Have you seen that small, chubby duck that is a striking – almost glowing - black-and-white on our western Carillon Stonegate Pond.
This is a Bufflehead duck.
You may find Buffleheads here quite early in March. 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.
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.
They are 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.
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 twenty (20) seconds.
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.
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.
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 are some interesting facts about Buffleheads:
Buffleheads are usually silent.
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 tree cavities excavated by Northern Flickers.
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.
Bufflehead fossils from the late Pleistocene (about 500,000 years ago) have been found in several states, including Illinois.
So, walk along our ponds over the next several weeks and see if you can spot our Bufflehead. Come mid-April, they will be heading north toward Canada.
Take a hike and see what you can find – and identify!