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Nature Notes: Bufflehead

Ed Robinson
January 1, 2017

“Ed, what are those?  There are little black and white birds going crazy out there.”  My daughter’s fiancée, Pete, binoculars in hand, was looking out the window at a becalmed Reed Cove, when he noticed some petite ducks repeatedly bobbing up and down in the water.

“Ah,” said I, “You’ve spotted the Clown Prince of ducks.”  I knew without looking that Pete was enjoying his first encounter with one of my favorite winter ducks, the bufflehead.

Some ducks capture your heart with their plumage (for example, a drake wood duck in his rainbow breeding plumage).  Others impress with their speed, like a flock of long tailed ducks streaking by at 50 mph.  The little bufflehead, no slouch in the beauty department, won me over long ago with his antics.  As a result, I always look forward to their arrival in our cove in late October or November.

First some background…

The bufflehead is a member of the sea duck clan, a cousin of the equally beautiful goldeneyes.  His scientific name, Bucephala albeola, tells us much about his appearance.  Derived from ancient Greek, Bucephala means “bull or large headed” while albeola derives from a Latin word for “white.”  The English name for the bird also references this bird’s large, bulbous head, and in some quarters he is still referred to as a “buffalo head.”  But that large head just makes him all the more distinctive.

These are small ducks, similar to the teal, no more than 16 inches long and a bit over one pound for a mature drake.  But they make up for their diminutive size with classy looks. As in many animal species, the males are brighter and more colorful, a characteristic referred to as sexual dimorphism, nature’s technique for keeping the hens safe while they are nesting.  The drake has striking white and black side, wing and back feathers, and an iridescent green and purple head set off with a sizable white patch on the back.  The bill is light blue/gray and the feet are pink, making him a pretty flashy fellow.  The female is more mottled gray and black, with a darker head and bill, and an oblong white cheek patch to avoid her being completely drab.

Buffleheads are migratory, spending the nesting season mostly in wooded lakes and ponds within the boreal forest or taiga habitat of southern Alaska and Canada as far east as Quebec.  Known as one of the last species to leave breeding grounds, buffleheads seek out winter habitat from the Aleutian Islands to Mazatlan, southern Florida or Mexico.  Ducks Unlimited does extensive waterfowl surveys each year and they estimate that 90 percent of the bufflehead population breeds in Western Canada.  Fortunately some of them fly in our direction for a winter stopover of a few weeks.  Unlike many other waterfowl, buffleheads do not raft up in large winter flocks, but prefer smaller groupings of a dozen or so birds, on quiet saltwater bays or freshwater lakes and ponds.

Now, a few words about those “antics” that I find so compelling.  Drake buffleheads begin their courtship displays in early winter, but the pairs do not form up until spring.  This means an extended period when the guys are showing off for the gals, making excited whooping calls, bobbing their heads, flashing their wings or making short display flights, with the crest feathers on their heads fully erect.  Because of an active metabolism, buffleheads feed constantly, rapidly disappearing underwater, and popping back up, spending nearly half their time underwater.  One duck serves as a sentry while the others dive for food, in 3 to 15 feet of water.  Like all diving ducks, they are powerful swimmers with their feet set well back on their bodies.  When it is time to move, buffleheads spring from the surface instantly, and soar with rapid wingbeats.  It makes for some exciting duck watching.

The drakes mate with one hen, and hens may use the same nesting site for multiple years.  They are cavity nesters, preferring to use small holes made in aspen trees by flickers.  They prefer being in a tree close to water, although the nest may be up to 50 feet in the air.  Like wood ducks, they may be attracted to wooden nesting boxes when tree cavities are scarce, if the location and the box dimensions are just right.  The hen will lay up to 12 cream-colored eggs in a nest made soft and warm with her downy feathers.  The incubation period is about one month.  Within a day of the last hatching, the ducklings leave the nest with the hen and begin foraging for food.  The ducklings can fly within two months of hatching.

Buffleheads have a flexible diet, partly because they live on both salt and fresh water.  Insects are an important food source, especially for the ducklings, but the birds will eat crustaceans and mollusks, fish eggs and aquatic plants.  Of course, the ducks serve as prey for other creatures.  Weasels, raccoons and mink will kill a hen to reach her eggs, while a wide range of fish, mammals, turtles and raptors will pick off ducklings or adults when the chance arises.  They also fall to sport hunters during the autumn gunning seasons.

If you spend any time watching these delightful little ducks, I am certain you will come to enjoy them as I do each year.  While they are susceptible to habitat loss, either in their coastal wintering areas or in the very specific breeding habitat they use in boreal forests, Ducks Unlimited surveys indicate that buffleheads seem to be holding their own, while other diving ducks have suffered population losses in recent decades.  Let’s hope the buffleheads will continue to grace our autumn shores for centuries to come.

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