Rishane gives us the inside line on one of Loch Garten's other amazing birds, the goldeneye.

 

It’s been an exciting few weeks here at Loch Garten. The brand new centre opening, the lifting of travel restrictions, and two ospreys back on the nest. But nature, as great as it can show itself to be, remains unpredictable. Whether we like it or not. Our two ospreys have deserted our beloved nest. And after digging out all of our greatest osprey info to share with everyone coming to see the show on opening week, we find ourselves having to cope with the current empty nest.

Ospreys are an incredible sight that many of you want to come and experience. But it is easy to overook what an amazing show other species in the reserve put on when spring comes along.

For instance, goldeneye ducklings are a force of nature. And it’s just about the right time to see them. But before we get to the good stuff let me tell you a little bit of what I’ve learnt about goldeneye ducks so far.

If you start walking along the Two Lochs Trail from Loch Garten to Loch Mallachie, you will see a few nest boxes situated a few metres up from the ground. Goldeneye rely on woodlands that have not been heavily managed and have many old gnarly trees like the ones we find by the Lochs. For a goldeneye, the perfect nests are found in trees so old that they become hollow or in cavities created by woodpeckers. However, there are limited nest sites in scottish forests. This could be due to two things: the forest lacking mature trees or the absence of black woodpecker nest holes that are used by goldeneyes elsewhere in european countries.

The habitat here, in the largest remaining fragment of ancient Caledonian pinewood, is as close as we get to natural woodland in Britain,. However, the forest is still, to this day, a combination of two types of Scots Pine woodland: man-made plantation and semi-natural woodland including trees that are descendants of the first pines that colonised Abernethy, vital to the breeding population of goldeneyes.

As trees grow slowly and restructuring the forest to a natural condition takes time, the goldeneyes need a little help. On the Abernethy reserve, many nest boxes date back to the 1980s and allow these hole-nesting ducks to breed here each spring. These boxes are also often occupied by other species like tawny owls, goosanders, or redstarts.

Around the beginning of March, a rather spectacular and loud show occurs on Loch Garten. The courtship display of male goldeneyes involves loud double whistle calls that can be heard up to a kilometre away. You will also see them throw their heads back and splash with their wings in a frenzy.

After the show comes the egg laying and incubation time. The male at this point, around mid-April, disappears from the scene and it’s all up to the females. Females will pluck their own feathers from their breast to make a nice snug duvet to keep the eggs snug. Keeping the eggs warm for several hours, the soft and warm plucked feathers allows the female to nip out to feed and bathe on Loch Garten.

27-32 days later, the eggs hatch! And the chicks just can’t wait to explore. Only 24 hours after hatching, the ducklings jump out of the nest hole and land “gracefully” on the forest floor. Amazingly, they are not fed by mum and have to get to the water themselves in order to eat. Just like mum and dad, they dive to collect invertebrates like small water snails, crustaceans, mussels or insect larvae.

So if you’re walking along the trails today, in the sunshine, get those binoculars out and look for a medium sized duck with flashes of white, with a green or brown head diving under the surface of Loch Garten or Mallachie. And if you’re lucky, a few confident looking ducklings following mama duck.

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