Buffleheads are with us

By Jay V. Huner
Journal Correspondent

Louisiana Ecrivisse, Boyce LA

A diminutive duck with a brilliant white bonnet-like patch on the back of the head is hard to miss. The rest of the head appears black at a distance but on closer inspection it's really a dark purplish green. The rest of the body is white except for ends of the wings and the back which are black with flanking black lines. Large white wing patches are displayed in flight. The stark black and white lines of color are very dramatic. This is the drake Bufflehead, the smallest North American diving duck.

Accompanied by drab hens gray with black heads and a long white ear patch immediately behind the eye Buffleheads are regular winter visitors to our Piney Woods lakes and reservoirs. Often seen in pairs, sometimes flocks can number 25-30 birds.

Trying to photograph Buffleheads on the water can be really difficult. They have a habit of simultaneously diving, reappearing, and diving after a few seconds of rest. When diving, buffleheads compress their wings against their bodies to force air out of body feathers to reduce buoyancy. They almost seem to disappear without effort but this is likely an illusion because of the species' very small size.

The name Bufflehead is derived from the words "buffalo" and "head". Early observers felt the duck's heads resembled those of buffalo. The name stuck. However, in his species account, the naturalist John J. Audubon listed the following common names: Spirit Duck, Butter Box, Marrionette, Dipper, and Die Dipper.

Buffleheads nest across Canada from coast to coast as well in the northwestern USA and Alaska. They are cavity nesters and use abandoned Northern Flicker nests. These accommodate the ducks' small size.

Nesting, in fact, is limited by the northern limits of flicker nesting for this reason.

The ducklings leave their nest cavities within day of hatching. The hen leads them to nearby water, usually small ponds.

According to the experts, most of the Bufflehead diet consists of live animals, primarily aquatic insects in freshwater and mollusks and crustaceans in coastal marine habitat. I suspect that in freshwater piney woods lakes and reservoirs, these diminutive divers are consuming a good many small clams like their wintering neighbors, especially Lesser Scaup and Ruddy Ducks. It's hard to say what they are eating because food is consumed underwater but there is no significant biomass of insects in many reservoir areas frequented by Buffleheads.

Years ago I shot (oops "harvested") some Buffleheads when stationed in the Abilene, Texas. I simply don't recall what they tasted like but certainly not like more sumptuous fare like teal or Wood Duck. I really made no effort to target them as average size is only about a pound.

As a birder, I am always looking to improve my bird lists for parishes (counties elsewhere) and states. I recall when about the only decoys a hunter could find in our area were not very realistic plastic Mallards or Northern Pintail. Now, however, you can get decoys for just about every species that's hunted and they are ultra realistic.

How realistic? I found this out a couple of winters ago when birding at Caney Creek Reservoir in Jackson Parish, Louisiana. I saw a small flock of Buffleheads a couple of hundred of yards away but something seemed wrong. They did not seem to be moving. It was late in the morning and I then saw why they weren't moving. A hunter waded out to pick up his Bufflehead decoys. It took another winter before I could record flesh and blood Bufflehead there for my Jackson Parish life list!