday, both aligned at Six Mile Lake.

It didn’t start promising as I stopped at the boat launch, scanning for birds and seeing only the same muskrats that must have a burrow or lodge somewhere nearby. Even they were unwilling to be photographed.

As I pondered whether to call it quits or stalk the muskrats, movement overhead caught my eye. A sizable flock of ducks, traveling fast but close enough to snap off a handful of shots before they were gone.

As they were silhouetted against the sky, I had no way of knowing what they might be, other than they appeared large and different. It wasn’t until I got back to my vehicle and could zoom in did it become apparent how different. This was definitely an odd duck for the inland Upper Peninsula.

The long-tailed duck is a sea species — like the scoters and eiders — that spends summers nesting in the arctic, and winters on the ocean along both coasts, or on very large freshwater lakes, according to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s All About Birds site, www.allaboutbirds.org.

Lake Michigan, in particular, has become a favorite wintering area for these ducks, but even there they are difficult to actually see, as they will remain far offshore. Birders and photographers count themselves lucky to get some shots at an individual or two. The males are particularly distinctive, boldly patterned in white and dark brown, plus the long, tapering tail feathers that give them their name.

“They’re fantastic when you see one of these males,” said Ryan Brady, conservation biologist with the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources office in Ashland.

So it’s a rare opportunity to have a whole flock, in flight, that numbered about 40 birds, especially over a small body of water like Six Mile Lake.

Given the direction, they likely were traveling from Lake Superior to Lake Michigan, Brady said. Lake Michigan is warmer and more nutrient-rich, so offers better feeding, he explained.

Long-tailed ducks can stay far out on the lake because they are among the deepest divers among waterfowl, going as far as 200 feet down to forage, according to Cornell.

“Of all diving ducks, the long-tailed duck spends the most time under water relative to time on the surface,” Cornell states. “When it is foraging, it is submerged three to four times as much as it is on top of the water.”

They consume aquatic insects, crustaceans, smaller mussels and clams, even fish and fish eggs, according to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

Though not widely hunted, long-tailed ducks were classified in “The State of the Birds 2014” report, a regular assessment done by some of the nation’s top avian experts, as a “common bird in steep decline.” The reasons are unknown, according to the Cornell Lab — fishing nets were known to kill thousands of the diving ducks a half-century ago but little modern data is available. Again, its habits make it difficult to study.

I don’t expect to again have the species show up at Six Mile Lake, individual or flock, even as I hope their numbers take a turn for the better. So I’ll savor that something I should have needed to travel to see showed up virtually in my backyard.