Long-tailed riders of the waves

Long-tailed riders of the waves

Part of the attraction of going to the coast and seeing the various moods of the sea is the anticipation as you get closer.

Such was the case last weekend. With the strong offshore wind and sunshine, it promised be spectacular – and it was.

The high waves seemed as though they had built up from way out on the dark-green sea.

The backcloth in the far distance was the hills of Sutherland, where, with the recent rise in temperatures, melting snow formed long, jagged patterns down from the high tops.

Close to, almost too close, the breakers hit the rocky shore and with the sunshine the startling white foam dominated the scene.

Long-tailed riders of the waves
Male long-tailed ducks (foreground), with a female in the background. Photograph: Hugh Harrop /Alamy

I had come to see sea ducks and, in particular, long-tailed ducks. Then there they were, ignoring the stormy sea around them as they rode the waves with ease, the whiter males contrasting with the dark sea.

These Arctic-breeding ducks get their name from the males, which have two exceptionally elongated central tail feathers. These can reach a length of 24cm and, in courtship, are tilted forward, ending up almost vertically erect. They are mainly a winter visitor but a few non-breeding birds stay in Scottish waters.

Unlike other sea ducks, the lach-bhinn, as they are called in Gaelic, are quite vocal, with the males making their yodelling calls all through the year and at any time of the day and night. The females have a less noisy quacking call and their plumage is rather drab.

However, the highlight of the visit was round in the harbour, where, on the seawall, sheltering from the wind, was a dense pack of knots. The short grey-green legs and short, straight beaks seemed to emphasis the rotund outline of these stocky grey waders.

There were well over 500 of them, and packed so close they must have been touching each other. There was not a single call from them and binoculars revealed why – they were all asleep. They will soon be flying back north to breed quickly in the short Arctic summer.

This article was first published by The Guardian on 28 Feb 2015.


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