The male goldeneye adds a bright note to a winter’s day birdwatching along our coastal waters, lakes, reservoirs and rivers, with its radiant amber eye, iridescent green-black head and crisp black and white body, what a joy. The female having a chestnut brown head, grey back and tail, with white underparts looks very different, but the distinctive shape of the head is her give away. Large numbers of these delightful diving-ducks start to arrive from Scandinavia in the autumn and stay until the spring.
You may be forgiven if you think its Latin genus ‘Bucephala’ is derived from the colour of its piercing yellow eyes, but you would be wrong. The name originates from Ancient Greek “bonkephalos”, a reference to the shape of its bulbous head.
The goldeneye is a rare breeding species in Britain and Ireland, a handful of pairs have bred in the Highlands since 1970. They nest in trees, up to 12metres high, using natural crevices or holes and will readily take to a purposely constructed nest-box. At the end of her 30-day incubation, the female will stand at the bottom of the nest-tree calling to the newly hatched young, encouraging them to jump from the nest-hole in a giant leap. One after the other, as many as 8 or 9, downy chicks tumble to the ground unharmed, but their intrepid journey to water is about to begin. A journey where they will face frequent danger both from predators on the prowl looking for a meal to feed their own young and the risk of getting lost in thick woodland undergrowth. A journey that often causes a high mortality in the first 2 weeks of life.
Each spring most of us look forward to seeing blue or great tits checking out the suitability of the nest-boxes we provide in our gardens. A lucky few may even have the handsome redstart or pied flycatcher taking up residence. Where we live in Strathspey, spring is later and by mid-May we eagerly await the arrival of the goldeneye to visit a nest-box in our garden, what an auspicious place to live!