Ms. Goldeneye

Common Goldeneye female (Bucephala clangula)

This duck stayed away from the loose rafts of scaup mixed with coots and grebes that drifted further north. It paddled energetically to a destination invisible to the human eye, near the Virginia Street Extension on the south edge of the North Basin. This was the first Goldeneye I’ve seen this season, but admittedly there may have been others, as the water has been busy with a variety of feathered paddlers, dabblers, and divers. Goldeneye are known as very late migrants.

Where there’s a female Goldeneye, chances are a male or two or three may also be present, or will soon be present. They’ve spent the summer in the far north, in the boreal forests of Canada and Alaska. From Alaska to here is a trip of around 2,000 miles, as the duck flies. They make their nests in tree cavities, either those made by woodpeckers or those created by broken limbs or wood decay. Much to the relief of bird scientists, they also accept nest boxes. This makes it much easier to study them. They prefer nest sites near lakes, and among lakes they prefer those with no fish, or few fish, because fish compete with the ducks for protein edibles such as snails, shrimp, worms, and the like.

The females do all the brooding without male assistance, meaning that the female needs to abandon the nest repeatedly to feed herself. The eggs are amazingly hardy; the mom may be gone for a whole day, and the eggs may freeze and crack, but ducklings still hatch. Two or three days after they hatch, mom calls to them from the bottom of the tree and they jump out, and survivors of the fall then follow mom to the nearest water. With harsh climate and predators, somewhere around half to three-quarters of ducklings don’t live past their first week. Sometimes their own mothers, or the mothers of nearby broods, will do them in. Moms may also abandon their broods entirely, in which case sometimes the hatchlings join the brood raised by another mom. Generally, the Goldeneye mom is a case of “tough love” taken to the extreme. But it’s a rough territory where they breed, and even in summer conditions can get deadly cold and wet, and predators abound. Significant numbers are lost annually to hunting. Despite this array of hazards, the global population of this bird is believed to be stable.

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