Northern New Brunswick, the land of "mist and snow" and "wondrous cold", may seem best suited for sightings of Samuel Taylor Coleridge's magical albatross, but, although I have yet to sight such a rarity, it is not altogether a bad place for those who wish to add a winter visitor to their provincial bird lists. Indeed, the water around Dalhousie's Inch Arran Lighthouse Park may well be the best place in the entire Maritimes to spot Barrow's Goldeneyes.
For several years now, I have been able to observe well over a hundred of these beautiful northern/western cousins of the Common Goldeneye during the annual Christmas Bird Count, and one year there were well over two hundred. In fact, during the 1994-1995 Christmas Bird Count, I tallied 110 on the count day. Then, a couple of days later, on a gorgeous, absolutely still sunny day, I spotted them wherever I looked and estimated that there may well have been a thousand on the whole expanse of still-open water.
What is the attraction? The glib answer is the warm water effluence from the nearby thermal generating station, but the station only opens a relatively small patch of water, Rip tides around Inch Arran Point and along the lee side of the Bon Ami Rocks account for considerably more open water and it is in these constantly shifting patches of water that the birds congregate en masse. Why this occurs in the Dalhousie area and not elsewhere in the Bay of Chaleur is entirely another question. I won't even venture a guess.
But congregate they do, in the process, offer what I would venture is perhaps the only one hundred percent chance to see this species in New Brunswick. Even more appealing, one does not have to leave the warmth of the car to do so.
To me, one of the beautiful birding spectacles of the winter happens on a hard cold, brilliant sunshiny day at the Inch Arran. Vast expanses of pristine snow-covered ice, the Gaspé hills and the lower reaches of the Restigouche River provide the background. Against this scenery is a race of intensely blue water-with goldeneyes, the males in tuxedo blacks and whites, the females in softer browns and greys, bobbing and diving, sometimes only metres from shore.
For some reason, when the two species of goldneyes are present, the Barrow's seem to occupy the foreground. This may be because they are always in larger numbers, but they seem to push the Commons to the side and, usually, off into the deeper water. As well, perhaps, because they are year round residents, the Common Goldeneyes never appear in the large numbers that the Barrow's do: two or three is about usual.
Although I consider the Barrow's Goldeneye to be the star attraction of the Dalhousie winter water birding scene, this same open water always attracts small numbers of Black Ducks, Red-breasted and Common Mergansers, the occasional Bufflehead, Iceland and Herring Gulls, and the usual assortment of ravens. Once in a while, an eagle or two overwinters as well, more or less to oversee the whole scene.
I never tire of the sight of birds in the winter waters. They affirm the tenacity of life and, somehow, make everything in an otherwise bleak environment a little more cheerful.