Barrows Goldeneye and Other Winter Ducks
with Mike Lushington
Barrows goldeneye is one of the most interesting and attractive of our winter sea ducks. This close relative of the Common goldeneye - a bird that is present locally for most of the year - migrates from its more northerly summer breeding grounds and appears in small numbers along the coastline during the winter months. That is, it appears in small numbers everywhere except in the waters around the Bon Ami Rocks and Inch Arran Point in the Dalhousie area. Here, for some reason, it congregates in large numbers - that is, large numbers for this rare species. On most Christmas Bird Counts, we tally several hundred of them, enough to have Dalhousie waters unofficially designated as the Barrows Goldeneye Winter Capitol.
By late November, they have begun to gather in those numbers and they will persist throughout most winters, or at least as long as open water remains in the area. They are attractive birds; the females in dark, almost chocolate, brown and the males in a very distinguished suit of black and white, almost as though they are wearing tuxedos. You have to be careful to distinguish them from Common goldeneyes - in fact, it is almost impossible to separate the females of the two species - but attention to details should enable you to identify the males. One characteristic that often helps is that Barrows tend to stick together in relatively large groups, whereas Common are most often found singly or in very small numbers - usually no more than five or six.
Barrows goldeneyes are often the most plentiful sea ducks in the area throughout the winter, but right now it is possible to see good numbers of Greater scaup (and, if you are very careful to work out the distinguishing characteristics) the occasional Lesser scaup. Long-tailed ducks are still present and any of another half dozen species are possible. One very attractive little duck that is becoming more and more common in winter locally is the Bufflehead - another character in black and white; however, most of the white in this little fellow is confined to a large patch on its head.
And then we have our resident flocks of Black ducks. Anywhere from a hundred or so to as many as three hundred hang around each winter; they can be spotted in the thermal plant lagoon, around the Bon Ami Rocks, or in any open water that persists around the bridge at Eel River Bar. Despite spotting them in various locations, these are usually all from the one flock that moves from one spot to another daily. There are usually several Mallards with them, and the flock always bears checking out for a possible Green-winged teal or other small dabbling duck.
Most birders slow down in winter. There are not a great many species to work on in the woods or along the fields in these months. Although one never really knows for certain what one may spot on a hike "out back", there is no denying that the more persistent action is to be found along the shore lines. In addition to the ducks that I mentioned in this space, there are the gulls that I described in an earlier effort. And one never knows what else might be around: just the other day I had a call from a gentleman in Charlo who was wondering if it was possible that he could have seen a Bald headed eagle. I assured him that it was actually quite likely, especially at this time of year. It is also possible to spot Snowy owl, Rough-legged hawk, or Gyrfalcon - all have put in their appearances in the winter months over the past few years. So, dress up warmly and take a walk around the shoreline - it could be a very exciting thing to do.