March 16, 2014
This winter’s Arctic freeze brought a passel of unusual birds to Ohio.
There was an incredible influx of red-necked grebes, diving waterbirds that are usually rare in Ohio waters.
Scores of white-winged scoters turned up throughout the winter, wherever open water could be found. The scoter is a sea duck, and most of them winter in marine waters.
Best of all, perhaps, were the near-record numbers of long-tailed ducks. Dozens of the sea ducks turned up from Lake Erie to the Ohio River.
A drake long-tailed duck is a visual treat arguably unrivaled in the showy pageantry of the waterfowl world. The duck is pied in patterns of white, black and gray.
Most astonishing are the tail streamers. They resemble a pair of feathery scissors tacked to the rear of the bird. The duck often holds its streamer feathers, which are the length of its body, high in the air. The female is far more muted in tone, and hens lack the namesake elongated tail.
Long-tailed ducks are often heard before they’re seen. They’re noisy fowl, and the males create a constant clamor when together. The long-tailed duck’s former name — oldsquaw — suggests the species’ penchant for constant grumbling.
So do many of the dozens of colloquial appellations: old wife; old granny; scoldenore; and, my favorite, the Cree name Hah-ha-way. The latter is onomatopoeia: The name mimics the bird’s call.
The collective din of a pack of long-tailed ducks is a thing of aural beauty, at least to my ear. Brief clucks are punctuated by drawn-out hoarse scolding yells. A coarse music, perhaps, but an interesting chorus that rises above that of the other fowl. A big pack can be heard for a half-mile or more.
The birds are further distinguished by their incredible diving ability. Long-tailed ducks routinely descend to 200 feet.
That would be akin to diving from the top of the Ohio Judicial Center’s 200-foot-tall roof to the bottom of the adjacent Scioto River, then returning to the roof. The birds are lured to the depths by tasty crustaceans, fish and other animals.
Prolonged bitter weather this winter almost froze the Great Lakes solid.
During a typical winter, the lakes have plenty of open areas. The openings support many diving ducks — including long-tailed ducks, red-necked grebes and white-winged scoters.
The brutal winter froze them out, and the birds were forced inland, where bird-watchers could easily observe them.
By the time you read this, the thaw will have spread north, and the hardy long-tailed ducks will be pushing relentlessly north to their Arctic breeding grounds.
Naturalist Jim McCormac writes a column for The Dispatch on the first and third Sundays of the month. He also writes about nature at www.jimmccormac.blogspot.com.