River Olympics

Dear Jane and Other Devotees of Nature,

As  usual, I missed the Olympics and Oscars , but happily caught a glimpse right here on the San Lorenzo River of some pretty outstanding  performances by the mating COMMON GOLDENEYES – carried out without benefit of celebrities and trophies.  Or I guess you could say that  the gleaming trophies will be the baby Goldeneyes, born sometime this summer in Canada or Alaska. Common Goldeneyes are known to bird lovers as  having the most dramatic courtship displays among all waterfowl.  And it’s all  happening right here, right now,  on the urban stretch of the San Lorenzo River!

I went out walking along the river last Sunday about 3 pm, poking along as usual, hoping to find some mating Goldeneyes which I had never seen in person.  My first sighting was a glorious OSPREY circling high  over the Water St. Bridge where I began my walk.  I was pleased to have see 27 different species (click here)  during the next two hours.    But I hadn’t seen Goldeneyes,  the Olympic performance I was most hoping to see.  Then, just as I was about to leave the river, there   they were, 15 of them– right under the Water St. Bridge.  I was lucky.  I learned only later that dawn and dusk  are the best times of day  to witness this event that takes place every year beginning about this time – in early or mid- march.   There were 2 males and 9 females swimming peacefully off to one side while 2 other males and 2 other females held center stage about 30 feet from their non-active  clan.

Goldeneye Mating 29
9 females and 2 males, floating peacefully off to the side of the main stage.  
Four finalists
The four leading actors, two male and two female.   See below.  

I have just been learning a little  about the Goldeneyes for the last couple of weeks, and loved the wonderful photo that you posted last week, Jane.  But this was my first experience of actually seeing them live in HD.  Fortunately, ornithologists have been paying close attention to the complex and dramatic displays of this waterfowl for a long time!   The detailed reports in Birds of North America, the largest compilation of recent research on birds, is always  a huge help in figuring out the complexity of the mysterious behaviors of birds.  The end-of-day lighting was not the greatest for taking photost, but the subject was stellar! I clicked away as fast as I could.  Then I came home and tried to figure out what I had recorded.  The following is my somewhat dubious efforts to put together my photos with all the information in BNA.

BNA identifies fourteen different postures or series of postures of the male Goldeneye, each with a separate name: head-throw, slow head-throw-kick, fast head-throw-kick, bowsprit, head-throw-bowsprit, nodding, masthead, ticking, head–flick, head-forward, head–up, head-up-pumping, head-back, and head back –bowsprit..    Since I only this year became aware of this annual show, I’m not at all sure what I’m seeing in each  of the photos below.  But I’m going to make a wild guess based on some descriptions I found in BNS- and maybe a reader will correct me if I get it wrong.  The rest of my blog piece is all photos, with captions trying to guess at what I am seeing.

Goldeneye Mating 23
This could be part of ‘Nodding’ where a ‘male stretches and withdraws his head at about a 45 degree angle, tracing an elliptical path with his  bill.”  Normally one doesn’t see any white on the neck of a male Goldeneye. The 2 females seem interested.
Goldeneye Mating 18
Might this have been  part of ‘Masthead’ , a series of postures where the drake first stretches his head parallel to water and then quickly jerks his head upright pointing bill vertically, then snaps his head back down to water lever and holds it there while paddling.’  In any case the female seems disinterested. or perhaps playing  hard to get.  
Goldeneye Mating 22
Here the male does the famous Head-throw  which seems to appeal to   the two females.  
Two followers2
The 2 females maybe decide they have a winner and stay close behind?


Goldeneye Mating 32
BNA doesn’t mention lifting oneself high out of the water.  
Goldeneye Mating 26
A second male doing a Head-throw – to keep up with the competitor?
Goldeneye Mating 10
BNA says  that in copulation, which averages 8.3 seconds, the “male overlies female, then holds nape of her neck, at which point she is nearly submerged.  I can’t tell what is going on here.  
Goldeneye Mating 5
There was  a lot of diving, kicking and splashing going on – to what end it was unclear. Do they snack while they court?
Goldeneye Mating 17
Two males and one female.  Clearly I needed a video to watch the sequencing and complexity of all this.
P1050619 2.jpg
I was really puzzled by this photo.  Could it be what BNA describes as a ‘copulatory display’ in which the drake ‘turns on one side and stretches out wing and leg” He seems to be holding onto something (a submerged female? )with his leg.  I would be thrilled if I captured this display.  
Goldeneye Mating4
BNA describes some ritual female displays during copulation, including ‘ritualized drinking.”   Is the female doing that here?  


Well, we wander through life missing so much that is right under our noses.  It took me 3 years to notice the mating Goldeneyes.  What wonders still await?

Happy birding to all, and to all a good night!




5 thoughts on “River Olympics

  1. Great post! Today, as I mentioned to you, Barbara, I saw some mating shenanigans of Mallards. By contrast with the somewhat artsy displays of the Goldeneyes, this looked more like a bar brawl, with the two males jumping all over each other and the female. When she went up on the bank, apparently trying to get away from them, they followed and continued scrapping on land…then it went back into the water. #metooducks?

    1. I love your sharing of river information on this blog. Yes, I have been appalled at the behaviors of male Mallards. One of my first posts was about unbonded pairs of male mallards ganging up on already bonded females. Working together, the unbonded males could drive off the female’s bonded mate. Thanks so much, Michael, for your active readership!

  2. Barbara, Thank you so much for your fascinating Goldeneye commentary with accompanying photos. It really is awesome! Alison Paul

    1. Thank you, Alison. Funny how everything is connected. My involvement with the San Lorenzo River all goes back to that birding class you kindly drove me to each week! That’s where I learned from Lisa Sheridan about the small group of women who were trying to stop recreational boating on the river. It seems that we have at least temporarily made our point. The Coastal Watershed Council seems to have backed off their spearheading of that effort.

  3. I do not even watch these birds to notice all this. They sort of look funny, and do not come as far as Felton. We have been getting some unfamiliar ducks though. I suppose they are not totally unfamiliar. They have been here before. They look funny too because there are a few specie in the same area at the same time.

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