Montana Outdoors

January 17, 2011

The whistling has returned.

Filed under: Birds, Winter — Tags: , , , — montucky @ 3:00 pm

There is a stretch of river not far from my home that I have fished for well over sixty years. For three quarters of a mile the water flows in a nice riffle from a bend in the river to the head of a small rapids. It still contains a good quantity of fine Rainbow, Cutthroat and Brown trout and is fished as well by Bald Eagles and Osprey (both of whom are much better fishers than I). Beavers do their very best to keep the willows along the banks trimmed back so they don’t catch trout flies on the back cast and also dig channels into the bank to provide excitement for those who step into them when they are hidden by tall summer grasses.

Each year at this time one can hear from a good distance a pronounced intermittent whistling sound that I have long known to be associated with the flight of some small black and white diving ducks. A flock of forty or fifty will settle in at the head of the riffle and float down through it, periodically diving down to feed on aquatic invertebrates until they arrive at the top part of the rapids when they take off and fly up to the head of the riffle again, whistling as they go, to start all over again. The rather loud whistling sound is produced by their wings in flight. Only recently have I figured out just who they are.

The river where the riffle is located is about two hundred yards wide and when I’m on the bank the ducks prefer to stay toward the far side perhaps a hundred and fifty yards away. The distance, the facts that they are under water much of the time and they fly very fast on their way back up stream have always made it difficult for me to identify them. They also confuse the issue further by including in their flocks a small number of another species of black and white duck (the Common Merganser).

Thanks to a new pair of excellent binoculars and a couple dozen wild wing shots taken with my DSLR, I finally figured out that they are Common Goldeneyes, one of the last species of ducks to migrate south in the fall and who, as is the case here, will winter as far north as open water permits. I’m glad they have chosen this as one of their wintering places.



  1. Oh wow! Great shot! Bird in motion, not easy!


    Comment by Roberta Warshaw — January 17, 2011 @ 3:02 pm

    • That’s a nice thing about digital: you can take a lot of shots without running up the tab. Sometimes one even works out!


      Comment by montucky — January 17, 2011 @ 4:57 pm

  2. Great shot! I have only bee n able to do that a couple of times. I have seen these out in Casco Bay, off Portland, but didn’t know they went inland. I doubt if I ever get close enough to hear the whistle.


    Comment by sandy — January 17, 2011 @ 3:23 pm

    • From what I read, they are found just about all over the U.S. in winter. They don’t spend the summer here, just come in this time of year.


      Comment by montucky — January 17, 2011 @ 4:59 pm

  3. What an excellent flowing shot of the duck flying over water. Interesting about the whistling and that must be something to hear. I love to eat Rainbow trout… even for breakfast!


    Comment by Anna — January 17, 2011 @ 3:49 pm

    • Yes, the whistling is distinctive and louder than you might imagine. That is an excellent feeding area for trout and so I’m sure they do well to feed there too. I’ve never seen the eagles go after them either.


      Comment by montucky — January 17, 2011 @ 5:00 pm

  4. Hi Montucky, Cool! They sure look like female Buffleheads but I know you are right and they are Goldeneyes. Super looking Ducks! Thanks for posting this excellent picture! Have a great evening tonight and an equally nice day tomorrow!


    Comment by wildlifewatcher — January 17, 2011 @ 5:12 pm

    • Yes, they are pretty ducks. The marking of the males are very nice.


      Comment by montucky — January 17, 2011 @ 7:17 pm

  5. Terry:

    Are you certain it is the whistling of their wings you hear? Perhaps its a tune they are whistling whose name you do not yet recognize?



    Comment by Chad — January 17, 2011 @ 6:46 pm

    • I sure recognize the tune. Now if I could figure out how they can possibly do that with their wings!


      Comment by montucky — January 17, 2011 @ 7:21 pm

  6. Great shot and neat story!


    Comment by Patia — January 17, 2011 @ 6:54 pm

    • Thanks Patia. They have always been a part of what I like about western Montana.


      Comment by montucky — January 17, 2011 @ 7:24 pm

  7. What an awesome story and sighting!


    Comment by kcjewel — January 17, 2011 @ 7:10 pm

    • Thanks Jewel. I feel a little better being able to connect a name with them.


      Comment by montucky — January 17, 2011 @ 7:25 pm

  8. What an interesting duck and very handsome in the black and white.


    Comment by kateri — January 17, 2011 @ 8:10 pm

    • I love to watch and listen to them on that riffle and look forward to it every winter.


      Comment by montucky — January 17, 2011 @ 10:54 pm

  9. A few of the diving ducks as opposed to dabblers make that sort of whistling sound. A Park ranger explained it to us long ago in my childhood saying that they were on average heavier or denser per wing size than mallards etc and they had to work harder to get and stay airborne, hence the whistling of the air passing by their wings which are working harder. The common loon around here often produces the same noise but not as loudly. On a very quiet day you can hear it though if they fly nearby.
    No matter how they make the noise though that is a great shot. Thanks for posting it.


    Comment by dave1949 — January 17, 2011 @ 8:35 pm

    • That explanation of the whistling makes sense. They do fly fast and just off the water where it would be more effort I would think. I can hear them flying from at least a quarter of a mile away.


      Comment by montucky — January 17, 2011 @ 10:56 pm

  10. Beautiful duck. He’s so sharp against the water. Are you saying only some choose to migrate south and others stay north or are you saying they come from even farther north and have migrated to your area?


