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He wears his tuxedo feathers so well that they named a James Bond film after him. Well, that may not be true, but you can get a glimpse of the goldeneye’s plumage as they pass through during winter migrations.

Thanks to our exceptionally warm autumn, local lakes haven’t really started to freeze up yet and Chequamegon Bay and its estuaries remain open. There’s still time to grab those binoculars and check out the waterfowl that are straggling through or settling in for the long winter. American coots are still piled up in their big flocks along waterways, and migrating swans are back in the ponds along Highway 63; the drive from Ashland to Hayward is always worth making in late fall after the colors have peaked.

One lovely aquatic bird that we see a lot of during the current migration (and in early spring) is actually here in small numbers year round in the Northland. This beautiful but odd duck is the common goldeneye and now is a good time to catch a glimpse of one while there are more of them around.

Common goldeneyes are striking ducks that are pretty easy to identify even from a distance. Males have a triangular head that’s a dark iridescent green like a mallard’s. They have a white spot behind their bright yellow eyes and sleek white bodies with black backs and thin black stripes along the folded wings. You can usually tell the males by how they show off when there are females around: they bend backwards almost double and then pop forward. Females look quite different but they’re still very pretty ducks, with a mottled gray body and a warm rust-brown head. You can tell them apart from the juveniles in a flock by the yellow ring around their bills and their yellow eyes, which are paler than the males’.

Young common goldeneyes are born with grayish-brown eyes that over time turn purplish, then blue, then greenish-blue. After five months they start to transition to the color that gives them their name. In the meantime, these kids have a rough-and-tumble existence. Goldeneyes nest in cavities like wood ducks, and the babies similarly plummet from great heights within a day or so of hatching. These little guys are already able to feed themselves and require only protection from their mothers. Some of these mothers abandon them soon after they leave the nest, but that doesn’t slow them down much. They usually just join up with another mother who’s happy to provide supervision. This also happens when these aggressive ducks get in a territorial fight. The chicks tend to scatter when the moms fight, and when the feathers settle, they might not get back to their original brood. Usually whoever wins the fight ends up with most of the chicks. This is assuming they even hatched with their mothers, as goldeneyes will lay their eggs in other nests, including those of other species. For good measure, some of them also lay their eggs in a common goldeneyes nest as well.

Goldeneyes generally breed in boreal forests. Most of them are found in Canada and Alaska, but smaller breeding populations can be found in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, the Minnesota North Shore, and along the South Shore and Wisconsin border over to Lake Michigan. These ducks have elaborate courting displays that begin during the winter. Ornithologists with a lot of time on their hands have identified 14 moves, which they have named, that males use to attract females (Names for these moves include “mast head”, “bowsprit”...you get the idea). Females also have a few moves of their own. After all this effort, the males wander off from the family not long after the mom starts incubating her brood. Common goldeneyes like nest boxes just like wood ducks and often return to the same box year after year. They are very fast flyers, clocking on at 40 mph, and excellent divers that especially enjoy crustaceans. During winter they’ll hang out wherever they can find open water, which around here tends to be the Ashland power plant discharge area (the “hot pond”) and maybe around the artesian spring in Prentice Park. Folks downstate can look for them on open rivers.

Common goldeneyes are doing well as a species and are hunted as a game bird. Conservation efforts include nest box placement, forestry practices that leave dead trees in place, and preservation of coastal and interior wetlands. Keep an eye out for them if you have open water, and if you don’t, they’ll be moving north again in about four months.

Sarah Morris is a bird-watcher and outdoorswoman who explores northern Wisconsin from her home base in the town of Gingles. She can be reached at morrisoutside@gmail.com.

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