Sunday, January 23, 2011

"I've Had Eyes For You, Babe!" Common And Barrow's Goldeneyes

Common goldeneye drake, photographed in Phippsburg, Maine on Totman Cove. He just rolled the dice.

Barrow's goldeneye drake, photographed in Brunswick, Maine on the New Meadows River. If the bird had moved a hundred feet east, it would have been in Bath.

     So far, this has started out to be a big birding year for me. By the fourteenth of January, I had three life first birds: Bohemian waxwings, a Varied Thrush and a Barrow's goldeneye. If I continue at this rate of three new birds every two weeks, by the end of the year, I would accrue 112 new birds. Oh, if only that would be true. I might as well wish for an upside down, 60 degree, double, arcing halo intersected with a rainbow.
     There have been about 330 species of birds recorded in Maine. This changes a little as new birds are identified, which happens more often than what one might think. I'm not sure exactly how many, but there may be one or more a year.  My life list is 190, a fact I feel more anxious about revealing than my weight. Anyone who has tried to lose weight will tell you that the last few pounds are much harder to lose than the first two hundred. Birding is much the same; the next hundred birds are going to come much harder than the first two hundred. I may have to get out of my bathrobe, a major mental obstacle for me. Or, I could just sit and wait for them to show up, a strategy that has worked pretty well for me, so far. All three of these life birds should not have been here at all, or at least not to be expected with any consistency year to year. I'm on a real roll like a fevered gambler at a craps table, "Come on, dice! Momma needs a new bathrobe!"

  There are two kinds of goldeneyes, Common  and Barrow's goldeneyes. There are over a million Common goldeneyes and they reside over a much bigger area than the Barrow's. Populations of Common goldeneyes stretch uninterrupted across Canada and the northern United States. They are one of the last birds to migrate in the fall from these northern reaches. We have them here in the winter in protected coastal coves and inlets, but not the summer. An elegant, medium sized, diving duck they are fodder for hunters.
     Goldeneyes tend to dive simultaneously as a flock. A brace of them will seem to appear magically on the water surface and  then suddenly disappear. Both species of goldeneyes dive as deep as twenty feet in search of invertebrates, crustaceans and some vegetation. Neither species is endangered. Barrow's, though uncommon in Maine are seen with increasing frequency.
      Destruction of nesting habitat and pollutants are the biggest threats to their populations, though goldeneyes are the only ducks that have benefited from acidification of lakes. It is believed that acid tolerant, aquatic insects on which the ducks feed proliferate in acidified lakes, because the fish that feed on the insects don't tolerate that changed environment. Aquatic insects make up most of the ducks' diet while they are nesting and crustaceans the rest of the time.
     Both goldeneye species breed and nest in the biome of the taiga, the bitter northern reaches just below the Arctic tundra. They are sometimes referred to as 'boreal birds' indicating that they come from the northern forests, just like the Bohemian waxwings. While goldeneyes do live on lakes and rivers of the north woods, they also occupy the more barren parts of the north, so are more accurately called birds of the taiga.     
     When goldeneye chicks hatch their eyes are gray-brown. As they age, the eyes turn purple-blue, then blue, then green-blue. By five months of age they have turned a clear, pale green-yellow. The eyes will be bright yellow in adult males and pale yellow to white in females.
      An early contributor to modern birding as we know it today, was Walter Bradford Barrows, a professor of biology who worked for the US Department Of Agriculture. In the mid to late 1800s, Barrows wrote many respected books and professional papers about birds. The Barrow's goldeneye, was however not named for Walter Barrows, but rather after an English statesman, Sir John Barrows.

  The Barrow's goldeneye favors mountain lakes, often breeding at elevations of 10,000 feet or more. It is usually found in smaller flocks than the Common goldeneye. It feeds almost entirely on mollusks, but also eats occasional snails, sea urchins, or marine worms. The population of Barrow's goldeneyes is under 200,000, less than a quarter of the number of Common goldeneyes. The populations of them in the west and the east are completely distinct groups. Its patchy distribution suggests that it is an ancient species that was once more widespread and is now in decline. In the East, it is greatly outnumbered by the Common goldeneye but may occur in flocks of hundreds in the Canadian Maritimes. The range map on the left shows how few of them there are near Maine. Sometimes, a single Barrow's can be found amongst hundreds of Common goldeneyes. Hybridization of the two species occurs, but is rare.
     Goldeneyes are also called "Whistlers." When they fly their wing beats make a loud whistling sound. The whistling sound helps to identify them. Many times, I have heard them before I have seen them. Nonetheless, they are a wary little duck and hard to approach which makes them a challenge to photograph.
     I have been looking for a Barrow's, a birding needle in the Common goldeneye haystack, for a couple of years. To finally see one was a thrill! And, though I did have to get out of my bathrobe, I didn't have to get out of  my car, nor did I have to travel more than fifteen miles, preserving my standing as The Big Lebowski Of Birding.
     The simplest ways to differentiate a Barrow's drake from a Common drake is the patch on the face and the spur of black running down from its shoulder, as you can see in the photos above. The patch on the Barrow's face is a crescent which runs up beyond the eye. In the Common goldeneye the patch is found below the eye. Barrow's have a purple cast to the head, while Commons are green tinted and both birds have slightly different head shapes. The color characteristics are hard to see unless the light is just right and the head shape is a little tough unless the bird turns in the right direction. Females are harder to differentiate. Usually, the Barrow's hen's bill is mostly yellow where the Common's is only yellow on the tip. When the day comes that I roll the dice and shoot snake eyes on the goldeneye hens, I'll show you what their bills look like. Maybe next week.

