“Many observers agree that the behaviour of animals is in part made up of stereotyped movements. The displays of birds are frequently cited as outstanding examples, and many students of bird behaviour have been able to dissect observed activities into stereotyped, component actions.”

 The form and duration of the display actions of the Goldeneye (Bucephala clangula), Dane, B.; Walcott, C. and Drury, W. H., Behaviour, 1959, 14, 265-281.

I think we first saw Goldeneye from the shore at Cardross on a high tide. Having got used to the Wigeon there in the winter, we were surprised to see small black and white ducks in the distance, notice their rather extraordinary head movements, and hear their calls.

Once we saw the cheek spot, there was no difficulty in identifying them but getting pictures was a different game – they stayed a long way out. They turned up on the Garnock in Irvine, putting on a good show but always drifting further and further out of camera range. When Hogganfield Loch froze almost completely in the winter of 2020/2021, the Goldeneye were forced quite close to shore to feed and carry out their displays. I had some great opportunities for shots as they threaded their way in and out of the melée of Mute and Whooper swans, Coots and Goosanders.

They went through quite a repertoire – the head thrown back, the stretch out to forty-five degrees and the snaking along the surface in pursuit of a rival. The females can be easy to overlook in the midst of all this hormonally charged contrasty glamour, and yes, most of my images are of the drakes but I do have one image which shows the beautifully textured flank of the duck.

I find the green sheen of the drake’s head quite tricky to get right in processing (I’ve had similar problems with Black guillemots and Goosander drakes). In some lights, you just get black and in others, a hint of unwanted purple shows up. I guess a green patch or highlight is about right.

The shape of the drake’s head seems to be quite variable – I thought that maybe it was to do with the vocalisation. When he stretches forward into the forty-five degree pose, mass seems to relocate from the equator of the head to give him what I can only describe as jowls. It’s a rather odd silhouette for a duck.

A brief dig in the literature revealed much – he’s just puffed his cheek feathers out. The scientific literature is truly enormous and it is usually the case that the question you wish to ask has been answered (at least in part) long before you got anywhere close to it. As I used to tell research students in professional life, a week in the laboratory saves twenty minutes in the library…

To gain the results upon which their Goldeneye article cited at the top of the blog is based, Dane et al., all Harvard scholars, painstakingly analysed hundreds of feet of black and white motion picture footage of groups of Goldeneye on saltwater in North America. They described and named seventeen distinct and stereotypical actions in flock displays and eleven pre-copulatory actions; I think I managed to photograph two – the Bowsprit (my forty-five degree pose) and the Simple Head-throw (the image at the top of the blog) – so I’ve a way to go. I look forward to trying to find and photograph Dipping, Drinking, Flicking and Nodding inter alia with the help of Dane et al., and some of the YouTube videos of Goldeneye.

With great regret, a sombre PS. Shortly after drafting this post on 15th November 2022, I read of the suspected arrival of Avian influenza at Hogganfield Loch in Glasgow. I suspect that Kathleen Jamie’s piece in the London Review of Books of 18th August 2022 entitled “Stay alive! Stay alive!” will have summarised the fears and hopes of all of us who marvel at the natural world and fear for its fragility.

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