Goldeneyes are distinctive diving ducks that thrive in cold environments, breeding in boreal forests across Canada, northern Scandinavia and northern Russia. Only when the lakes and coastal areas on their summer territories begin to freeze over as fall approaches do they begin to head south to milder regions where they spend winter months foraging on inland lakes and around sheltered bays.
Male goldeneyes in breeding plumage are unmistakable, with their golden eye being one of their key distinguishing features. Their dark green head is dome-shaped, with a steep forehead and sharply sloping back. Under the eye is a large white spot. The bill is blue-gray and the feet are bright orange.
The breast and underparts of a male goldeneye are white, the upper wings and mantle are black and the tail is gray. The flanks are barred white and black, and there is a prominent white patch on the wings, which is clearly visible in flight.
Female goldeneyes are unlike males in coloring but share the same almost-triangular head shape. They have mottled gray-white flanks, slate gray upperparts, wings, and tails. Their head is a rich chocolate brown, with a pale yellow eye, a faint white neck band, and a short black bill that is tipped with yellow.
Once breeding is complete, male goldeneyes molt into a basic plumage similar to the female, although the non-breeding male’s head is a darker shade of brown-black and the bold wing patterning remains.
Juvenile goldeneyes are similar to females and may also be easily confused with non-breeding males. Immature birds lack the yellow bill tip seen in adult females and their eyes are darker brown.
Goldeneye Male (right) and Female (left)
Around the same size as a redhead, goldeneyes are classed as a medium-sized diving duck species. Females are noticeably smaller than males.
Female Goldeneye on land flapping her wings
Goldeneyes are a quiet species, with females usually only heard when defending the nest site against potential intruders by making a guttural grunting sound. Males may make high-pitched peeping cries during courtship but are otherwise mostly silent.
Goldeneyes are sometimes known as ‘whistlers’, not because of any vocal sounds the species make, but due to the high-pitched whirring sound made by a goldeneye’s wingbeat in flight.
Goldeneye during courtship
The diet of a goldeneye consists mainly of aquatic invertebrates, including such as molluscs, worms, crustaceans, and aquatic insects and their larvae, especially dragonflies, damselflies and mayflies. Some amphibians and small fish are eaten, and, particularly in the fall, plant matter, for example, seeds, roots, and shoots are also important.
The initial diet of goldeneye ducklings is animal-based and includes many aquatic invertebrates including beetles, larvae of caddisflies, water boatmen, and nymphs of dragonflies, damselflies and mayflies.
Goldeneye feeding in natural habitat
Goldeneyes nest in coniferous forest habitats in the far northern hemisphere, within close range of clear freshwater lakes, pools, and fast-flowing rivers. Bodies of water without many fish are their preferred foraging grounds, where there are fewer duck species competing for food.
During migration passage, larger lakes and rivers serve as important stopover points en route to wintering grounds in coastal lagoons, estuaries, and harbors, as well as ice-free inland lakes, reservoirs and rivers.
The distribution range of goldeneyes extends across the boreal forest zone of Canada, Alaska, the northern United States and across the Atlantic Ocean to Scandinavia, eastern Europe, Russia, Mongolia and northern China.
In winter, most populations of goldeneyes shift southwards, and the wintering range of the species includes the Pacific coast of Canada, the coast of Alaska, and further inland into the United States. In Europe, overwintering goldeneyes are found across the northern part of the continent, in the United Kingdom, Norway, the Netherlands, Belgium, and Germany, with scattered populations in Turkey and Central Asia. Further east, wintering grounds of goldeneyes are present in eastern China, Korea, Japan, and Russia’s Kamchatka Peninsula.
Up to 1.5 million goldeneyes live in North America, with the majority breeding in Canada where the population is loosely estimated at between 500,000 to 1 million individuals. Of Europe’s estimated 977,000 to 1.25 million goldeneyes, Finland and Sweden have the highest numbers, with increasing populations in Germany and Estonia. Russia has between 100,000 and 1 million breeding pairs.
The global population of goldeneyes is estimated at between 2.7 million and 4.7 million individuals, with up to 1.5 million of those in North America. They are most abundant among lake regions of the boreal forest in Canada and the northern United States, and in winter can be found in large numbers at coastal bays from northern New England as far south as Chesapeake Bay and on the coasts of southeastern Alaska and British Columbia.
