First Goldeneye

While looking for that elusive Burrowing Owl on the north side of the park, the one I saw this past Tuesday, I spotted this Common Goldeneye.  It really is misnamed; it has an unusual and distinguished color pattern.  A few of them visited last winter; I saw the first one on December 4 last year.  Thjs is the first one I’ve seen this winter.  It cruised eastward not twenty yards off the rocky sea wall that faces Richmond.  It stopped to dive frequently, but granted me half a minute of surface time to get some clear video.

Like so many of the birds we see here in winter, the Goldeney mates and breeds in the boreal forests up north during summer.  Unlike most other ducks, it makes its nest in tree holes that may be 40 feet off the ground.  The day after they hatch, the mother lures them out of the nest and they tumble to the ground.  Goldeneye have a casual and cooperative chick-raising arrangement.  The Cornell bird lab website says:

  • Hunters dubbed the Common Goldeneye the “whistler” for the distinctive whistling sound of its wings in flight. Cold weather accentuates the sound.
  • A female Common Goldeneye often lays eggs in the nest of another female, especially in nest boxes. She may lay in the nests of other species of ducks as well. Common and Barrow’s goldeneyes lay in each other’s nests, and Wood Ducks and Hooded Mergansers often lay in the goldeneye’s nest too.
  • Like Wood Ducks, Common Goldeneyes readily use nest boxes as a stand-in for naturally occurring tree cavities. Some return to the same box year after year.
  • Goldeneye chicks leave the nest just one day after they hatch. The first step can be a doozy, with nests placed in tree cavities up to 40 feet high. As the female stands at the base of the tree and calls, the downy chicks jump from the nest hole one after the other and tumble to the ground.
  • After the ducklings leave the nest they can feed themselves and require only protection. Some females abandon their broods soon after hatching, and the young will join another female’s brood. Such mixed broods, known as “creches,” may also occur when a female loses some ducklings after a territorial fight with another female. Young scatter and mix when females fight, and not all of them get back to their mother when the fight ends. Some or all of the ducklings may be transferred to one brood, usually that of the territory owner.
  • The eyes of a Common Goldeneye are gray-brown at hatching. They turn purple-blue, then blue, then green-blue as they age. By five months of age they have become clear pale green-yellow. The eyes will be bright yellow in adult males and pale yellow to white in females.
  • In winter and early spring, male Common Goldeneyes perform a complex series of courtship displays that includes up to 14 moves with names like “masthead,” “bowsprit,” and “head throw kick,” in which the male bends his head back to touch his rump, then thrusts forward and kicks up water with his feet.
  • The oldest known Common Goldeneye was a male, and at least 20 years, 5 months based. He was banded and found in Minnesota.
Goldeneye spreading its wings

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