A warm January is nice. But a gray and dreary day calls for some sort of response. Ours was to head for the Mississippi north of town to see about locating a Barrow's Goldeneye that had been reported seen by three or four people in the vicinity of Anoka.
The common goldeneye can be seen fairly often in these parts, even in the wintertime, presuming there's some open water. It's a beautiful duck, and full of character, a frisky diver, more compact than most ducks, with a somewhat elongated forehead that gives it an interesting shape.
The Barrow's goldeneye looks just the same—except that the white spot on its cheek looks like a comma rather than a circle. (There are other differences, but no need to go in to them here.)
Goldeneyes tend to travel in flocks, up and down the river, usually on the opposite side from the one you're on. We reached the river in Champlain, a twenty-minute drive north, and pulled in to the riverside park. I was trying to get the spotting scope rigged up when a pick-up pulled over.
"Any luck?" the man said.
"You mean the Barrow's goldeneye? We just got here."
"I saw it earlier this morning. Haven't seen it lately. A lot of the goldeneyes are across the river in front of that house—can you see it?—with the big front porch."
It was a long ways away.
A man with a very large camera was sitting on a stool near the beach, poised a ready.
"See anything?" I asked, walking over his way.
"No. But maybe you can get those goldeneye to cross the river and pose right here in front of the beach."
"Sure. If you'll email me the photo. Did you know there's a rare one out there?"
"I had no idea."
We decided to cross the river ourselves to check out another large flock just offshore in front of Peninsula Park in Anoka, barely visible from where we were standing. On our way out of Champlain I made what may have been the best sighting of the day—Q Fanatic BBQ.
"That place often shows up in the top ten lists," I said. "We should come back for lunch."
Five minutes later we were lined up along with three other birds on the bank of the Mississippi, looking through the trees at a large raft of goldeneyes.
"You see anything?" I said.
"I've got the Barrows right in my scope. Trouble is, he only comes up for a second or two and then dives again. Oh, he's up again. Now he's down."
The man directed me to the part of the raft where the Barrow's was diving. Through that V in the trees, just beyond the ice flow. I didn't see him.
"He's up! Now he's down."
I think the three other birders must have seen him, but we didn't. I started to rationalize: three knowledgeable birders attest to the presence of a barrow's goldeneye within that raft of ducks. I see the raft of ducks. So it might be said that I have seen a Barrow's goldeneye, though I have no idea which duck it was. Not a very satisfying "sighting."
I don't mind asking questions, it's obvious that we're novices."So, do you look for the facial markings, or the coloration on the back?"
"Look for the darker back. It's very distinctive. You'll never see that hook in the white spot. Oh. Now he's up again! ... Now he's down. Here. Take a look through my scope."
I didn't see it.
A few minutes later we walked up a rise along the mushy sidewalk to a spot where two other birders were standing. One was the man we'd talked to initially across the river in Champlain.
"He's out there," the man said.
The view was better here. He tried to describe where the Barrows was situation in the flock. Then I saw it. The obvious comma-shaped white marking in front of the eye. The bird had grown tired of diving, evidently, and was taking it easy. Nice.
Hilary took a long look and also saw the variation on the back. I looked away, then saw it again. When two other birders with their scopes came over, I (suddenly the expert) tried to help them locate the position between the trees and in the midst of a grouping of perhaps eighty other almost identical birds drifting slowly downstream in the midst of large chunks of floating ice.
Having driven this far, we decided to continue up the river a few miles the Monticello, where hundreds of trumpeter swans congregate every winter. There weren't any swans in sight when we got there—just a few hundred mallards. They'd taken advantage of the melting snow to head out into the nearby cornfields to feed. But Jim Lawrence, who lives next door and feeds the birds daily, happened to be standing there, and he showed is a panorama on his iPhone of a recent day (or perhaps it was last year) when more than 1,600 swans had congregated there.
Jim told us the story of how the swans, once considered extinct in North America, had made such a comeback locally, and also shared quite a bit of information about coyote hunting in urban areas and trapping nuisance species in nearby Sherburne National Wildlife Refuge. But that's a tale for another time.
We decided to take backroads along the river back to Champlain, rather than return to the freeway, and this took us through a village I'd never visited before—Dayton. Not much going on there, by the look of things. But sometimes you'd be surprised.
We capped off our gray winter field trip with some heat—at the Q Fanatic BBQ, located in a very short strip mall just off of Highway 169 in Champlain. Lots of meat on those ribs, and the beans and slaw were also notably tasty.
I'm no expert on ribs, but I later read a review in The Heavy Table that began as follows:
It is infuriating that Q Fanatic is one of Minnesota’s best-kept gastronomic secrets. This is a place that should be elbow-to-elbow crowded, seven nights a week, and resisting the temptation to expand and choke on its own success. Q Fanatic is doing barbecue at a level that stacks up, rib for rib, against the kind of stuff they’re doing at the grand-champion 17th Street Bar & Grill near East St. Louis, or at Allen and Son in Chapel Hill, NC. This is stuff that kicks Famous Dave’s into the dust and merits the long drive from the metro area. Grit your teeth, and get in the car. There is a rainbow of perfectly cooked meat waiting at the end of your voyage.
If ribs alone don't make it worth a trip, you can always stop along the river and try to hunt up a Barrow's goldeneye.