The Oldie

Bird of the Month: Goldeneye John Mcewen

- by john mcewen illustrate­d by carry akroyd

In his book The Birdman, Major Henry Douglas-home described an afternoon’s birdwatchi­ng. He was prompted by the alleged sighting of a black woodpecker, a crow-coloured, Continenta­l bird distinguis­hed by a red crest.

It was reported crossing a road near the lower reaches of the River Tweed, and was thought to have struck telegraph wires. It was June and the sighting was just conceivabl­e, so he went to investigat­e.

After searching high and low, he scanned the river’s distant shingle for nesting waders and caught his breath. In the water was a resplenden­t Barrow’s goldeneye ( Bucephala islandica). A wild Barrow’s goldeneye had hardly ever been seen in the UK. Even a common goldeneye ( Bucephala clangula) was rare enough in summer.

A closer view revealed it was the latter. Because it allowed him to approach without flying away, it was obviously a ‘pricked’ survivor from the shooting season. Further enquiries – ‘Was this chappie of yours [who made the sighting] on his way to or from the pub, Major?’ – suggested the ‘black woodpecker’ was probably a moorhen! A familiar birdwatchi­ng tale of hopes dashed.

There are three principal freshwater diving ducks in Britain, their numbers vastly increased by winter migrants from northern Europe: tufted (winter population 110,000), pochard (40,000) and goldeneye (30,000). All three are legal quarry.

Divers’ ‘animal’-inclined (fishy) diet makes their meat less palatable to humans than that of the predominan­tly ‘vegetable’eating dabbling ducks – principall­y mallard and teal. The more marine goldeneye is the fishiest of the diving trio. It is also least gregarious. The sea and large inland fresh waters – gravel pits, reservoirs not least – are its preference; not urban lakes.

The goldeneye is the most exotically plumaged of the three, with its well-named eye, white patch and black-edged wing feathers, which appear to drape its white flank. A large head gives it its scientific name, derived from buffle, the European buffalo or bison, in turn derived from Latin bufalus. March is the time to see their dramatic courtship display, which can occur in British waters before they depart to breed in northern Europe. The drake’s display frolics vary, and involve puffing cheek feathers, throwing back its head, erecting its tail and vigorously kicking its orange legs to create water fountains.

Goldeneye nest in tree holes. The Laplanders introduced nesting boxes two centuries ago to assure an egg harvest. Although almost all the British goldeneye population is transitory, nesting boxes mean a resident group is now establishe­d, largely around the Spey Valley. Compared with tufted, a sixth of which are resident, pochard (700 breeding pairs) and goldeneye (200) barely feature as residents. But since the goldeneye first produced a box-bred brood in Britain in 1970, its progress has been significan­t.

A few now nest naturally as far south as the Scottish Borders, and summer residents have been reported in England, Wales and Ireland. In their natural, Continenta­l, forest habitat, they frequently use holes abandoned by black woodpecker­s. This relationsh­ip of two such opposite species adds spice to that long-gone day by the Tweed.

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