I've been big clusters (low hundreds) of these birds floating close offshore in Vancouver.

My daughter thinks they are loons, but I doubt it. I'm thinking murrelets, from whatbird and wiki:

Some observations:

  • they're not big, pretty small. About the size of a pigeon.

  • They clump together in large floating rafts which is why a "solitary loon" pattern does not fit. The clusters stay put for a long time, with little arrivals or departures.

  • They dive often, but don't stay down long.

  • Top is black, breast is white. The neck seems black, which looks slight different from the white extending the bottom half of the murrelets' heads. Coloring is uniform, no patterns, no differences between individuals.

  • Don't look very endangered to me, there's a lot of them

  • They fly extremely quickly in groups, very close together and very, very, low on the water.

  • I think I mostly see these groups during winter, which would fit murrelets.

Sorry for the picture, if I walk by with a proper camera, I'll repost, but this was using cellphone under low light, zoomed.

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With the updated images, I am not totally sure all of them are of the same species. The ones with yellow bills seem different, even if they are together. Interested in the black-billed ones with white-on-black chevrons near their shoulder.

  • I think i saw those off Lighthouse Park.
    – Martin F
    Jan 3, 2021 at 21:28

2 Answers 2


These look like Barrow’s Goldeneye (Bucephala islandica) ducks. Definitely not Murres, and the beaks aren’t long enough relative to head size to be a loon.

  • Indeed looks like very close match on wiki. Jan 2, 2021 at 5:54
  • 2
    New photos make it clear, Barrows Goldeneyes. The black and white ones are the males, and the others are the females.
    – Van
    Jan 2, 2021 at 6:01
  • hah! shoulda thought of sexual dimorphism. Jan 2, 2021 at 19:15

I can see why your daughter might think they were loons - the white barring on the black back does look a little like what you might see on a loon, but there are several problems: that pattern is in the breeding plumage, and during breeding the loons are inland and not collected in groups; during the winter, various N American loons can be found at sea, but they are pretty bland in color and pattern during the winter, and also not found in groups like this. Scattered individuals is the normal state.

Murrelets is also an understandable guess - they're much smaller than loons (as these ducks are) and considerably more "rubber ducky" looking, but murrelets are even smaller than these ducks, and the dinky little murrelet bill isn't as substantial as these stubby duck bills. Also, the color patterns are very different, especially in the winter.

These Barrow's Goldeneyes are nicely photographed - the white teardrop in front of the eye, and the neat white bars, well separated, on the shoulders of the wings are what you look for in males. The females, while undoubtedly possessed of sparkling personalities, are not as showy as the males; a pretty common trait among ducks and many other birds.

Fast-flying ducks in smallish groups, low over the ocean, is what you see from the Goldeneyes and the rather similar (but even smaller) Buffleheads. My first impression is always "twinkling wings" because they flap so fast.

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