A practical guide to bird watching in Sonoma County, California

(Unless otherwise indicated, all phone numbers are in the 707 area code)


Common Goldeneye is a fairly common duck in Sonoma County in the winter months, usually starting to arrive here in early November. Most are gone by the middle of April, but a few may stay over the summer. Uses both coastal waters and inland lakes, farm ponds, and sewer ponds. May form small flocks in winter, but just as often seen alone or in pairs.

A chunky, diving duck with a dark, iridescent green head (that often looks black), and bright yellow eye, for which the bird is named. The large, white, oval spot between the eye and the bill is distinctive. Bill black. White neck, breast, and flanks. Scapulars also mostly white. Back otherwise very dark grey to black. Females are mostly a scalloped silvery grey, but with a white neck and chocolate brown head. Females have the golden eye but lack the white facial spot. Female bill is black but tipped with yellow. First winter males resemble females but will show signs of the facial spot. In flight, both males and females show a conspicuous white band across the breadth of the middle of the wing, but closer to the base of the wing (photo below).

Most likely to be confused with its close relative, Barrow’s Goldeneye (Bucephala islandica), but it’s important to keep in mind that Common Goldeneye, while not by any means abundant in Sonoma County, is much more regularly sighted than Barrow’s Goldeneye, which is rare here. The males are fairly easy to distinguish: Note the crescent-shaped rather than oval white spot on the face of Barrow’s Goldeneye; the rather different look of the white on the scapulars; the presence of a black, vertical bar on the side of the Barrow’s male; the purple-blue rather than green iridescence on the head of the Barrow’s male, and the subtle but distinct differences in the shape of the heads of the two birds (Common Goldeneye with a sloping forehead, Barrow’s with a peaked look). Barrow’s Goldeneye also has a smaller bill. Overall, Common Goldeneye shows much more white on the flanks and back than Barrow’s Goldeneye.

Females are more difficult to tell apart, but the differences of silhouette are fairly obvious once you become acquainted with them (look for the differences in head shape and bill size, in particular). Otherwise, note that female Barrow’s Goldeneye generally has an orange-yellow bill in breeding season (late winter to late spring), while the bill of the female Common Goldeneye is merely tipped with yellow in all seasons. Head shape, bill size and shape, and bill color taken together may be the best way to tell the females apart. Common Goldeneye (both sexes) shows more white in the wing in flight than Barrow’s Goldeneye. To complicate matters, however, Common Goldeneye is known to hybridize with Barrow's Goldeneye.

English synonyms: American Goldeneye, Cobhead, Common Goldeneye Whistler, Common, Goldeneye, Whistler

Common Goldeneye in other languages--German: Hohlente, Klangente, Knobbe, Schellente; Spanish: Ojodorado Común, Pato Chillón, Porrón Osculado; French: Garrot, Garrot à l'oeil d'or, Garrot à oeil d'or, Garrot commun, Garrot ordinaire, Garrot sonneur; Russian: Гоголь (Gogol), Гоголь обыкновенный, Обыкновенный гоголь; Chinese: 鹊鸭, 白颊鸭, 金眼鸭, 鵲鴨, 鹊 鸭, 鹊鸭; Japanese: ホオジロガモ (Hoojirogamo)

(Language information from Avibase, Birds of Europe (Mullarney et al, Princeton Field Guide Series), and Birds of Asia (Mark Brazil, Princeton Field Guide Series).

Further reading:

Bolander and Parmeter, Birds of Sonoma County California, rev. ed., 2000, p. 36

Brinkley, National Wildlife Federation Field Guide to Birds of North America, 2007, p. 52

Dunn and Alderfer, eds., National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America, 5th ed., 2006, p. 46

Dunn and Alderfer, eds., National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America, 6th ed., 2011, p. 44

Dunne, Pete Dunne’s Essential Field Guide Companion, 2006, pp. 60-61

Ehrlich, Dobkin, and Wheye, The Birder's Handbook, paperback edition, 1988, p. 90

Fix and Bezener, Birds of Northern California, 2000, p. 97

Floyd, Smithsonian Field Guide to the Birds of North America, 2008, p. 53

Kaufman, Field Guide to Birds of North America, 2000, p. 40

Kaufman, Field Guide to Advanced Birding, 2011, pp. 146, 149

Lukas, Bay Area Birds: From Sonoma County to Monterey Bay, 2012, pp. 25-26

Parmeter and Wight, Birds of Sonoma County California, Update (2000-2010), 2012, p. 9

Peterson, Birds of Eastern and Central North America, 5th ed., 2002, pp. 78, 88

Peterson, Field Guide to Birds of Western North America, 4th ed., 2010, p. 38

Peterson, Western Birds, 3rd ed., 1990,  p. 58, 72

Sibley, Field Guide to Birds of Western North America,1st ed., 2003, p. 90

Stokes, Stokes Field Guide to the Birds of North America, 1st ed., 2010, p. 48

Vuilleumier, American Museum of Natural History, Birds of North America: Western Region, 2011, p. 64

Voice: Cornell Lab of Ornithology: All About Birds--Common Goldeneye



© Colin Talcroft, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014

Unless noted, all photos by the author. If you would like to use one of my images, please ask for permission for non-commercial use with proper credit or commercial use with proper compensation.


Common Goldeneye (male), Spring Lake, Santa Rosa, February 5, 2013

Common Goldeneye (female) in flight

Spring Lake, Santa Rosa, February 5, 2013

Background: Common Goldeneye (2 males), first-year male Common Goldeneye (far right)

Foreground: Barrow’s Goldeneye x Hooded Merganser hybrid, Barrow’s Goldeneye

Peralta Park, Oakland, January 2, 2010

Common Goldeneye

Bucephala clangula

EBird reported  occurrence in Sonoma County

1990-2013 Sonoma County data. Graph provided by eBird (www.ebird.org), generated May 30, 2013

Common Goldeneye--Probably a young male (note blotchiness of white spot on face)

Spring Lake, Santa Rosa, February 5, 2013