The male common goldeneye (Bucephala clangula) presents a very unusual appearance that is not readily forgotten. He takes his name from his bright golden eye, which contrasts sharply with his glossy, dark green head. Otherwise, he is largely white with a black back and a white oval patch at the base of his bill. In flight, he looks more or less black and white (even his head may appear black in poor lighting), with large white wing patches and orange feet.
The female is gray overall with a rich brown head, a white collar, a white belly, and a white wing patch. She, too, has a yellow eye, although hers is rather paler than that of her mate.
Note that this species appears to have an unusually short neck when in flight.
Best Field Marks
- Large amount of white plumage in male.
- White oval at base of bill of male.
The common goldeneye is generally silent. Courting males give a nasal peent call like that of the common nighthawk, while females produce a harsh gack primarily when disturbed.
However, this species is known as the “whistler” due to a metallic whistling sound produced in flight. This sound does not come from the voice, but from the wings.
Distribution & Occurrence
The common goldeneye is quite common across Kansas in winter and migration season. It is one of the last ducks to arrive in the fall, waiting to appear until November. However, it gathers in sizable flocks on most the larger lakes, playas, and reservoirs, as well as the rivers, where it will remain all throughout the winter until the last bit of open water has frozen over.
Just as the common goldeneye is late to arrive in Kansas, it is quick to depart, leaving in March to breed in the forests of Canada.
Common goldeneye fly swiftly and strongly in tight flocks, high above the water.
This species dives to forage for food, preferring to feed at a depth of about 20 feet. Roughly 75% of its diet consists of animal food, such as insects, mollusks, crustaceans, and fish, particularly when the weather is cold. The remainder of the diet consists of grain and aquatic plants, especially the seeds, tubers, and leaves of these plants.
Before leaving for the breeding grounds, the common goldeneye will engage in high-energy courtship displays, occupying much of the month of February. The males are particularly aggressive both in their pursuit of mates and in warning each other away. To impress the females, the males throw their heads backward, give their nasal call, and then jerk their heads forward dramatically while kicking the water.
Because the common goldeneye prefers large bodies of water, attracting this species is not a likely possibility for most backyard birdwatchers.
Hunters use common goldeneye decoys to attract this duck.
The two goldeneye species can be tricky to separate, especially in poor lighting. As a general rule of thumb, the male Barrow’s goldeneye presents more black and less white than the common goldeneye. A more obvious field mark, however, is that the white face patch at the base of the bill in the Barrow’s species is a longer crescent shape, versus a small oval. In good lighting, you may also notice that the Barrow’s has a purplish head, rather than the green head of the common goldeneye. As for femeales, an orange bill marks a Barrow’s goldeneye.
Scaup and goldeneye have superficially similar coloring. However, the build of these two types of ducks is entirely different. If further confirmation is needed, look for a black breast to identify a scaup.
Photos, audio, and more information from Cornell’s All About Birds site.