thanks to:
Kastner, J., A World Of Watchers (1986) New York: Knopf(1986) pp. 42-44
Sibley, D.A., The Sibley Guide To Birds (2000), New York: Knopf (2001), pp. 100
Stokes, D.and L.,Stokes Field Guide To Birds (1996), New York: Little, Brown & Co.(1996) pp. 83-84
For a great guide to birding in Maine click here: Maine Birding
For more on the great taiga biome, click here

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  1. these shots!!! Especially of the Barrow's with his dotted sides. They are beautiful...

  2. This is indeed a gorgeous bird, and what awesome pictures you have posted. I was fortunate to photograph a small flock of Common Goldeneyes last week on a patch of open water on Presque Isle bay off Lake Erie. Of course since I don't have a big lens( yet), I couldn't get close-ups.
    Thanks for sharing.

  3. Lovely images, Robin, of the goldeneyes, particularly the Barrow's! Also you provide a painless way to learn about these interesting birds.

  4. Thanks, Kelly, Becky and Gary. I feel priveledged to have been able to add both species to my bird photography collection and birding experience.

  5. HIlke, Thank you. Is "painless" a marketting concept I should employ should I ever decide to try to turn a coin? Not painless for me to produce it, I can assure you of that!

  6. I want to fly away, fly away, home to Maine where the Goldeneyes nest....
    Elijah Rising
    January 23, 2011 12:07 PM

  7. Great close ups of a beautiful bird. Boom & Gary of the Vermilon River.

  8. Gary, thank you. I know it's really Boom with the decerning eye, though.

  9. Hey Robin...great information,wittiness,humor photos,bird list,sightings in a bathrobe lets see anything missing!! lol
    I do hope you get the wish.."a upside down, 60 degree, double aching halo ,intersected with a rainbow" sounds wonderful. : }}

  10. Stacie Hatcher Hanes commented on your link.
    Stacie wrote: "I just adore sweet!"

  11. Magnificent Goldeneyes! DID find the golden treasure at the end of the rainbow!

  12. Your pictures are spectular. What type of camera do you use, may I ask? I am in the market for a new one.

  13. Thank you, Vicky. I shoot with a Canon 50D. I use a Canon 100-400 Image stabilized lens for most of my wildlife photography. Ya know, there isn't much else than to work hard enough at something long enough that one day, someone says what you do is spectacular. Thank you so much.

  14. Nice piece and terrific photos, Robin; I enjoyed the rainbow discussion too!!!!

    Put on your warmest bathrobe - you'll need it tomorrow!!

    Across the water!!

  15. Beautiful pictures (as usual) - and yes, does a beautiful job of distinguishing them. Thank you!

  16. Nick Heintz commented on your link.
    Nick wrote: "I love the Big Lebowksi reference. Very fitting"

  17. Jaunita, Laurie and Nick, Thanks for the reads and comments. It's so cold this morning that most of my heated bird bath is frozen over. I have on two bathrobes. If I were a creature in the wild, that would be the salient point of identification of my species. The DUDE would be really impressed!

  18. Kaky Hughes commented on your note "Predictions & The Science Of Rainbows".
    Kaky wrote: ""Quack" if you like Ducks...............I did"

  19. Robin, amazing images and a wonderful explanation. You have such a nice sense of humor.

  20. Karen, Thank you. If ya can't be smaaah't, ya better be funny!

  21. BirdGal Alcatraz commented on your note ""I've Had Eyes For You, Babe!" Common And Barrow's Goldeneyes".
    BirdGal wrote: "What great shots. I have Common Goldeneyes, but haven't seen a Barrow's. How beautiful."

  22. Nicely done and thanks. John

  23. Outstanding images of both the Common and Barrow's! I have yet to see either. Thank you for sharing interesting facts about these beautiful birds. I learned something new today. A joy to view your wonderful blog post!