Bufflehead

Common Name: Bufflehead.

Scientific Name: Bucephala Albeola.

What to look for?  Small, chubby duck that is a striking black-and-white from a distance. Male Buffleheads have a white body and underbelly, black back, and a large, dark head with a large white patch. However, up close, you can see the glossy, iridescent green and purple coloring of their head. This sets off their distinguishing large white patch which extends from the nape of the neck to the crown of the head. Males have blue-gray bills and pink webbed feet. Female Buffleheads are a subdued gray-brown with a neat white patch on the cheek.

Where can they be found at Carillon Stonegate Pond? First, any sighting will be rare. You may find Buffleheads here quite early in spring. They can be seen on the surface of our ponds before quickly disappearing below the surface as they dive for food. And they will repeat this activity every twenty (20) seconds or so throughout the day.

How big are they? Small for a duck. The Bufflehead averages approximately thirteen (13) inches in length. And their wingspan is approximately twenty-one and one-half inches. Males weigh in at around sixteen (16) ounces, while females are approximately eleven (11) ounces.

What are their flight patterns? Buffleheads fly fast with a rapid wing beat. In flight, they have a pattern of rocking side-to side. As they forage on the water for most of the day, their flying tends to be done mostly at night.

How else do they behave? Buffleheads are active ducks. They spend their time preening, swimming, diving, perching, flying, and foraging. They seldom walk on land. During courtship, males try to impress females by flying over them, skiing to a stop on the water with their crests raised and bobbing their heads. During the breeding season, Buffleheads are very territorial birds. They will attack intruders by flying or swimming underwater at them and thrashing at them with their wings. Paired birds often display a “following” behavior where the female swims behind the male. The male stretches his neck upward, while the female extends her neck backward.

What’s for dinner? Bufflehead dive to hunt for aquatic invertebrates, crustaceans, and mollusks; typically swallowing their food while still underwater. During feeding, they are quite active, typically staying on the surface only twelve (12) seconds or so before diving again. They will stay underwater on average about ten to twenty seconds. Buffleheads forage in open, shallow water over sparse submerged vegetation or over mudflats that would be exposed at low tide. On freshwater, they mostly eat larvae of damselfly, dragonfly, midge, mayfly, and caddisfly. They also feast on larger zooplankton such as amphipods, and snails and clams in winter. They eat some plant matter in fall and winter, mainly seeds of pondweeds and bulrushes.

Where do they take up residence? Buffleheads are native to North America. Their summer breeding range includes central Alaska and extends across southern Canada. Isolated breeding populations can also be found throughout the northern United States. The Bufflehead’s breeding range is limited by the distribution of Northern Flickers (note: Northern Flickers do frequent Carillon Stonegate Pond and the woodlands to the north), which are their main source of nesting cavities. They benefit by using old nests of Northern Flickers that larger ducks such as goldeneyes and mergansers cannot fit into.

When and where do they breed and nest? Buffleheads are “secondary-cavity nesters.” They nest almost exclusively in holes excavated by Northern Flickers; typically, ten feet or more above the ground. Most breeding is done between late April and mid-May. The female lays a single clutch of around nine (9) eggs and incubates over the next 30 days. The young leave nest about two (2) days after hatching, with the female leading them to water. They have first flight within two (2) months.

Where do they migrate? Buffleheads are medium-distance migrants. Bufflehead that breed west of the Rockies migrate to the Pacific Coast, while those that breed in central Canada migrate east to the Atlantic coast or south as far as the Gulf Coast. They migrate relatively late in fall, while their spring migration is protracted over long period. They migrate in small flocks and mostly at night.

What is their conservation status? There is no concern. Current populations of Buffleheads are stable.  Buffleheads are listed as least concern on the IUCN Red List and do not have special status on US government lists. The North American Waterfowl Management Plan (2012) estimated the continental population at 1.67 million birds.

Do they make any interesting sounds? Buffleheads are usually silent. During courtship, they make a guttural chatter. Here is a link to the sounds of the Bufflehead.

Interesting Facts About the Bufflehead:

  • The Bufflehead is the smallest diving or sea duck in North America.

  • The name buffalo head, or "bufflehead" is a direct reference to the duck's large-headed appearance.

  • The Bufflehead nests almost exclusively in holes excavated by Northern Flickers and, on occasion, by Pileated Woodpeckers.

  • Unlike most ducks, the Bufflehead is mostly monogamous, often remaining with the same mate for several years.

  • The oldest known Bufflehead lived almost 18 years; although their lifespan averages less than 3 years.

  • Bufflehead fossils from the late Pleistocene (about 500,000 years ago) have been found in several states, including Illinois.

For more information on Buffleheads and sources of information used in this blog (these are the sources that I am using to learn as I blog), please visit All About Birds, Audubon Society, University of Michigan Animal Diversity Web, and the Nature Mapping Foundation.  And the Cornell Lab of Ornithology provides a wonderful source of information for anyone interested in learning more about birds.

The Carillon at Stonegate community is very fortunate to have a variety of wetland, forest and prairie environments conducive to a variety of birds and other wildlife, plants and insects. Our community and the Kane County Forest Preserve do an exceptional job in maintaining this natural environment – both for the benefit of the birds and wildlife and for our residents to enjoy.

 

Take a hike and see what you can find – and identify!