.......and Reflections

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Common Goldeneye

As the ice on Mosquito Lake begins to melt and recede, many ducks seek the open waters for rest and some for food. Diving ducks eat fish, mussels and other available critters in ice cold waters. Among several species is the Common Goldeneye. This bird is named after its yellow eye, distinctly visible even at a distance.

The males cruise around open waters displaying for females, and as it turns out with an expectancy of finding a mate to share the journey to northern breeding grounds in wetlands, rivers, and lakes surrounded by mature forests in northern U.S. and Canada. The loyalty of this brief relationship is not quite clear but I was able to study part the life history of these fascinating birds first hand.

Dave Hochadel and I were studying a female Goldeneye that was paired up with a male in an open water location providing a great view. The female had an unusually yellow rather than dark brown bill. This brought to question whether this female might be the more rare western cousin, Barrow's Goldeneye.

It became clear that the female in question did not show other characteristics of a Barrow's Goldeneye but was, in fact, a Common Goldeneye. After all, this bird seemed to be paired up with the Common Goldeneye male. Then they proceeded to prove their bonding.

While we watched, the male made some head bobbing gestures and swam around the female that was lying in the water in a posture that looked like she was dead. The male worked his way beside the female who quickly disappeared under the water, while the male mounted her to breed. Once the breeding was over the male literally pulled the female out from under the water by the scruff of her neck and whirled her around in a semi-circle. And, as if nothing had happened, the Common Goldeneye world returned to normal.

This chance encounter was very special because it raised many questions, and it was an uncommon opportunity to witness something intimate in nature. I wanted to know whether Common Goldeneyes breed in migration to get a quick start on northerly nesting, and whether what we saw was normal or a aberration. Finding the answer wasn't as easy as I thought it would be.

Being a retro kind of guy, I did not "google" the question. I searched for the answer among the many waterfowl books in my collection. I was looking for more enlightenment revealed from reading life histories than I was in getting the "quick" answer. Looking for the answer to my question was more educational than the answer itself, and I must admit considerably more time consuming!

I looked, in no less than, the best waterfowl guides to North American Waterfowl, the bibles used by sportsmen and ornithology students for many years........with no answer. I was disappointed and puzzled that there was no mention of the Common Goldeneye breeding. Breeding is pretty important to life histories.

Finally I went to the book shelf and picked out THE LIFE HISTORIES OF NORTH AMERICAN WILD FOWL: ORDER ANSERES, by Arthur Cleveland Bent of Taunton, Massachusetts, published in 1925.

The Bent Series was printed mostly around he turn of the 20th century, give or take 25 years, and the series contains a compilation of antectdotal accounts of the life histories of North American birds.
Much of the accounts were from the late 19th Century.

The Common Goldeneye account begins with "courtship" and Mr. Charles E. Alford provides an account of the breeding we witnessed in 1920. His account was far more elloquent than mine. Bent reveals that Common Goldeneyes do breed in migration and also or again on nesting grounds. The pairs bonded during migration apparently staying together, with the male leaving before the brood is hatched. There is no account of what happens when the pairs breed in their nesting area.

So I got my answer and much more information from arcane accounts. You see, the late 19th  and early 20th century time period was a very different time than the late 20th and early 21st century. The species accounts were during a time when people shaped science through observation. It wasn't a time of instant answers. There wasn't any "smart" or even "dumb" phones (like mine). Naturalists didn't "google" on a laptop: they "doodled" in journals. 19th century "tweeting" was performed by bird subjects, not by aspiring authors.

Here is the most important thing I learned about Common Goldeneyes:

It's your life. You can google "the middle of nowhere" or you can experience it. The best educators, the best technologies, the best gadgets, and the next best things will never replace exploring, discovery and revelations provided by the wild things and wild places in "the middle of nowhere". Cheers.

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