Named for their golden eyes, there are two species of waterfowl that are found in the Bitterroot that have this trait, the Barrow’s and the common goldeneye.
The Barrow’s goldeneye was named in recognition of Sir John Barrow who authored many publications about the arctic, while the common simply refers to its general abundance. In January or February, if you can find a pond that is not frozen in the Bitterroot, you can be pretty sure that one or both of these species will be present.
The females of each species look similar with a dark chocolate-colored head, a grey body and a slightly orange triangle shaped bill. The males have striking black and white plumage on their body with an iridescent purple or greenish appearance on their head feathers and a black bill.
The key difference between the two male species is the white cheek patch, immediately behind the bill. The common goldeneye has a white circle patch while the Barrow’s goldeneye has a moon-shaped crescent patch.
In the right light conditions the male Barrow's has a purple iridescent on it's head feathers while the common has more of a greenish appearance. In poor light both species appear to have predominately black head plumage.
These mallard size ducks belong to a group of waterfowl species referred to as divers. Divers typically dive under water to feed on invertebrates, fish eggs and small fish as opposed to “puddle ducks” that often feed on vegetation including grain on or near the surface of the water or on land.
As their diet dictates their flavor, from a consumptive standpoint, goldeneyes are not one of the preferred waterfowl species to roast up for family and friends but can still yield an appealing meal if prepared properly.
Goldeneyes, like other diving ducks, have wings that are proportionately smaller than their body size when compared to puddle ducks, like mallards, and therefore have a noticeably faster wing beat. Another characteristic of diving ducks is they have to paddle their webbed feet quickly on the surface of the water to get airborne, whereas puddle ducks can spring into the air from where they sit on land or water.
In flight, wind passing over a goldeneye’s wings creates a whistling sound. Often, on a foggy morning, you may not see the bird as it passes overhead but you certainly can hear the whistle.
The common goldeneye has a broader range throughout the U.S. and Canada while the Barrow’s is much more limited in its range to the western Rocky Mountain states and western Canada.
According to data from the Hamilton Christmas bird count, you are more likely to encounter the common goldeneye in the Bitterroot, however, in recent years the Barrow’s is showing up more frequently. While both species are found in the Bitterroot in the winter, and there is evidence that some may breed in Montana, the majority of these birds will breed in the Boreal Forest of Canada.
Goldeneyes will nest in tree cavities and often take up in wood duck boxes if the opportunity arises. Like wood ducks, shortly after hatching the young goldeneyes jump out of the cavity nest to gently float to the forest floor below. These ducklings are very independent and require little parenting as they scurry off to find water and begin searching for an invertebrate meal.
From a conservation perspective the North American Breeding Bird surveys suggest that both species appear to be stable if not slightly increasing. Forestry practices that reduce cavity nesting sites could negatively impact goldeneye populations but due to the remoteness of their breeding range this has not occurred at a significant level.
Surely, this is one of the Bitterroot’s most handsome waterfowl species. Next time you see one make sure you identify that distinct cheek patch so you know which one you are looking at.
Sam Lawry, Teller Wildlife Refuge Executive Director has 35 plus years in the wildlife conservation profession. His contributions to the Ravalli Republic are intended to share some of that knowledge of wildlife in the Bitterroot with the community. If you would like more information about Teller Wildlife Refuge please visit our website at www.tellerwildlife.org.