Goldeneyes first nested in the UK in the 1970s, but since then breeding populations of around 200 pairs have developed, meaning that the species continues to be a rare breeding bird in Britain, but sites are well established. During winter, sightings become far more common, with the arrival of up to 21,000 goldeneyes from northern Europe.
Female Goldeneye swimming on a lake
Goldeneyes’ breeding territories within the US include much of inland Alaska, with an absence in the extreme coastal regions. Minnesota and Michigan also have resident populations on inland lakes and freshwater marshes. In winter, goldeneyes are common along the Mississippi and Snake rivers.
Goldeneyes breed in forested regions throughout Canada, mainly concentrated in the region from Labrador through central Ontario to British Columbia. In winter, they are particularly at the Great Lakes and on the St. Lawrence River. After the summer breeding season ends, populations move towards the coast, and British Columbia’s coastline offers some good opportunities for guaranteed sightings.
The UK’s breeding population of around 200 goldeneye pairs is concentrated in the north-central Highlands of Scotland, where custom-made breeding boxes have been placed in trees to encourage nesting. In winter, up to 21,000 individuals arrive across the UK from northern breeding territories in Scandinavia, and the best chances of a sighting are at lakes and sheltered bays in northern and western England, between August and March.
Goldeneye swimming in a lake in the river flapping his wings
The average lifespan for a goldeneye is around 6 years, although much older individuals have been identified by banding records, including one that reached 12 years in 2008. Breeding occurs for the first time from two years of age.
Pine martens, mink, raccoons, and black bears are among the more common land predators of goldeneyes, particularly females. In nest cavities, females and their eggs are at risk of predation by red squirrels and northern flickers. Once young have hatched and are being raised by the female on the water, hawks, owls, and large predatory fish, such as northern pike, pose a threat.
The Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918 protects goldeneyes in the United States, with limits on hunting and seasonal restraints as to when and how many can be hunted.
In the UK, goldeneyes are protected as a Schedule I species under the Wildlife and Countryside Act, 1981, which makes it an offense to disturb or destroy nest sites and eggs, or to kill, injure or take a goldeneye into captivity.
Goldeneye populations are stable and the species is considered of least concern globally. However, some future concerns exist over the threats to boreal forest habitats on their Canadian breeding grounds.
In the UK, goldeneyes are a Red category species in the British Birds of Conservation Concern list due to the limited number of breeding sites.
Female Goldeneye swimming on the river with her ducklings
Nest cavities in forest environments are the favored breeding spots for goldeneyes, although when no suitable natural sites are available, artificial nest boxes will readily be used. Holes excavated by black woodpeckers and pileated woodpeckers may be reused by nesting goldeneyes, as well as naturally occurring cavities in dead tree trunks, or occasionally abandoned rabbit burrows or crevices in between rocks.
Nests are usually at least 1.3 m above the ground and can be as high as 13 m (40 ft). Sites near water are preferred, and cavities are almost always located within 1.3 km (0.8 mi) of a lake or pond.
Inside the cavity, the female goldeneye crafts a rough bowl-shaped nest from whatever materials, if any, are available there. An inner lining of downy feathers is added to the interior before the eggs are laid. Females that have bred successfully in previous seasons are likely to return to their former nests in successive seasons.
In North America, egg laying begins from late March onwards, with the peak hatching period in May and June. The European nesting period begins slightly later, with April being the earliest month for eggs to be laid, and most of the Russian breeding population not laying until mid-May. Incubation, by the female alone, varies from 28 to 32 days, and the young are brooded in the nest cavity for the first day after hatching.
Goldeneyes’ eggs are smooth and glossy, and from light green to pale blue in color. A typical clutch contains between 8 and 11 eggs, which measure 59 mm by 43 mm (2.3 in to 17 in).
No data is available for the long-term duration of goldeneye pairs and whether they reunite in future years. Males leave the female during the first two weeks of incubation, and the pair bond dissolves. Courtship displays begin in winter and most goldeneyes arrive on breeding grounds already paired. One single brood is raised per season.
Courtship rituals of goldeneyes are particularly impressive, involving the male circling the female on the water with his head reclining and tail flicked upwards, kicking up water as he swims.
