January through April are prime months for ducks in the greater Chicago area and Barrington is no exception. Their location depends largely on where the ice is and where it is not. Ducks need open water, so it’s essential to know where the open water is during the late winter and early spring months.
Barrington has lots of lakes and ponds, all of which are good places to look for waterfowl. Baker’s Lake, Hawley Lake, Honey Lake, Crabtree Lake are but a few. With the severe cold that settled in around New Year’s Day this year, most of those lakes have had a continuous cover of ice. But there’s a place nearby on the Fox River where open water almost always is available, even during the coldest spells, and that’s where I head each winter to find the Common Goldeneye (Bucephala clangula).
It’s interesting how many bird species bear the adjective “common” (e.g. Common Merganser, Common Nighthawk) and yet are anything but common, either in numbers or appearance. The same is true for the Common Goldeneye which is a diving duck of striking demeanor. The overall first impression is a duck with contrasting white and black plumage. On closer examination, the black head takes on a shimmering green iridescence, the white cheek spot is prominent, and the yellow – or golden – eye a delightful surprise.
Those features define the male of the species. The female, while the same medium size as the male, looks quite different with a brown head and sooty gray body feathers. Her beak has varying bits of yellow on it, while the male’s is all black. She does share, however, the same golden eye.
Common Goldeneyes come to the Barrington area only in winter and they are some of the last ducks to arrive, usually in late November. What I know of their breeding grounds and habits comes only from books – that they breed in northern boreal forests, using tree cavities near wetlands for nest sites. Their behavior in our latitude is almost entirely associated with feeding. They tend to forage underwater in large flocks, though it’s not unusual to see only a pair or two. As spring nears, it’s possible to observe elaborate courtship behavior.
The local place I most often find Goldeneyes when most bodies of water are frozen is on the Fox River near the Carpentersville Dam. I use the parking lot for Otto Industries (2 E. Main Street) as a viewing spot; I can easily set up a scope there and watch, unmolested by car traffic, the waterfowl that usually are abundant and active. Often Common Mergansers forage with the Goldeneyes, along with numerous Mallards and Canada Geese. Sometimes a Bald Eagle will appear. Recently, on a sub-zero day, I was surprised to see a Great Blue Heron.
When the ice cover begins to break up, Goldeneyes will gather in other local lakes and ponds. Last March I stopped daily for a week at Hawley Lake, viewing from the Otis Road side. There scores of ducks had congregated before heading back to northern breeding grounds: along with Common Goldeneye, there were Redheads, Canvasbacks, Bufflehead, Lesser Scaup, Common Mergansers. It was a veritable feast of diving ducks.
So while the frigid temperatures may deter many from venturing outdoors, you should consider bundling up and heading to open water in search of this handsome duck. Its brief appearance in our area only once a year, along with its memorable design, makes sightings very special.
About the Author
Wendy Paulson has lived in Barrington Hills since 1975, and has led bird walks in the area for many years. She re-established the Nature Lady program in the Barrington 220 school district and St. Anne’s in the late 70s, under the auspices of The Garden Club and Little Garden Club of Barrington. Wendy developed the education program for Citizens for Conservation, initiated and edited its newsletter, and has been an active volunteer with CFC for over 30 years.
During interludes in New York City and Washington, DC, Wendy taught classes about birds in the public schools and is helping to develop a similar program in Chicago public schools with Openlands. She is chairman of The Bobolink Foundation, serves on the board or advisory committee of multiple conservation and bird-related organizations, both domestic and international, and is former chairman of IL and NY chapters of The Nature Conservancy. Wendy and her husband Hank have two grown children and are avid hikers, cyclists, and kayakers.