Thursday, 17 November 2011

Preferential treatment?

Hypocrite that I am, I was excited to see an unusual bird on the river today. I was doing my daily mooch round the field with Jake, who as usual bounded ahead along the river bank, following an intricate trail of aromas - probably dead fish and dog poos mainly - that only he appreciates. I heard a clatter from the water, and looked over in time to see a dumpy grey and white duck fly past, wings beating like football rattles, and land behind me, hidden under the bank.

I retraced my steps, keen to get a look before Jake lumbered back into view and put the bird up again. It was a male goldeneye, partly in eclipse plumage. Its bold black and white summer plumage seemed to be blurred together into shades of grey, though it still wore that distinctive white beauty spot beneath its eye. I'd love to let you think I knew this as soon as I saw it, but actually I had to wait until I got home to check in the Collins Bird Guide and see what it was - though to be fair to my birding skills I suspected goldeneye was a top contender.

They have a great scientific name - Bucephala clangula - resounding bull-head!  With their oversized heads, black wings and white chest, these curious little ducks have an almost puffin-like look to them in summer, while the resounding bit, I'm guessing, has something to do with the incredibly loud whistle they make during their courtship display. It's meant to carry for over a kilometre.
This one was almost certainly a visitor from further north, one of over 30,000 that winter here. The Forth estuary, a favourite wintering ground, is just a few miles away from here. Forty years ago I'd have been absolutely sure of that, but since 1970 a few goldeneye have stayed on to breed in the Highlands - 200 pairs at the last count.

They usually breed in tree holes in the northern forests of Scandinavia. Conservationists here started putting up nest boxes for them in the Abernethy Forest in the late 60s, and by 1970 the first pair had taken up residence. This troubles me slightly. Isn't this tantamount to introducing an alien species? I can't find any reference to their breeding here in the past. Don't get me wrong - I think they're beautiful birds and it's wonderful that they're now here all year round, but I'd be intrigued to know the rationale behind their introduction - is this a case of preferential treatment?

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