Barrow's Goldeneye

Barrows Goldeneye

A female (left) and male Barrow’s goldeneye.

Many years ago, my wife and I were attending a fundraiser banquet for the conservation group, Ducks Unlimited. With a large family and a state government income, we felt that just attending was our contribution and I had no intention on bidding on any of the auction items, silent or otherwise. Then a piece of artwork displaying several bald eagles on a riverbank was brought to the live auction table. My wife leaned toward me and before she even spoke, I knew we were going home with that artwork. The bidding progressed at a terrifying rate and when it was over, we indeed owned that image and with a wallet substantially lighter, I had learned something about my wife—if she bids, she intends to win, no matter the cost.

When we got the painting home and had time to better inspect it, we saw that there were also some ducks in the water. These were the Barrow’s goldeneyes, and ever since then, they have been a favorite bird of ours, always eliciting a comment about the artwork that still proudly hangs in our home.

Barrow’s goldeneye is an elegant, smallish diving duck. The breeding male is a handsome fellow with a prominent square black head which can be iridescent purple or green in the right light, a short black bill and a white crescent in front of the eye. His chest is white and back is black. There are a series of white spots, I call them a ladder, but often they are referred to as windows, on the outside of the wing. This is one way to easily distinguish him from the male common goldeneye. The female has a rusty brown head with an orange bill and gray-brown body. Both have the characteristic namesake golden or yellow eye.

As diving ducks, Barrow’s goldeneyes ride low in the water when swimming and have feet placed well back on the body, great for propulsion when diving, not so much for getting airborne or walking on terra firma. They swim well and will dive several times a minute when feeding.

Barrow’s goldeneyes are one of only a few species of ducks that nest in tree cavities (wood ducks, buffleheads and mergansers being the others) and readily use nesting boxes. In fact, in an area in northern Iceland, homeowners have maintained a small disjunct population of Barrow’s goldeneyes for generations by providing nesting boxes mounted on homes and barns for, “the house duck” as they call it there.

Otherwise, the Barrow’s goldeneye is a North American species, mostly of the west coast up through central Alaska with another disjunct population at Hudson Bay in eastern Canada. They are not hard to find in Eastern Idaho during the winter and spring months though. Just look for any open water. We routinely see them on the Henry’s Fork at Harriman State Park in Island Park. According to, they also breed there and across Yellowstone National Park.

Despite the fact that the populations of these ducks are widely separated and do not mix, they are still considered as a single species. No subspecies are recognized.

While not considered at risk, populations of Barrow’s goldeneye, always less commonplace than the common goldeneye, have declined over the past 50 years due to habitat loss and pollution. For example, the Exxon Valdez oil spill in 1989 greatly impacted populations in that area.

While acquiring that painting long ago kept us on mac and cheese for some time, in the long run, the 30 plus years we have enjoyed it has made the sacrifice well worth it. Strange, but although eagles are really the subject of the image, I always focus in on the Barrow’s goldeneyes, glad that the painting drew our attention to these birds for a lifetime of enjoyment.

Help Idaho Wildlife

When we traveled across the state in October 2017, most of the vehicles we saw using the wildlife management areas did not have wildlife plates. Buying wildlife plates is a great way for non-hunters and hunters alike to support wildlife-based recreation like birding.

C'mon folks, let's help Idaho's wildlife by proudly buying and displaying a wildlife license plate on each of our vehicles! 

See below for information on Idaho plates. Most states have wildlife plates so if you live outside Idaho, check with your state's wildlife department or vehicle licensing division for availability of state wildlife plates where you live. 

And tell them that you heard about it from!

Wildlife License Plates

Idaho Wildlife license plates provide essential funding that benefits the great diversity of native plants and wildlife that are not hunted, fished or trapped—over 10,000 species or 98% of Idaho’s species diversity. Game species that share the same habitats (such as elk, deer, antelope, sage-grouse, salmon, trout) also benefit from these specialty plates.

No state tax dollars are provided for wildlife diversity, conservation education and recreation programs. Neither are any revenues from the sale of hunting or fishing licenses spent on nongame species. Instead, these species depend on direct donations, federal grants, fundraising initiatives—and the Idaho Wildlife license plates.

Both my vehicles have Bluebird Plates. I prefer the bluebird because the nongame program gets 70 percent of the money from bluebird plates, but only 60 percent of the money from elk and trout plates - 10 percent of the money from elk plates supports wildlife disease monitoring and testing programs (to benefit the livestock industry) and 10 percent from cutthroat plates supports non-motorized boat access.

Incidentally, in 2014, the Idaho Legislature denied the Department of Fish and Game the ability to add new plates or even to change the name of the elk and cutthroat plates (very specific) to wildlife and fish plates, a move that would have allowed for changing images occasionally and generating more revenue. It would seem that they believe that we Idahoans don't want a well funded wildlife program.

I think it is time we let the Legislature know that Idahoan support wildlife funding and that we would like to see these generic plates come to fruition.

"WOW. What a phenomenal piece you wrote. You are amazing." Jennifer Jackson

That is embarrassing, but actually a fairly typical response to my nature essays. Since The Best of Nature is created from the very best of 16 years of these nature essays published weekly in the Idaho Falls Post Register (online readership 70,000), it is a fine read. It covers a wide variety of topics including humorous glimpses of nature, philosophy, natural history, and conservation. Readers praise the style, breadth of subject matter and my ability to communicate complex and emotional topics in a relaxed and understandable manner.

Everyone can find something to love in this book. From teenagers to octogenarians, from the coffee shop to the school room, these nature essays are widely read and enjoyed.

Some of the essays here are my personal favorites, others seemed to strike a chord with readers. Most have an important message or lesson that will resonate with you. They are written with a goal to simultaneously entertain and educate about the wonderful workings of nature. Some will make you laugh out loud and others will bring a tear to the eye and warm your heart.

Readers Write:

"You hit a home run with your article on, Big Questions in Nature. It should be required reading for everyone who has lost touch with nature...great job!" Joe Chapman

"We enjoyed your column, Bloom Where Planted. Some of the best writing yet. The Post Register is fortunate to have your weekly columns." Lou Griffin.

To read more and to order a copy, click here or get the Kindle version 


Copies are also available at:

Post Register

Island Park Builders Supply (upstairs)

Barnes and Noble in Idaho Falls

Harriman State Park, Island Park

Museum of Idaho

Valley Books, Jackson Wyoming

Avocet Corner Bookstore, Bear River National Wildlife Refuge, Brigham City, Utah

Craters of the Moon National Monument Bookstore, Arco, Idaho