Common goldeneye has heart of gold when young are concerned

A male, right, and female common goldeneye. The birds are one of the last ducks to migrate south for the winter. (Wikipedia)

The calendar said that Thanksgiving was just a week away, but the weather told a different story. The temperature was near 70 degrees and the bright sun made it feel warmer still.

New York’s Glimmerglass State Park is aptly named. The placid waters of Lake Otsego reflected a few high, scattered clouds in a picture-perfect reflection.

Just 8 miles north of Cooperstown, the park encompasses 600 acres of lakefront property with rolling forest cupping the beach and its many human activities. We followed a trail until it suddenly opened up and we emerged at a terrific overlook with a clear view of the lake. Below, waterfowl were just stirring in the early morning light.

Hundreds of Canada geese were scattered across the still waters. Pockets of gulls added flashes of white atop the blue background. Before the day was over, we would see horned grebes, mallards and a few noisy jays and crows. Our attention at first light, though, had shifted from the broad expanse of the lake to a raft of medium-size ducks just 50 feet off shore.

The ducks were constantly diving and resurfacing in active pursuit of their breakfast. We set up our spotting scope to get a better look.

The males had iridescent black and green heads with sparkling yellow eyes. I focused on one. The head had a pronounced peak and a large white oval just behind the stubby bill, below the eye. His neck, breast and belly were stark white. His back and tail were black, while his wings were a dark gray.

This was a common goldeneye (Bucephala clangela), a regular winter visitor to the Chesapeake watershed.

The females in the small raft appeared to be mostly slate gray, except for brown heads and white collars.

The ducks may have been feeding on small fish, which are an important part of the goldeneye’s diet. These diving ducks primarily eat aquatic invertebrates. Sometimes, they eat submerged vegetation.

Like most diving ducks, goldeneyes’ feet are located well back on their bodies. They use their powerful webbed feet much like a dolphin uses its tail to propel them underwater. It is an excellent adaptation for ducks that dive for their dinners. That characteristic makes it difficult for the birds to navigate on dry land, though, and one rarely sees a goldeneye on the shore.

Goldeneyes make their nests in tree cavities. The trees are over water or just a few steps away from shore. Females frequently use the old nests of other birds, typically wood ducks or hooded mergansers. They will also sometimes lay eggs in the active nests of other common goldeneyes.

Clutches can be quite large, up to 16 eggs. The young leave the nest two days after hatching and immediately take to a life on the water. They

can feed themselves, but require protection from a host of predators, especially gulls.

Common goldeneyes breed across Canada and Alaska. They can usually be found on larger lakes with adjacent forests. The birds winter across the United States, except for the Gulf Coast states. They favor marine waters like bays, harbors and marinas. Inland, they are found on large lakes and rivers.

Goldeneyes are one of the last ducks to migrate south, pushed out by frozen waters. We were watching the small raft feed in upstate New York in November.

By December, they will be moving through Pennsylvania. Goldeneyes usually aren’t seen in Delaware, Maryland and Virginia waters until Christmas, or even later.

Here in the East, identification of the common goldeneye is relatively straightforward. In the Western United States, though, they are easily confused with Barrow’s goldeneye. This close relative is distinguished by a subtle difference in the male’s white facial patch. The Barrow’s is a crescent instead of the common’s oval.

The small flock of 15 or so birds we were watching presented a different identification problem. Some of the birds may have been juveniles, which closely resemble the females. Whether these females were their mothers isn’t just hard to tell, it’s impossible.

As chicks, common goldeneyes stay near females for protection. The young often intermingle with the young of other females. Females, in turn, provide protection for the young without regard to their parentage. These mixed broods are called “creches,” a lovely term that evokes timeless pastoral images.

Days later, when I returned home to the District of Columbia, I saw young people who seemed to embody this same sense of effortless mixing. Artificial barriers of race and gender were ignored. Comfortable coveys of human youth congregated on the streets, in restaurants and at entertainment venues.

Perhaps the human species is finally learning the lesson that goldeneyes have practiced for generations. We do best when we watch out for all — ignoring where the young were born — and take every one under our protective wings.

Mike Burke, a Bay Journal columnist, is an amateur naturalist based in Maryland, having retired from a career that toggled between Capitol Hill and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

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