A Travellerspoint blog

The Search for Barrow’s Goldeneye

Crab Meadow Beach, NY

overcast 31 °F

Today, I decided to chase a rare waterfowl species called the Barrow’s Goldeneye. Although somewhat more common out west, this bird has about 6,000 breeding pairs in eastern north America (primarily in the boreal regions of Quebec) compared to its more-common cousin, the aptly-named Common Goldeneye, which has upwards of 60,000 breeding pairs in the region. The two species are both striking birds and remarkably similar, so there are a few key differences for which a keen birder must watch in differentiating the two. Both a male and a female bird were seen at Crab Meadow Beach recently, my destination for the day, so I will go over some of the defining characteristics of telling apart both male and female Barrow’s from a Common. The male Barrow’s is a downright beautiful bird: he has the classic white facial marking of the goldeneye, but instead of it appearing as a haphazard blotch beneath the eye, it is in the shape of a crescent in the same part of the face. The male bird also has a black “spur” on its sides which the Common lacks, and has much more black on the sides and back of the bird overall, giving the Barrow’s a markedly “darker” look. Both sexes seem to have less of a sloped forehead than the Common, with more of an extreme drop-off between the crown of the bird and the bill. Female Barrow’s can be differentiated from their Common counterparts by their comparatively daintier bills and a much greater relative area of orange on the bill than the mere tip of orange found on the female Common. Female Barrow’s Goldeneyes also tend to have a darker, richer brown color on the head than the Common, though this is not a reliable fieldmark considering the fact that waterfowl observation is almost exclusively done at a distance, and moisture on the head or lighting conditions may distort the perceived color. In short, Barrow’s Goldeneyes are much, much less frequently encountered than Commons — an example of this being the fact that the only other time I have observed this duck was a quick, rather unsatisfactory view of a group of them on Yellowstone Lake out west in 2013. So in other words, I was due up!

Why did I go into such festidious detail? Well, apart from boring my readers, I had a hell of a commute to get to the Barrow’s today: two subways, two trains, a bus, and a short uber ride. Yikes! So in other words, I had a lot of time on my hands to write. If I somehow miraculously ended up having spare daylight upon my arrival by train back to the city, I planned to possibly make a quick stop in Brooklyn to check for the recent Varied Thrush or Painted Bunting I have both recently missed there.

You know you’re far from NYC when the most common form of pedestrian seen from the bus is not of the human type!!

Upon my arrival to the beach, I immediately took note of an absolute abundance of waterbirds (particularly waterfowl, and particularly Common Goldeneye — a good sign!). My first photo of the day was of this COMMON LOON:

And then a beautiful male LONG-TAILED DUCK showed off his plumage for me. What a stunner!


As I mentioned, COMMON GOLDENEYES proliferated:

In fact, I spent nearly four hours picking through hundreds of these guys today! Whew! I was able to see their antics with males frequently head-bobbing and fluffing their wings for the uninterested female birds.

Other waterfowl were around like these RED-BREASTED MERGANSERS:



At one point, a friendly birder named Lisa who I have seen on twitter and finally got to meet in person today pointed out this MERLIN, a great sighting since it was perched in the opposite direction of the sea, which was where the rest of us were looking.

I also met a wonderful, highly knowledgeable birder named Joel who generously treated me to lunch! My gratitude cannot be fully expressed! And, it was great to learn photography techniques from him, such as compensating exposure levels for different light conditions, especially for when shooting something like waterfowl. Great to learn how to improve bird photography, which can be challenging at best. It seems like every birding trip I take I meet at least one kind, generous soul — a wonderful reminder that there is in fact good left in this world! (New Yorkers aren’t that bad after all, ha!)

It was a gray day out, but totally calm wind & sea conditions made for optimal viewing:

At this point, time was quickly marching through the 3 o’clock hour and I was worried about missing my target, the Barrow’s Goldeneye. I quickly snapped a few shots of this HORNED GREBE and then trekked all the way to the other end of the beach because I had spotted Joel and two other birders who had their scopes aimed in the same direction — a promising sign!

A flyby group of SANDERLINGS briefly interrupted my long walk/jog across the beach.

And lo and behold, I was right! They had found what they thought to be the male Barrow’s Goldeneye, but were still waiting for it to resurface from a dive to confirm its identity. Sure enough, within five minutes, we had relocated the bird, and I had my first BARROW’S GOLDENEYE in New York and my first in nearly 7 years! Too cool! In these photos, although they are admittedly grainy (the bird was distant), you can clearly make out the crescent-shaped white marking under the eye, as well as the definitive black “spur” on the side of the bird — both marks differentiating it from the Common Goldeneye.

So with my favorite bird seen in the USA so far this year in the bag, I called an uber and began my long trek back to the Upper West Side of Manhattan: uber, a bus, 3 trains, 2 subways, and a bus. What a DAY!

Bird-of-the-day of course to the Barrow’s Goldeneye with runner-up to that gorgeous male Long-tailed Duck. Thanks, Barrow’s, for sticking around for me!

Good birding,
World Life List: 1108 Species

Posted by skwclar 16:36 Archived in USA

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