Bird Bits: An elegant winter duck

The water is colder and the days are getting brisk and short. But who’s that off Thane or Fish creek or on the Mendenhall State Game Refuge flats? When it comes to birds, that could be a year-round resident or a bird that has migrated to balmy Southeast Alaska for the winter.


Common goldeneye ducks hang with Barrow’s goldeneye ducks in small flocks of three to 40. They are surface diving ducks, who dive quietly and are able to power down 20 feet below the surface of the water with their webbed feet. During the winter, you’ll see them foraging in shallow, coastal bays with rocky shorelines, inlets and estuaries. Their menu is mollusks, crustacean, insects, small fish and aquatic vegetation.

Ducks are generally not very talkative outside the breeding season. But, the Common goldeneye’s wings in flight make a distinctive whistling sound. You’ll need your binoculars as these ducks stay out from shore and flush easily, but they will circle back. Be patient.

The male and females are dimorphic, meaning you get a chance to tell them apart by plumage color and patterns. At a distance, the males begin to look white with a black head. Closer, it becomes obvious they have black backs, an iridescent head with a visible white oval between bill and eye, and thin black slashes on the white of their wings. The females are a mottled gray-brown with a darker brown head. The golden eye shows on both sexes from a distance.

Common and Barrow’s goldeneyes are medium sized ducks: They are 18 inches in length with a 28-inch wingspan and weigh around two pounds. The Barrow’s goldeneye males, in a mixed flock, look darker on the water. They have a tear drop shape between their bill and yellow eye. The female Barrow’s goldeneye has an orange-yellow bill.

Next spring, watch for the male head-throwing, thrusting and waggling. If I were to consider a bucket list, I would want to find a Common goldeneye’s cavity nest and watch their kids leap to the ground from a tree.

• Patricia Wherry is the education chairperson for the Juneau Audubon Society. Contact her at


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