    Comment by Candace — January 17, 2011 @ 10:57 pm

    • Their breeding and summer range is far north through Canada. They will winter just about anywhere in the U.S. but some choose to winter as far north as they can as long as there is open water.


      Comment by montucky — January 17, 2011 @ 11:53 pm

  11. Must be nice to have all sorts of wildlife action going on around you..Nice photo!


    Comment by Roberta Gould — January 18, 2011 @ 12:03 am

    • It is, Roberta. Those who live here and can spend a lot of time outdoors are able to see and to an extent understand the interrelationships of biological diversity. It’s a fascinating study!


      Comment by montucky — January 18, 2011 @ 12:16 am

  12. Great shot, I like the way the motion blur of the water makes the duck stand out. I enjoyed the write up on the photo also.


    Comment by Jim — January 18, 2011 @ 5:42 am

    • Thanks Jim. That was one of several photos I took trying to get one that would help me identify the duck. I liked this one.


      Comment by montucky — January 18, 2011 @ 9:36 pm

  13. how interesting! and how fun to have finally figured out who they are! great photo too


    Comment by silken — January 18, 2011 @ 7:45 am

    • Yes, it was satisfying to finally know who they are and now being able to find out more about them. I haven’t hunted ducks for many years, but when I did I was able to instantly identify the game species and never did get past that point.


      Comment by montucky — January 18, 2011 @ 9:38 pm

  14. Isn’t it amazing that there is always something new to learn? Good shot.


    Comment by Daveabirding — January 18, 2011 @ 10:19 am

    • Yes, there are always new things to learn. Technology helped me out with this one.


      Comment by montucky — January 18, 2011 @ 9:39 pm

  15. Amazing!


    Comment by Stacey Dawn — January 18, 2011 @ 11:04 pm

  16. Perfect capture. You have great timing to get that shot!


    Comment by Robin — January 19, 2011 @ 3:08 pm

    • Thanks Robin. There’s a secret to getting a shot like that: it’s called luck!


      Comment by montucky — January 19, 2011 @ 9:20 pm

  17. I love the shot of the duck over the water like this and would love to hear the whistle.


    Comment by Tammy McLeod — January 19, 2011 @ 10:11 pm

    • I think you would enjoy the sound. Each year when they come in and I hear they fly it’s like a call from an old friend.


      Comment by montucky — January 19, 2011 @ 10:23 pm

  18. Terrific photo of my favorite duck. I have also heard the whistling of overhead flight and it took me a while to figure out what it was as well. Wonderful post.

    And good fishing his spring on that river. Sounds heavenly.


    Comment by Bill — January 20, 2011 @ 7:36 am

    • That stretch of river has always been a part of my life, Bill. I fished it over 20 years when I was growing up in this area, then missed it for 30 years when I was away from Montana, and when I came back 17 years ago, the fish were still there and the ducks were still going through their routine every winter, and then I knew life was not all that bad!


      Comment by montucky — January 21, 2011 @ 12:32 am

  19. When I saw the word “whistling” in the title, I thought you were going to show us a marmot photo. This is even better!



    Comment by knightofswords — January 20, 2011 @ 8:11 am

    • Maybe I’ll get a shot or two at a marmot next summer: I plan to spend at least one night on Marmot Peak at the north end of Sundance Ridge.


      Comment by montucky — January 21, 2011 @ 12:34 am

  20. I wonder if the wings would make a whistling sound if they were flying in warmer air? It seems to me that in cold weather, it might make the sound higher pitched.

    That’s an excellent shot of a very pretty duck, Terry.


    Comment by Val Erde — January 20, 2011 @ 7:35 pm

    • I don’t know if the temperature affects the sound, although I haven’t noticed a difference over temperature swings of 50 degrees or so.


      Comment by montucky — January 21, 2011 @ 12:37 am

  21. Lucky man when they chose this place. I love the shot, it is very good. How many photos Your camera can take photos in one second?


    Comment by sartenada — January 20, 2011 @ 11:21 pm

    • Yes, I am very lucky to be here where there are so many things I enjoy, like the ducks and the river!

      My camera will take three photos per second, although I have never used that feature.


      Comment by montucky — January 21, 2011 @ 12:39 am

      • I suggest You to try it. It can give positive results! I tried once my camera when I saw swans which started their flight from a field.


        Comment by sartenada — January 21, 2011 @ 1:15 am

        • Yes, I will try it. In fact, I hope to get a chance tomorrow morning.


          Comment by montucky — January 21, 2011 @ 1:56 am

  22. I see these striking ducks on a river near here everyday, too. They hang out near the mallards and Canada geese, diving underwater when the geese get too close. We are lucky to have them too! Beautiful shot.


    Comment by farmhouse stories — January 21, 2011 @ 1:15 pm

    • I’m glad that you have them too. The sound of their wings seems to reassure me that the natural world is still doing OK.


      Comment by montucky — January 21, 2011 @ 2:57 pm

  23. Fantastic capture. I would have thought it a merganser duck…but what do I know????


    Comment by Marcie — January 21, 2011 @ 7:02 pm

    • They do look a lot alike and as a matter of fact, I often see the two species together.


      Comment by montucky — January 21, 2011 @ 8:27 pm

  24. That is one beautiful bird! And a whistler, too! Sweet!


    Comment by Bo Mackison — January 21, 2011 @ 9:06 pm

    • The whistling sound can be heard for nearly half a mile. Very enjoyable birds.


      Comment by montucky — January 21, 2011 @ 9:40 pm

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