Winter brings an interesting variety of waterfowl to our area. The spa-like atmosphere of always warm Sands Lake in Salida teems with surprising numbers of visitors, including Greater and Lesser Scaups and Ring-necked Ducks, and offers by far and away the easiest viewing spot. But if you check out the Arkansas River through Bighorn Sheep Canyon, you can often see some interesting ducks as well. One of the easiest to spot there are Common Goldeneyes. The Common Goldeneye is a cold-hardy, medium-sized diving duck that breeds worldwide in northern boreal forests. A male has a striking pattern of a dark head (which, as seen in the above photo, shows a greenish iridescence in bright light) with a white oval patch just behind the bill—an field mark that can be surprisingly easy to spot, even at moderate distances. His bright white sides and breast contrast sharply with his black back, wings, and tail. A female’s plumage is less stunning, with a brown head, gray back, and white breast. Both sexes have bright yellow eyes.
A goldeneye’s diet varies with season and habitat. When wintering in our area, they feed primarily on small fish and perhaps some crustaceans, such as crayfish. They’ll also eat vegetation, such as pondweed, especially in fall. They actively forage underwater; when doing so, all birds in group often dive at the same time. Now you see them. Poof—now you don’t! Be patient, though. They can remain underwater for 10 to 55 seconds, averaging 25 seconds before popping back up to the surface. But don’t blink—the lapse between dives can be as short as 15 seconds.
The Common Goldeneye’s scientific name, Bucephala clangula, means—quite literally—“bull-headed” (from the Greek bous—“ox” or “bull”—and kephale—“head”). Whoever named this genus thought that their heads resembled a bison. (Do you think that person ever actually saw an American bison? Kind of hard to believe…) The species name, clangula, derives from a diminutive form of the Latin clangor (“noise”), referring to the faint sound its wings make when flying. The term “common” in its common name refers to widespread distribution(although only truly common in the northern forests of Canada and Alaska); and “goldeneye” refers to their bright amber irises.
The entire population migrates from the north just in advance of or closely following freezing temperatures. Common Goldeneyes arrive in Colorado late in the fall and are among the earliest waterfowl to head back north. In our area, we begin to see them in decent numbers in early December. They start heading back to breeding grounds in early March, arriving on their northern breeding sites by early May.
In winter, Common Goldeneyes congregate in small, segregated flocks (3-50 birds), hanging out with no other diving ducks except an occasional infiltration by one of their cousin, the Barrow’s Goldeneye. An adult male Common can be confused with adult male Barrow’s, since both have dark heads with bright white sides and breasts. The easiest way to tell them apart is to check the white patch behind their bills. A Common Goldeneye has an oval shape, while a Barrow’s Goldeneye shows a crescent. (A Barrow’s also has more black on its back and sides, but that’s a harder comparison to make.) Another white duck with a dark head that you might see on the river is a male Common Merganser. But on the Arkansas, I generally see just an individual merganser or two—not in flocks as large as the Common Goldeneyes do. So if you’re traveling through Bighorn Sheep Canyon, check out the Arkansas River whenever you can get a view. (Passengers only, please!) If you see a sizable group of white birds with dark heads floating there, you’re likely looking at Common Goldeneyes. Or stop by Sands Lake—especially early in the morning or later in the afternoon—for a much easier chance to see these and other wintering beauties.
For more information about Common Goldeneyes, click here.