Female Goldeneye looking out of a nesting box
Goldeneye nest with a clutch of eggs
Short-lived fights and bursts of aggressive behavior may be witnessed between males on breeding grounds, involving underwater pursuits and challenges to intruders until they leave the territory. Females are particularly defensive of their nest sites and dive to attack any ducks that come too near to their territory and may kill ducklings of other birds in the process.
Offshore waters provide safe overnight roosting spots for goldeneyes. They head to open ocean sites from their foraging ponds and lakes shortly after sunset each evening.
Goldeneye resting on the water
Goldeneyes are a migratory species of waterfowl, breeding in the extreme northern latitudes of North America and Eurasia, before heading south to spend winters in the US, western Europe and East Asia.
Goldeneyes are a fully migratory species, undertaking relatively short migrations from their breeding grounds of the boreal forests of northern North America, Scandinavia, and Russia south into the United States, northern Europe, eastern China, the Korean peninsula and Japan.
When water bodies on their northern breeding grounds begin to freeze over, goldeneyes lose access to their vital foraging grounds and need to move south in search of milder weather conditions and more abundant food resources. They are one of the latest species to migrate each fall.
Goldeneyes are medium-sized ducks and are classed as diving ducks, a category that includes other waterbirds such as canvasbacks, redheads and scaup.
Family:Ducks, geese and swans
42cm to 50cm
65cm to 80cm
650g to 1.2kg
The Eurasian wigeon is a medium dabbling duck that commonly breeds across northern Europe, and winters further south, including in the British Isles and occasionally in North America. Rare vagrant breeding pairs can be found in the United States, and small breeding grounds have also been established in northern England and Scotland.
This large bird arrives on our shores from Iceland to overwinter in late September, returning northwards to breed from mid March onwards.
Greater White-Fronted Goose
One of several similar wildfowl species in the Anser genus, Greater White-fronted Geese live up to their name with a distinctive white patch on the front of their face. The species is extremely widespread, although there are several sub-species, each with different breeding and overwintering ranges.
Larger than the Common Scoter this elegant European diving duck spends much of its time at sea and is often seen in company with mixed flocks resting on the water’s surface far out from land.
Tundra Bean Goose
The tundra bean goose is the most common species of bean goose, and breeds on Russian tundra landscapes. Winters are spent grazing on open fields, marshes and agricultural land in western and central Europe and East Asia.
The Tufted Duck is the UK’s most common diving duck and a familiar sight on lakes and ponds across the country. Known for their long, hair-like tufts, these small waterfowl are fairly easy to identify but may be confused with other ducks from the Aythya genus.
Fast and erratic in flight, the Teal is the United Kingdom’s smallest wildfowl species. Despite occurring year-round in low numbers, birdwatchers are most likely to spot these tiny ducks in the winter when large numbers arrive from abroad.
Taiga Bean Goose
Taiga bean geese are a common sight on northern taiga marshes of Siberia and northern Scandinavia in spring and summer, before heading south into Europe each winter. Several hundred individuals spend winters in the UK, with rare vagrant visitors occasionally reported in North America.
One of seven American goose species, the Snow Goose is a noisy migrant that visits the Lower 48 states each winter. These beautiful birds have increased dramatically since the second half of the 20th century.
Despite being only a rare winter visitor to the British Isles, the Smew is one of the countrys most unmistakable and easily identified duck species. Breeding across Central Asia and returning to Western Europe during winter months, smews begin to turn up on inland lakes as well as in coastal regions from November onwards.
One look at the bill of a northern shoveler should be enough to provide you with an accurate species identification: their flattened shovel-like bills are unique among waterfowl and allow them to feed on tiny plankton by sweeping their heads across the water’s surface.
A large colourful duck, often found in coastal areas, the shelduck, is an established breeding waterbird in the UK. British wetlands are also a major wintering ground for the species, hosting up to 30 percent of Europe’s shelduck population each autumn.
A medium-sized diving duck, the greater scaup is known simply as the scaup in Europe, and locally as the ‘bluebill’ in North America. Only a handful of scaup breed in the UK, making it the rarest breeding duck in the British Isles.
