The common goldeneye is an elegant species of diving duck, which in Ontario breeds widely across the province. In the south it is most often seen as one early harbinger of spring, a late-winter opportunist taking advantage of open waters, while awaiting free passage to the north to breed. The ducks are often seen in flocks that appear along the Trent River, and take their supper very seriously! A small flock may align themselves along a waterway. One bird, often in the vanguard, tilts and dives: within seconds, the rest follow suit, repeating the action at short intervals. They resemble a synchronized swim team, and, with their frequent dives,counting them can be a challenge.
Males and females are easily distinguished. Their diet includes a wide range of molluscs, aquatic weeds, crayfish, insects and other delicacies (Bent, 1923). They have been seen at Burlington harbour on western Lake Ontario, helpfully tackling the invasive zebra mussel (Whelen, 1993). In our area their appearance is hard to predict, as some winters see their appearance more than others: January 2006 was a case in point: at the time of writing, February 2021 is another viewing opportunity, with sightings on 3 days in a week, and up to 16-19 birds in a flock. Generally speaking, dabbling duck (mallard) are more often seen, and for longer periods, than diving ducks such as goldeneye, mergansers and bufflehead. Indeed, I have never seen scaup here. Over the past 20-plus years, we have seen bufflehead, greater scaup and goldeneye infrequently, from early November to late April, at a range of sites along Lake Ontario: the Niagara peninsula, Etobicoke, Leslie Street Spit, Ashbridge's Bay, Cobourg and Presqu'ile. The common goldeneye has been seen around Campbellford between 02 January and 28 April. In March 2019, we also saw these ducks twice, just upriver in Hastings.
In upstate New York, the common goldeneye is a rare to uncommon breeder along the Champlain valley and in the western Adirondacks. In a harsh winter it may flock to the Atlantic coast, but otherwise may be common in winter along Lake Ontario and the St. Lawrence seaway. The common goldeneye may be less common than in the past (Cadman et al., 1987; Levine, 1988) due to habitat disturbance by logging, cottaging and other activities. It is unusual for a duck, in that it prefers nest cavities in dead trees. It is apt to head north as soon as there is open water. Breeding areas are largely from Manitoulin Island north to Hudson Bay (Cadman et al., 1987, pp.94-95). The later edition of the provincial bird breeding atlas (Cadman et al., 2007, pp.110-111) shows additional evidence of breeding on the southern Canadian shield, south and east from Sudbury.
At Presqu'ile park
(LaForest, 1993, pp.90-91)
numbers on the lake may dwarf those seen on the Trent, some 40 km to the north.
Late winter and autumn migratory counts may range from 1,000 to 3,000 in a day.
Further north and west,
smaller numbers and lack of evidence of breeding apply in the Kawarthas
as here in Seymour township
(Sadler, 1983, p.53).
Bent,AC (1923) Life Histories of North American Waterfowl. Dover Publications, Inc., reprint of Smithsonian Institution Bull. 126, in 2 volumes in 1962 / as 1 volume in 1987, 244+314pp. Volume 2, pp.1-14.
Cadman,MD, Eagles,PFJ and Helleiner,FM (1987) Atlas of the Breeding Birds of Ontario. Federation of Ontario Naturalists and Long Point Bird Observatory, published by University of Waterloo Press, 617pp.
Cadman,MD, Sutherland,DA, Beck,GG, Lepage,D and Couturier,AR (editors) (2007) Atlas of the Breeding Birds of Ontario, 2001-2005. Bird Studies Canada,Environment Canada,Ontario Field Ornithologists, Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources, and Ontario Nature, 706pp.
LaForest,SM (1993) Birds of Presqu'ile Provincial Park. Friends of Presqu'ile Park / Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources, 436pp.
Levine,E (editor) (1998) Bull's Birds of New York State. Comstock Publishing Associates, Cornell University Press, revised version, 622pp., pp.171-172.
Sadler,D (1983) Our Heritage of Birds: Peterborough County in the Kawarthas. Peterborough Field Naturalists / Orchid Press, Peterborough, ON, 192pp.
Whelan,P (1993) Hordes of ducks descend on zebra mussels. Globe and Mail, 20 February.