Birds of Chignik Lake: Common Goldeneye

Dapper drake and handsome hen, a pair of Common Goldeneyes hang out at The Lake on a calm, midwinter day. (Chignik Lake, January 2, 2017)

From fall through spring, Common Goldeneyes are indeed common throughout the Chignik River system. Although they seem to generally prefer the lake, they readily shift to the river if ice takes that option away. In either location they spend virtually all of their time on the water, loafing, sleeping or diving for small fish such as sticklebacks and sculpin.

The shimmering emerald green on the drake’s head doesn’t always show; it frequently appears black and in the right light can even look purple. But they’re called “goldeneye” for good reason. (Chignik Lake, January 2, 2017)

Hunted and cautious, these ducks cast a wary golden eye on any indication of human presence. Getting the right combination of somewhat approachable birds on a day calm enough and with enough light to photograph well at a distance is rare in the windblown Chignik drainage. Picking up the binoculars, glassing out the living room window and seeing these white-bodied ducks was a common occurrence. Being granted favorable shooting conditions was far less so.

Seen from straight on, the head shape of many diving ducks is reminiscent of an old-fashioned lightbulb held upside down. I suspect the pronounced jowls have something to do with the prodigious  jaw muscles required for pulling clams out of muck, clamping down on fish and crustaceans, and yanking up weeds. (Chignik Lake, January 2, 2017)

Those bright amber-yellow eyes aren’t the only unmistakable goldeneye characteristic. Many times, Barbra and I have been standing waist-deep in the river casting flies for salmon when our thoughts were interrupted by an approaching high-pitched whistling sound.

“Goldeneyes!”

We didn’t even have to look up, although of course we always did.

There are times when their numbers on the lake are in the dozens. Here four handsomely-marked drakes are followed by a more demurely-marked hen. Note the yellow at the tip of the hen’s bill. (December 31, 2016) 

The distinctive whistling sound goldeneyes in flight make has led to their nickname: Whistler. Clangula, their scientific specific name is misleading; they don’t seem to be nearly as vocal as other ducks. When feeding, they are quite active, paddling with purpose and diving in a sudden arch. They often join in with mergansers to cooperatively feed along a shoreline or underwater edge – birds of both species surfacing with wriggling fish.

Led by a mature female, this is very likely her brood winging and whistling down the Chignik River. (November 27, 2017)

Although goldeneyes visit The Chigniks, it is unlikely that they breed there. The reason: there aren’t any trees to speak of. Goldeneyes are among the several species of ducks that are cavity nesters, preferring holes in trees that have been hammered out by woodpeckers or that have occurred due to broken off limbs and so forth. The female chooses cavities only a few feet above the forest floor to several tens of feet high, leading to the drama of her brood being forced to literally leap into the world.

Except for a the few White Spruce trees people have planted in the Chignik villages, the area is devoid of large trees. No trees. No tree cavities. No cavity-nesting goldeneyes. With old-growth forests being relentlessly reduced to lumber throughout the boreal regions where goldeneyes breed, installing a nesting box or three (or more) would make an excellent citizen scientist project.

As is the case with other “green-head” drakes, Greater Scaup and Mallards, in certain light the head feathers of Common Goldeneyes can appear purple, as is the case with all seven birds in this photo. (Chignik River, March 12, 2017)

Drakes in Springtime. (Chignik River, May 14, 2017)

Common Goldeneye Range Map: with permission from The Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Birds of the World

Common Goldeneye Bucephala clangula
Order: Anseriformes
Family: Anatidae
Bucephala:  Ancient Greek, boukephalos = bullheaded
clangula: Latin, to resound

Status at Chignik Lake, 2016-19: Common on Chignik Lake and Chignik River from late fall through Spring

David Narver, Birds of the Chignik River Drainage, summers 1960-63: Common on both lakes in Spring and Fall; rare in midsummer

Alaska Peninsula and Becharof National Wildlife Refuge Bird List, 2010Common in Spring and Winter; Rare in Summer; Uncommon in Fall

Aniakchak National Monument and Preserve Bird List: Present

loon silhouette

Previous: White-winged Scoter – A Lone, Rainy Day Visitor 

Next Article: Barrow’s Goldeneye – a Duck that will Nest in a Box

*For a clickable list of bird species and additional information about this project, click here: Birds of Chignik Lake

© Photographs, images and text by Jack Donachy unless otherwise noted.

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