The Bufflehead (Bucephala albeola) is a marvelous little duck that can be found in our area at this time of year. It has flown down from its breeding forests in Canada and Alaska to spend the winter months in the lower 48 states. Here it will congregate with others of its kind in small flocks on the open waters of lakes, large rivers and marine shorelines.
Only about 14 inches long (compared to the Mallard’s 23-inch length), the tiny Bufflehead weighs in at less than a pound. Its contrasting black and white appearance, as well as its diminutive size, causes some birders to refer to it as “the chickadee of the duck world.” The adult male sports a bold white patch on the back of his dark rounded head, and his body is white from the waterline up to his back, which is black. The female (and juvenile male) is duller, with an overall dark gray appearance, broken only by a bright oval of white behind her eye. Both sexes have a short gray bill. You will notice white patches on the wings as a flock of Buffleheads flies low over the water.
Unlike the Mallard, which “dabbles” in shallow water by tipping its bottom up while searching for food, the Bufflehead dives below the surface in pursuit of insect larvae, small fish, crustaceans and mollusks. It uses its feet to move through the water, buoyantly popping to the surface many yards from its point of entry. Individuals within a flock will take turns as sentry and remain on the surface as lookout while the others dive.
As spring approaches, the Buffleheads will return to the far north to breed. Like the wood duck, the female Bufflehead seeks out a tree cavity in a wooded area in which to lay her eggs. Old Northern Flicker nest cavities suit the Bufflehead’s nesting requirements; the two species are often found in the same habitat. The female lays six to 11 eggs in May and incubates them for about a month. Her ducklings will leave their nest cavity just one day after hatching, dropping to the ground to follow their mother to the nearest body of freshwater. The ducklings are able to feed themselves, but require a freshwater environment until their salt glands are fully developed and capable of extracting salt from their diet.
The trek from the nest site to the water is the only time that Buffleheads walk on land. They spend their lives in the water: sleeping on its surface, feeding beneath it and taking flight by running across it. Enjoy their antics while they visit our waters.
[Audubon’s Climate Report lists the Bufflehead as Climate Endangered.]