The Buffalo-headed Duck

By Kenneth Turner Blackshaw

This week we visit with America’s smallest duck, the Bufflehead, just over a foot from beak to tail – even smaller than a teal. They were named back when buffalo were more common and the shape of their head reminded our early pioneers of that huge animal, which ranged almost to the East Coast when Europeans first arrived.

Our Buffleheads have recently arrived for the winter on Nantucket’s harbors and ponds. Birders saw the first of them off of the Boatyard on October 20. One hopes that the "Great Harbor" Yacht Club will also welcome them in years to come.

The major feature of the drake Bufflehead is the cottony white patch that starts just below the ear and goes up and over the top of the head, nicely contrasting with the black, somewhat iridescent, color of the rest of the head. Peterson refers to the patch as "bonnetlike". The rest of the duck is mainly white below and black above. In flight, a striking black and white wing pattern shows.

Hen Buffleheads are vastly different from the males, being varying shades of dark brown, the head looking like a doughnut, with the white hole in the middle. To many new birders, they seem like a separate species and are best learned when they are consorting with males, in the same flock. Once you study them this way, it is easy to identify them when they are swimming by themselves.

Divers, like the Bufflehead, have a special adaptation to allow them to dive and swim rapidly underwater. Their legs are positioned farther back on their bodies, giving them more efficiency in propulsion, and also causing them to stand more upright when on land. The other major duck classification is the dabbler, represented by the Mallard, often seen at Consue Spring on Union Street. Dabblers seldom dive, but instead, tip forward and reach down just a few feet to grab their food.

In the early ‘50’s, this jaunty little black and white, diving duck was a common winter sight on Maxcy’s Pond, and you can still find them there, if you can just get a look at the pond. Now many private homes surround the pond and the old vantage points are on private property. Perhaps when the Angler’s Club clears the vegetation around the pond, it will be easier to see our winter Buffleheads.

A flock of Buffleheads feeding makes a fascinating sight. One moment you will see 15 or 20 little ducks, bobbing buoyantly on the surface, and the next second, they have disappeared. The whole flock likes to plunge forward together into the water, often leaving a sentry posted above. After 20 to 25 seconds, they all pop up like corks, and spend five or ten seconds on the surface before heading down again. Perhaps this sudden disappearance and reappearance is responsible for their nickname "Spirit Duck".

Buffleheads spend their summers well up in Canada, generally in the Northwest, nesting about the many lakes in that area. Their nesting habits seem unusual for ducks, in that they typically choose a cavity made by a large woodpecker, 20 to 40 feet up in a tree trunk. The first step out, for the ten or so chicks that hatch, is quite traumatic, as they exit the nest well before they could think of flying. Their only direction is DOWN! I remember seeing movies of them hitting the ground, and then just bouncing several times, like little rubber balls, before righting themselves, shaking their feathers a bit, and then scampering off for the nearest water.

Once they reach flight stage, their chief enemy may be the Peregrine Falcon, which hunts them quite aggressively, following the little ducks through dive after dive. The falcon will hover overhead as the dives become shorter and then finally pounce on the little bundle as it desperately takes wing at last. These little black and white "tug-boats" are not greatly sought after by human duck hunters since their flesh is dark on quite ‘gamy’ to the taste.

You can see Buffleheads performing around the edge of all Nantucket’s harbors, including Polpis and Madaket from November to early May. The males swim rapidly around the females, bobbing their heads in an attempt to impress them, then suddenly everyone dives and who knows what antics continue beneath the water. They make an entertaining sight, particularly as the season progresses. Enjoy the show and keep an eye out for that Peregrine that may be watching too.

If you enjoy social birding, every Sunday a group meets in the parking lot in front of the Nantucket High School at 8 a.m.

To hear about rare birds, or to leave a bird report call the Massachusetts Audubon hot line at 888-224-6444, option 4.