My adventures in the woods, streams, rivers, fields, and lakes of Michigan

Barrow’s Goldeneye, Bucephala islandica

Note: this post, while published, is a work in progress, as are all posts in this series, My Photo Life List. My goal is to photograph every species of bird that is seen on a regular basis here in Michigan, working from a list compiled by the Michigan chapter of the Audubon Society. This will be a lifelong project, that I began in January of 2013, and as I shoot better photos of this, or any other species, I will update the post for that species with better photos when I can. While this series is not intended to be a field guide per se, my minimum standard for the photos in this series is that one has to be able to make a positive identification of the species in my photos. The information posted here is from either my observations or the Wikipedia, the online free encyclopedia, however, I have personally shot all the photos appearing in this series.

Barrow’s Goldeneye, Bucephala islandica

Barrow’s goldeneye (Bucephala islandica) is a medium-sized sea duck of the genus Bucephala, the goldeneyes. This bird was named after Sir John Barrow.

Adults are similar in appearance to the common goldeneye. Adult males have a dark head with a purplish gloss and a white crescent at the front of the face. Adult females have a mostly yellow bill. The male Barrow’s goldeneye differs from the male common goldeneye in the fact that the common goldeneye has a round white patches on the face, less black on the back of the bird, and a larger bill. For the females, the common goldeneye has a less rounded head, and a bill in which only the tip is yellow.

Their breeding habitat consists of wooded lakes and ponds primarily in northwestern North America, but also in scattered locations in eastern Canada and Iceland. Females return to the same breeding sites year after year and also tend to use the same nesting sites. The males stay with their mate through the winter and defend their territory during the breeding season, then leave for the molting site. Mating pairs often stay intact even though the male and female are apart for long periods of time over the summer during molting times. The pair then reunites at wintering areas.

They are migratory and most winter in protected coastal waters or open inland waters. Barrow’s goldeneye, along with many other species of sea ducks, rely on urbanized, coastal estuaries as important places on their migration patterns. These estuaries provide excellent wintering and stopping places during the ducks’ migration.

These diving birds forage underwater. They eat aquatic insects, crustaceans and pond vegetation. The main staples of the bird’s diet are Gammarus oceanicus and Calliopus laeviusculus, which are both marine crustaceans. A large part of their diet consists of mussels and gastropods.

The Barrow’s goldeneye is considered an arboreal bird species because much of its nesting is done in cavities found in mature trees. The birds will also nest in burrows or protected sites on the ground. Barrow’s goldeneyes tend not to share habitat with the much more numerous common goldeneye. Barrow’s goldeneye tend to be territorial towards other birds venturing into their domain. This is especially true among the drakes. Confrontations may occur in the form of fighting. Drakes often do a form of territorial display along the boundaries of their territory. This is both true on land and in the water. These territorial displays average about 6 minutes in length and often trigger other males to perform their own show.

Very little is known about the breeding sites and patterns of the Barrow’s goldeneye. After the breeding season, the birds migrate to specific molting sites to undergo molting, the loss and regeneration of feathers which causes them to be flightless for anywhere from 20–40 days. These molting sites are often wetlands that are more drought resistant and plentiful in food, along with being less influenced by humans and predators.

The Barrow’s goldeneye was greatly affected by the Exxon Valdez oil spill in 1989. The spill greatly impacted the bird’s wintering areas, and numbers of the birds in these areas decreased after the spill. The birds’ exposure to the oil spill mainly occurred in the shallow water mussel beds along the coast.

The Barrow’s goldeneye is a relatively quiet bird that generally only makes vocalizations during the breeding season and courtship. These can include low volume squeaks, grunts and croaks. During flights, the fast movement of the bird’s wings creates a low whistling sound



On to my photos:

These photos were shot way back in February of 2014 at the channel that runs from Muskegon Lake to Lake Michigan. These aren’t very good, but they are enough to make a positive ID of the species.

