Ducking and diving

Outdoor Living

COME HITHER This drake Goldeneye is unmistakable as it displays to a female. Pic: Steve Young /

Country Sights and Sounds
Michael Kingdon

The thick fog of early evening had created an insulating blanket, not from the cold, but from sound and from vision, so that only when a flurry of wind tore it apart were our senses restored.
The breeze had come from an unknown quarter to sweep the lake clean and give clear view over a mile of water. Islands and the wooded shore clung to fragments of mist. The tops of trees rose above these like the turrets and towers of antiquity, silhouetted by the light of only stars.
It takes a while for the eyes to fully adjust; close them and count to ten, and they open hungry for sight, better able to pierce the near-dark. Ears are better able for change.
In deep silence one’s own breath comes to the fore, then the beating heart. Listen to that faithful murmur, feel it stir in response to greater sound and swell to the gift brought by full-adjusted eyes. Then, when you think you have it all, hear your own blood, your precious own existence rush through capillaries and on, and know the pulse of life that we call love.
It is hard to find a context, with the world despoiled and at war.
Between this rocky seat and the far reeds a raft of duck shimmy the water, sending out a circular ray of silvered ripple that must somehow reach the shore. I know them to be goldeneye and tufted duck; the males of both are predominantly black and white, though when lit by the sun the head of the goldeneye holds a metallic hint of green. And see the colour of that eye! No question here as to how a bird acquired its common name, though purest gold be pale compared.
Elsewhere the goldeneye is also known as the ‘golden-eyed garrot’ or the ‘gowdy duck’. In the south west of England immature goldeneye become the rather charming ‘gingling curre’. In Scotland the bird is the ‘douker’, or diving duck, and here some know it as the freshwater wigeon.
We had watched these pretty ducks by day, and seen the males gathered into groups to perform their rather comedic courtship dance, during which three or four will compete for the attentions of a particular female.
They throw their heads back before extending their necks to thrust them forward with vigour, sometimes with a call like a squeaky ratchet. She is impressed, there is no doubt about it. She has a choice to make, but there is yet no hurry. These birds might delay their departure until April. Although they make a small show of aggressive intent, their eager, furrowing chase never leads to violence. And when they do leave it will be as family, as one, with their distant home of east and northern Europe on their minds, where holes in trees await their nest and brood.
It is only we who must fight and harm and kill our own en masse, though there is land and food and air for all, if we would but learn to share.
Our goldeneye will feed throughout the day, but do seem to have periods of intense activity when they spend far more time hunting below the surface than they do floating on it. During their dives, which can last for 20 seconds or more, they search for the small fish and the larvae of aquatic insects that make the bulk of their diet.
Almost unbelievably, we are still permitted to hunt these beautiful ducks during the months of September through to the end of January, despite their species being Amber Listed as Birds of Conservation Concern. Surely it is time to stop while there are yet enough to rebuild their numbers. Added protection cannot come soon enough. I suppose we should be content with the few designated wildfowl refuge areas that are available.
While the goldeneye accommodate the larger bay along with their tufted friends, our own resident mallard fill hidden corners close to land. The mallard drake is in fine fettle, his feathers clean and bright and that stout curl in his tail that proves his vital health.
More of him another day. For now that comforting blanket of mist closes in once more, obliterating our view and dulling the senses, calling back to mind those words of Yeats:

          When you are old and grey and full of sleep,
          And nodding by the fire, take down this book,
          And slowly read, and dream of the soft look
          Your eyes had once, and of their shadows deep

It is moments like these that will shore us up. We shall ‘sorrow not that we no longer see, but be glad that we once saw’.


Michael Kingdon formerly wrote these columns under the pseudonym John Shelley. A naturalist and keen fisherman, he lives close to the shores of Lough Carra.