Long-tailed Duck

Clangula hyemalis



An elegant bird, smaller than the Mallard, though the distinctive long tail of the male may make it appear longer. This sea duck has a small round head and a steep forehead. When flying it has mostly dark wings and light underparts. The plumage of the sexes is dissimilar and varies depending on the season. In winter and spring the male is mostly black, grey and white with a lighter smudge around his eye and a pink patch on his bill. In summer his back is streaky brown, his bill is darker and his belly and flanks are white. Only the adult male has the species' characteristic long central tail feathers. In winter the female has a white band around her neck, a white face and darker areas on her crown and lower cheeks. She has a rich-brown breast-band. Her face grows darker in the summer with a pale smudge around her eye. Juveniles are similar to the adult female in summer, though the patterns on their face are less distinctive.


These ducks thrive on the open sea rather than sheltered, inland waters. It spends its winter on the sea, quite far from the shore, only visiting lakes and reservoirs occasionally. Prefers sandy beaches and in Britain it's most common around Orkney, Shetland and off the northeast coast of Scotland. It breeds primarily on freshwater bodies within the Arctic Circle.


This bird is at home in turbulent seas, seen floating in big swells or flying low near a row of breaking waves, angling its body from side to side. They swim high in the water and dive regularly with a jump and wings semi-open. Winter flocks can be large; birds are playful, engaging in chasing games, and they splash-land after flight.


Dives in search for crustaceans and molluscs, especially blue mussels, cockles, clams and crabs. Diet also includes sandhoppers, small fish and some plant material.


This species doesn't breed in Britain or Ireland. When ice thaws, they nest in tundra along northern coasts of Scandinavia. Females lay 6-8 eggs and she incubates them for up to 29 days; the male deserts during this time. Young develop quickly, flying after about 35 days.


Majority of the UK winter population is in Scotland, with a few hundred in Ireland. The greatest numbers are seen between December and early March, with a presence of around 11 000 individuals.

Observation Tips

Can be a challenge to observe, especially from close up, due to their propensity towards open water and the often rough conditions of winter. The best vantage points are usually on cliff-tops with a view of large, sandy bays.


Quite a vocal sea duck. The male has a yodelling set of calls he makes year-round, a nasally 'ow-owlee'. Female is more reserved, uttering a low quack.