Winter is the best time to see one of my all time favourite birds – the Goldeneye. This duck winters in good numbers at Loch Leven with an average winter seeing around 500-600 birds. We have had nearly 900 birds at peak. Goldeneye are mainly winter visitors to the UK with around 30,000 birds arriving from Scandinavia in the autumn.
The drakes (males) can be quite easily identified. They have a black head with almost a dark green gloss, a golden/yellow eye (as the name suggests), a black back and the breast and flanks (sides) are a pure white with black streaks. The females have a brown head, yellow eye and a grey body. They are both truly stunning birds.
Now, these birds mainly breed in NW Europe (Sweden, Finland, Russia) and the Baltic Countries. Interestingly, these birds do in fact nest in trees and the taiga forest is there preferred habitat. However, there is a small population of around 200-250 breeding birds in Scotland. As the breeding population in the UK is so small, Goldeneye are given additional protection and are known as Schedule 1 birds. This means that nesting Goldeneye are legally protected and that is an offence to disturb these birds while they are nesting. These birds are mainly constrained to Deeside/Speyside where we have suitable habitat of trees and lochs/lochans. However, there is nesting birds in Northumberland and there is where Loch Leven comes in…
Boxes have been put up in the past to encourage breeding Goldeneye, but thus far we have had no luck. Loch Leven is a large body of water with surrounding trees – it does look very suitable for nesting Goldeneye. There is no reason why they shouldn’t be nesting here…so I have decided to re-instate this project and thanks to our wonderful volunteers we have 11 Goldeneye nest boxes ready to go out!
Goldeneye naturally nest in holes in trees, often these holes are made by woodpeckers. So, we have re-created a natural nest hole. The hole is 100mm in diameter and inside the box we have 4inches of fresh sawdust. In speaking to some ‘Goldeneye Boffins’ I was given a plethora of information of how best to put up boxes (aspect, number, height etc.) and what to look out for in the behaviour of the birds. Goldeneye are early nesters and start nesting in March. The sawdust is needed in the box as the female will lay 8-12 eggs and while she incubates them, they can be buried into the sawdust for warmth.
It’s quite an experience watching the Goldeneye display! The males court the females by doing this weird courtship display. They extend their necks out, then flick them right onto their backs. Probably one of the most bizzare displays in the ornithological world – if you have Goldeneye on a Loch near you, then chances are they are displaying. Worth having a look!
We have seen pairs of Goldeneye in late spring, presumably failed or non-breeders. So, we know that birds do stay until the spring. Females are also observed having a pink tip to their bill which means that they are in good breeding condition. Everything adds up, we just need to keep tabs and hope that the stars align!
Once the boxes are up, our job doesn’t end there – every winter we will need to go into each box and add a layer of fresh sawdust. The things we do for the ducks!
Fingers, toes and arms crossed that we do get our first breeding pair of Goldeneye on the Loch this season, I am ever hopeful. When we conduct our first brood count of the spring, I will be on the lookout for cute, humbug coloured Goldeneye chicks – if I do see a Goldeneye brood then I may implode…. but lets see what happens!
A big thanks to Rab Rae and Harry Scott for the plethora of information on breeding Goldeneye and Goldeneye Nest Boxes. Also a massive thanks to our volunteers who spent a few cold mornings cutting out my dodgy measurements and building the nest boxes. This project couldn’t have been completed without them!
I will keep you all updated – Will we add another breeding species to Loch Leven….I sure hope so!