The performance of the Goldeneyes

About one and a half years ago I thought about how I could photograph a Common Goldeneye (Bucephala clangula). This duck species is spread over the whole northern hemisphere, in Germany it only breeds in the north. But it also spends the winter in southern Germany. The males are coloured black and white, the females brown and grey – despite this lack of colour it is a very beautiful bird species. Two years ago I had the chance to photograph a female in Leipzig – but never a male.

Common Goldeneye (Bucephala clangula clangula), Leipzig, Germany, adult female

Last winter I spent some time with a friend, M. Kamps, in northeast Germany – among other things we were hoping for beautiful observations of goldeneyes. In an industrial harbour I finally had a satisfying encounter.

Common Goldeneye (Bucephala clangula clangula), Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, Germany, adult male landing
Common Goldeneye (Bucephala clangula clangula), Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, Germany, adult male landing
Common Goldeneye (Bucephala clangula clangula), Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, Germany, group, flying with Greater Scaup (Aythya marila) and Tufted Duck (Aythya fuligula)
Me, photographing Goldeneyes © M. Kamps

Goldeneyes perform an extraordinary courtship display. The male swims towards the female – suddenly he leans his head wide on his back, holds it there for a moment and then several things happen at the same time: It throws its rear body up while it bends its tail down, pushes its feet quickly under the body till they are put into the air. The water splashes around, so that the male is framed by a ring of water. It finally gives a strange grunt. Then it turns its head with its beak open directly into the sky before returning to its typical swimming position. I hadn’t even dared to hope to photograph this behavior. But shortly after my return from northeast Germany, a Goldeneye male happened to doe the courtship display right in front of me. Here I show you some single pictures from a series of this behaviour:

Here another photo of the series showing the ring of water:

Common Goldeneye (Bucephala clangula clangula), Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, Germany, adult male, courthship display. Here you can see the ring of water which frames the male.

As you can see, the male does several things in sync, but this is understandably not so easy – not even for a goldeneye. Look at the following photo of a young male – while in the adult bird both feet are almost perfectly synchronized, in this young male the feet have completely different positions and the toes are not even spread. Water droplets fly through the air in a wild mess, but do not form a ring. So males are likely to have to practice this courtship behavior and females may be able to judge the male quality from their performance at the courtship display.

Common Goldeneye (Bucephala clangula clangula), Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, Germany, young male, failed courtship display.

Hopefully, you enjoyed this series of photos.

Common Goldeneye (Bucephala clangula clangula), Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, Germany, adult male, taking off
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