A striking and fascinating little diving duck with an unusual courtship display, the Ruddy Duck is a widespread migrant in North America.
Colourful and instantly recognisable diving ducks, red-crested pochards are present in the UK in small numbers, believed to have initially been introduced into the wild from private wildfowl collections. Some breeding does occur in Britain, although the best chance of a sighting comes with the arrival of several hundred migrants each winter.
A speedy migratory wildfowl with a hardcore hairstyle, the Red-breasted Merganser is widespread in coastal and estuarine habitats across the Northern Hemisphere.
During the winter the population of this rare resident breeding duck increases by 55 times to that of the summer, with the influx of many thousands of others overwintering, having arrived from Russia and Eastern Europe.
Widespread in the Northern Hemisphere, Northern Pintails are distinctive migratory waterfowl. Drakes in breeding plumage are particularly attractive, although the drabber females and non-breeding males are still identifiable by their long necks and graceful form.
Although the pink-footed goose does not breed in Britain, it is a common winter visitor, with over half a million migrating individuals arriving each autumn from breeding grounds in Iceland, Greenland and Norway’s Svalbard peninsula.
One of the world’s heaviest flying birds, and one of the most beautiful too, the Mute Swan is a majestic waterfowl with a mean reputation.
Sightings of wild Mandarin Ducks in the United States cause quite a stir, and it’s easy to see why. These small but eye-catching waterfowl are, in fact, native to the Far East of Asia, although their popularity as an ornamental species has resulted in their introduction to many parts of the world, including the United Kingdom.
Instantly recognizable, the Mallard is a medium-sized dabbling duck that is familiar to people all over the world. These adaptable waterfowl are the ancestor of the modern domestic duck and are found everywhere from remote wilderness lakes to suburban backyards.
One of the most distinctive duck breeds, thanks to their extended streaming tail feathers, the long-tailed duck is a coastal waterbird that spends winters at sea, foraging for crustaceans in marine waters, after breeding on Arctic tundra landscapes.
The Greylag goose is the largest grey goose from the Anser genus of the Anatidae family of waterbirds. A stout, robust and heavyweight bird, the Greylag goose is the closest wild relative and ancestor to the domestic goose. Greylag geese are distributed across much of Europe and Asia, extending into eastern Russia and China. Most populations migrate, but some are sedentary, including in much of Northern Europe.
Widespread throughout the northern hemisphere, the common merganser is the largest of the saw billed fish eating ducks. There are three sub-species with the Eurasian variant frequently known as the Goosander.
The Gargeney is a dabbling duck, slightly smaller than a mallard, and considered a rare breeder in the UK, with just over 100 pairs recorded. A fully migratory species, all garganeys spend winters in southern Africa, leaving breeding grounds as early as July, so your window for spotting one on British waters is only a very brief one.
The Gadwall is a widely distributed dabbling duck of the Anatidae family that breeds in the Northern Hemisphere. This hardy duck breeds as far north as Siberia, Alberta, Saskatchewan, and coastal Alaska and is found across both the Americas, Europe, and Asia.
The common eider (Somateria mollissima) is a large and widespread sea duck that is perhaps best known for its valuable insulating down feathers.
Regarded as being sacred by early Egyptians, this native goose of the African continent was introduced into Europe and elsewhere as an ornamental wildfowl species in the late seventeenth and eighteenth century.
The word scoter is often used to define northern sea ducks. There are six different species of scoter, all of which are monotypic and three of which are confined to North America. The Common Scoter like the Velvet Scoter can only be found in Europe and Asia whilst the Stejneger’s Scoter is a native of Asia alone.
Once decimated through overhunting and habitat destruction, the Canada Goose has rebounded to become one of North America’s most abundant and familiar wildfowl.
A small goose species with a short, stubby bill, the brent goose (or brant, as it is known in North America), breeds in the high Arctic regions of Canada, Greenland, Siberian Russia and northern Europe’s Arctic islands. Brant spend winters along North America’s Pacific coast, part of the east coast of the US, and in north-western Europe, from the British Isles to Denmark.
A subspecies of the North American tundra swan, Bewick’s swans breed in Siberia and arrive in the UK each autumn. Worrying declines have been observed in the European population in recent years, and today only around 4,350 individuals migrate to the UK each winter.
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