Tailwater Goldeneyes

February 4, 2015

A few weeks ago I drove out to Riverlands Migratory Bird Sanctuary along the Mississippi River to search for northern harriers. I spent several hours at the site, hoping for a flight shot, but only got a brief glimpse of one male, also known as the gray ghost, as it patrolled the prairie adjacent to Ellis Bay. By 11:00 the light was getting harsh, even for winter, so I packed up and headed home. On the way out I took a detour to check out the Mel Price tailwater and I was intrigued to find a large raft of goldeneyes working close to the shoreline. I knew I couldn’t get close to them so I decided to come back the next morning before daylight and set up at water’s edge.

I arrived well before sunrise the next morning and began the billy goat scramble down the shoreline blanket of extra-large, rip-rap boulders. It was more of a challenge than I expected, especially in the dark with all of my camera equipment, but I made it to the water in short order. Unfortunately, all of the boulders near water’s edge were coated with ice from the constant wave action of the river but I finally found a reasonably comfortable place to sit among the icy rocks with my back against a huge log. I settled in and began my stand but a few minutes later I decided that I wasn’t nearly camouflaged enough to fool the goldeneyes, if they even showed up. I tried to get up to find more cover but found my fleece coveralls already frozen to the substrate. My second effort to extricate myself was more successful and I began my search for woody debris, already becoming anxious due to the increasing light of morning. If the goldeneyes were coming, they would be coming soon!

I found several pieces of driftwood among the boulders and after about 15 minutes I had turned my backrest log into a functional blind. I jumped in and sat down on the ice again just in time for the first flight of goldeneyes to arrive. Sure enough, they landed practically at my feet and began diving all around me, sweetly oblivious to my presence. One of my favorite shots was the featured image of a hen as she showed off her chocolate colored head and amber eye.

Over the course of the morning, I recognized a pattern to the movements of the golden-eyed divers. Often they would turn and swim away from me for no apparent reason, but I soon realized that they were reacting to people high above me on the bank as they exited their vehicles for a better look. Fortunately, the goldeneyes would consistently swim back to my location, apparently a great feeding spot, and provide the opportunity for nice approaching shots such as the one below.

DJB_RVL_2015_0140

As the the sun became higher and brighter the photography became tougher, but the goldeneyes continued to feed at my location so I stuck around and made the best of the situation. It is difficult to photograph birds of high dynamic contrast in bright light so I tried to capture images just as a bird would turn at an angle to catch some light on its dark face (see next image).

DJB_RVL_2015_0129

Common goldeneyes usually don’t provide too much in the way of “action shots” so I felt lucky to get a few captures of a drake scratching its head with its bright red foot (see below).

DJB_RVL_2015_0110

By late morning, the cold from my ice-covered seat had finally worked its way through my coveralls and all of the layers in-between so I decided to call it quits. I had already pulled the cut-leaf camo off my lens when I saw some movement out of the corner of my eye. I turned to find a lone, long-tailed duck (old squaw) right out from my shooting position. She was very close and I watched her for another 45 minutes, hoping to see her pull up a gizzard shad from one of her long dives. Finally, she drifted downstream to join the raft of goldeneyes so I pulled up stakes. My best shot of the little hen is shown below. If you would like to see an image of the more striking drake, you will find one in the next edition (March) of Missouri Conservationist along with a story about my encounter with the beautiful sea duck, uncommon to Missouri waters.

BR8I3221

Somehow I stood up in the blind without leaving any remnants of my camo wear attached to the icy rocks and began the treacherous climb back up to the parking lot. Although hungry, cold, and stiff, I was reluctant to leave the icy hidey hole. It was a darn fine morning!

Thanks for looking,

Danny Brown

Email me at:  NatureFrames@Rocketmail.Com

All of the images were captured with a Canon 1D Mark IV; Canon 500/4 L Lens with 1.4x Teleconverter; Gitzo GT3530LS Tripod with Full Wimberley Head.

2 comments on “Tailwater Goldeneyes”

  1. Great photos and equally great story. Your predicament of being stuck to the rocks had me thinking you were going to end up like Hatchet Jack in the movie Jeremiah Johnson. I can only imagine what your last will and testament letter would have said… 🙂


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