Sunday, February 7, 2010

Common Goldeneye: Aquatic Break-dancer

Photo: John Pogacnik

NATURE
The Columbus Dispatch
February 7th, 2010
Jim McCormac

Goldeneye striking in looks, action

Probably no other group of birds has had the impact on conservation that waterfowl has. Most people are familiar with the mallards and Canada geese that frequent ponds, but there is much more to the ducky crowd. Forty-three species of ducks, geese, and swans have occurred in Ohio, and most of them are common, at least in migration.

In the 1930’s, Dust Bowl droughts had depleted North America’s waterfowl to perilously low levels. From the dusty ashes of near catastrophe arose a group that is now one of the world’s most effective conservation organizations. The year 1937 marked the formation of Ducks Unlimited, and in their 73 year history they’ve raised $3 billion which has gone to protect well over 12 million acres of habitat.

A good thing, as waterfowl rank high among our most interesting, beautiful birds. And protecting their habitat also safeguards scores of other animals, and lots of plants, too.

Hardy beasts, waterfowl are among the very first migrants to push north in spring. Today’s date is February 7th – very much winter in our eyes – but already the spring wanderlust is striking some ducks.

One of the toughest of this crowd is the common goldeneye. These diving ducks will stay about as far north as open water can be found, cavorting in the icy water of open leads as comfortably as if afloat in a tropical sea. Goldeneyes are already chomping at the bit, moving north as fast as thaws open up water, in their quest to reach northern breeding grounds.

Drake goldeneyes are art sculpted in feathers. Black and white is the dominant theme, creating a gorgeous piebald pattern. It’s as if the male’s head was dunked in inky paint, the jet-black noggin marked with an oval white spot just aft of the bill. Brilliant yellow eyes appear as topaz jewels imbedded in coal, their contrast lending the duck a perpetually surprised appearance.

Some ducks merely tip up in shallow water to feed, their butts sticking above the surface. Not so the goldeneye. These are divers, plunging down deep to harvest goodies unavailable to fowl that only dabble at the surface. Watching feeding goldeneyes cavorting among ice floes gives one a real respect for avian engineering and the insulating ability of feathers. A human submerged in such waters would be lucky to last 20 minutes.

About now, hormones flood drake goldeneyes and their thoughts turn to the ladies. Coy and aloof, the somber brown hens require work to woo. So, stud goldeneyes become aquatic break-dancers, pulling out all the stops to get the girl. A courting male throws his head back till his bill is vertical, folding into a floating pretzel. It’ll then scoot forward, thrusting a pair of brilliant orange webbed feet from the water, all the while shaking its head and pirouetting about.

It must work. Common goldeneyes are still common.

Jim McCormac

Further Afield

One of the easiest, most effective ways to help waterfowl and wetlands is by purchasing a Migratory Bird Hunting and Conservation Stamp, more popularly known as the “Duck Stamp”. The 2010 stamp features a gorgeous American wigeon . Since its inception in 1934, Duck Stamp sales have generated over $750 million, and protected nearly 5 ½ million acres.

Duck stamps will be available at a waterfowl symposium to be held the weekend of February 27-28 at the new Grange Insurance Audubon Center in Columbus. Keynote speaker is Dr. Azzam Alwash, who leads restoration efforts of the massive wetlands flanked by the Tigris and Euphrates rivers in Iraq. Conference details are HERE. Stamps can also be purchased at many post offices, and at: http://www.duckstamp.com/mm5/

AUTHOR'S NOTE: Space limitations in the newspaper sometimes lead to editing down my column. I am able to reprint the entire, original column here.

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