Barrow's Goldeneye, Bucephala islandica

Barrow’s Goldeneye, Bucephala islandica


Barrow's Goldeneye, Bucephala islandica

Barrow’s Goldeneye, Bucephala islandica


Barrow's Goldeneye, Bucephala islandica

Barrow’s Goldeneye, Bucephala islandica


Barrow's Goldeneye, Bucephala islandica

Barrow’s Goldeneye, Bucephala islandica


Barrow's Goldeneye, Bucephala islandica

Barrow’s Goldeneye, Bucephala islandica


Barrow's Goldeneye, Bucephala islandica

Barrow’s Goldeneye, Bucephala islandica


Barrow's Goldeneye, Bucephala islandica

Barrow’s Goldeneye, Bucephala islandica


This is number 193 in my photo life list, only 157 to go!

That’s it for this one, thanks for stopping by!



16 responses

  1. Good captures, Jerry! Beautiful bird with those striking markings.

    April 12, 2016 at 1:26 am

    • Thank you very much Lavinia!

      April 12, 2016 at 2:47 pm

  2. Well done in such horrid weather.

    April 12, 2016 at 4:30 am

    • Thank you very much Susan! It was probably the horrid weather that caused this very rare visitor to my area to stop and rest before continuing on its way.

      April 12, 2016 at 2:49 pm

  3. Some birds have such amazing eyes!

    April 12, 2016 at 4:59 am

    • Thank you very much Allen! You’re right, many birds have striking eyes, which is why I’d like to get even closer to them.

      April 12, 2016 at 2:50 pm

  4. Great photos showing their lovely eyes and markings. The birds look cold in that icy water.

    April 12, 2016 at 6:39 am

    • Thank you very much! It was very cold, but the ducks are able to deal with it because their feathers are such good insulation.

      April 12, 2016 at 2:51 pm

  5. Another one that I just found out about from your post. Your photos are good enough and show these ducks quite well. They are probably not in my area, since the Cornell Ornithology Lab says that they are limited to mountainous areas to the Northwest.

    April 12, 2016 at 12:43 pm

    • Thank you very much! It’s extremely rare for this species to be seen in Michigan, I lucked out because I knew that it had been seen from the rare bird reports that you can sign up for through eBird. There’s a small breeding population on the Atlantic Ocean, so you may well be able to see a Barrow’s goldeneye before I do again.

      April 12, 2016 at 2:54 pm

  6. These rare bird reports can be so useful. I’m glad you were able to photograph this attractive duck. Interesting to read in your notes that it is also considered an arboreal bird because it likes to nest in holes in trees.

    April 12, 2016 at 6:52 pm

    • Thank you very much Clare! I’learning a lot from doing this series, like the fact that so many species of ducks nest in trees.

      April 12, 2016 at 11:25 pm

  7. What a striking duck. I probably would have thought it was a loon if I had seen it from a distance, even though the profile isn’t similar at all.

    Sorry that I missed the comment window on your last post. Never could get enough bandwidth (until this morning) to see the photos, although I could read the text. That’s like having a peanut butter sandwich without the peanut butter. Loved your panting snowy owl – it looked so very different than the first photo of him just sitting serenely.

    Hope you’ve seen the last of the snow. We’re camping at a bit of elevation and have great mounds of crusty old white stuff around to remind me of home.

    April 13, 2016 at 11:19 am

    • Thank you very much Judy! I held off posting that species, hoping that I’d see another one when it wasn’t snowing, but I’ll probably never see another as rare as they are in Michigan. You should be seeing them out west there.

      I hope that we’re done with the snow as well, it looks like it for the next two weeks at least. But, that also means that the snowy owls will be headed home for the summer also.

      April 13, 2016 at 1:40 pm

  8. We hope to go exploring in Michigan one of these days. We are RV fulltimers, and birders, though our knowledge of birding, and our camera skills are not in your league.

    April 14, 2016 at 9:58 am

    • Thank you very much Jane! If you were to come to Michigan for birding, then April and May would be the best months. However most people come here in the summer to enjoy our miles of sandy beaches, or the end of September through October, to enjoy the scenery with the fall colors.

      April 14, 2016 at 3:07 pm