[CT Birds] Barrow's Goldeneye (long, but hopefully mildly entertaining)

Tom de Boor tomdb2 at aol.com
Mon Dec 2 15:35:43 EST 2013

For about 15 years now, I've had a dark secret.  I've had a bird on my
lifelist I couldn't actually remember seeing--Barrow's Goldeneye.  I have a
vague memory of having seen it in Boston Harbor on a real cold day (the way
it used to be cold) as a teen, pointed out to me by Herman or Glenn
d'Entremont, but starting more than a decade ago, every time I tried to
visualize what I'd seen that day, all I saw flashing at me were the bright
white sides of drake Common Goldeneyes.

At the time I realized I had a problem, I was living in Chicago, so there
wasn't much I could do about it, or so I thought, but once we moved to
Connecticut, and I began to get the first twinges of my mortality, I
decided I really needed to find a Barrow's. Happily, the reports of
Barrows' seemed to be non-stop, but every time I went to look, in CT, RI,
or MA, I either blatantly struck out or had dingy, uncertain looks in the
winter sun that were as foggy as my original 'sighting' was to me so many
years later.  With a confidence bordering on arrogance, I refused to follow
up on any reports of mere female Barrows' Goldeneyes; no, a different
colored bill and head shape were not enough for my re-lifer--only a drake
would do.  On more than one occasion, I traipsed through knee-deep snow at
Trustom Pond, many times braved the winds of Cape Ann, several times I
drove down to Brazos Road; on one occasion I got to a ridiculously easy
semi-inland location (a small cove where a Barrow's had been seen for a
week) the day after my target had apparently and tragically been shot
(which is when I learned about New England's extended duck-hunting season
and why so many rare ducks don't get reported to alerts in the winter).

Heck, at one point I even went to Wyoming, where they *breed* and are
supposedly *common* on some lakes and rivers, for a father and son trip
with my dad, passing the Barrow's curse on to another generation of my
family (my son has it, too).  And of course, I learned that a drake had
been coming every winter for years to one of my childhood haunts in
Wisconsin, less than an hour north of where I used to live in Chicago, and
by the way, had been doing so for at least four years while I was living
there--in fact, it had become so ordinary for it show up every winter that
it never tripped the electronic wires to my attention.

Anyway, lately I've been so busy with work I haven't had time to keep up
with CT birds, but the appearance of another long-time nemesis bird,
Fork-tailed Flycatcher (which I could write an email just as long about)
caused me to open the report today (fortunately, I saw the last FTF to
appear in CT, but I'm still looking for one in full plumage, like the one
that gotten taken down by a cat in Maryland minutes before I arrived).
 Anyway, towards the bottom of the email, I saw that another drake Barrow's
had been seen on Brazos Road.  I had just finished a big proposal, and
decided why not, why not treat myself and play a little hooky.  The sea was
calm, clouds guaranteed at least neutral light.  So off I went.

I had my cell phone for turn-by-turn directions, but as I drove down from
Northford, all the names of the roads came back to me, and I was there
before I knew it.  I walked out to the beach, with binocs, scope, and
highly optimistically, camera w/out telephoto lens, in hand, and
saw...nothing.   Lots of beautiful flat water, but no birds on it, no
loons, no sea ducks, no raft of Goldeneyes--ok, a couple scattered here and
there, eventually, all Commons.  A couple of local residents came by to ask
what I was doing, and I told them all about Barrow's Goldeneyes, and they
cheerfully told me how many people had been by to see it in the last few
days (one of the natives mentioned that her last name was Barrow, and I
briefly considered counting her).  Then they left me to look out over the
ocean and think.   As I did so, I noticed a raft of ducks I had not seen
before, well off to the left, probably too difficult to scope, but visible
with the naked eye.  Getting the scope on them, I found that they were
Goldeneyes.  Demonstrating a complete breakdown in faith, I tried counting
them to see if there were 50, like in the report this morning, but they
were diving so much, that wasn't possible.  So I decided to just keep
scoping and scoping and scoping, hoping for the best.

And after about 10 minutes (or 40-50 hours in lifer time), he literally
appeared out of the slate grey-blue. Saw the black back, the white pattern
of patches on it, the spur, the crescent shaped patch behind the bill, the
head shape.  Everything.  For about a second and a half, and then he
drifted behind the rock pier.  I spent the next few minutes wondering if
the apparently public beach I was standing in extended along the water's
edge to the pier (maybe if I walked *in* the water?), wondering if there
was anyone actually home in any of the houses in between (maybe they were
all summer cottages?), wondering if I could plead ignorance without getting
all of you banned for life from the end of Brazos Road.  Then I decided to
scope again.  When you've looked for a bird this long and hard without
success, you have to consider the possibility of how much you can see (i.e.
make up in your fevered imagination) in a second and a half.  I decided
that if I could find him again, I would accept that I had really seen a
Barrow's Goldeneye.  If not...well, that just wasn't going to happen.
 After another 10 minutes, I found him once more, saw all the same marks
(and realized that Barrow's Goldeneyes are a bit like Ross' Geese--you can
go many years thinking you *might* have seen one, but when you finally do,
you know that all the other times, you really didn't).  Another second and
a half later, the entire flock took flight.  The Barrow's hesitated for a
split second, then joined the rest.

But that was cool, because they were headed right for me!  I realized that
instead of distant scope views, I was going to get the same close-up views
every other birder in New England, the mid-Atlantic, the Great Lakes, and
Wyoming has had of a drake Barrow's Goldeneye.  Sure enough, while some of
them landed behind the pier, most of them landed right in front of me, just
a few hundred feet out.  As I began scoping, more and more joined them,
until the entire flock was assembled for me to scope at my leisure. At
which point, the sun peeked out from behind the clouds for the first time
all day, then began to blaze away, right into my scope.  I looked up into
the sky and saw nothing but blue sky.  I looked back at the flock, which
had magically been transformed to scoters, sp. and decided the gods were
trying to remind me--so that I would not forget--of the mortal sin I had
committed by carrying a bird on my life list for all those years that I had
no memory of seeing.  I did see a silhouette of that distinctive head shape
a couple of times, but decided I could use the extra motivation to come
again, this time to uncurse my son, who had been with me for every
attempted exorcism except the one in Wyoming.  Thanks to whoever originally
found the bird, and to everyone who kept reporting him.  I'll be back.

Tom de Boor
Northford, CT

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