Buffleheads on Ocracoke.

By Peter Vankevich

Here’s a quiz question. What do ducks and woodpeckers have in common? Read on. 

In the waters of Ocracoke one can see North America’s two smallest ducks, one of which is the subject of this story.

The Green-winged teal is the smallest North American duck. It is a “dipper,” which means they just dip their heads in the water but do not submerge. But the smallest diving ducks in North America are Buffleheads — “sprightly little ducks” that can be seen in great numbers here every winter.

Weighing only about one pound and with a wingspan of about 20 inches, the Bufflehead’s peculiar name is derived from an earlier name–the buffalo-headed duck–presumably based on its large, showy, ruffled head and short bill. They are in the genus Bucephala (Bucephala albeola) along with the Common and Barrow’s goldeneyes.

Males are easily identified by their distinctive black-and-white heads. In certain light, the black color can appear an iridescent green or purple. Their bright white plumage appears on the back of the head and underparts.  Females and first-year males are mostly dark brown on the head, back and wings; pale gray on underparts and have a prominent white ear patch.

In flight, they have a rapid wing beat. The adult males have a large white patch on the upper wing; females and first-year males have a smaller white wing patch.

True water birds, they are rarely seen on land unless injured or when leading their broods from the nest to the water. After a big rain in the late fall of 2018, many Buffleheads landed in large puddles in the village.

A Bufflehead is seen in an Ocracoke Village puddle during a heavy rain.

The vast majority of Buffleheads nest near ponds and lakes in the boreal forests and the aspen and poplar park lands of Canada and Alaska from Manitoba westward.  A few nesters  can also be found in isolated locations in Washington, Oregon and California. There are no breeding records outside of North America.

Buffleheads nest in tree cavities and prefer holes excavated by Northern Flickers and sometimes Pileated Woodpeckers.  Competitors for these prime real estate cavities are not from other ducks which are too large, but from the original hole-drilling Northern Flickers along with  Mountain Bluebirds, Tree Swallows and the most serious competitor, the European Starling. Like Wood Ducks, Buffleheads will also nest in artificial boxes placed in suitable habitats that lack natural nest cavities due to logging and other reasons.

Females line their nests with the downy feathers from their chests and lay eight to 10 eggs. Incubation is approximately one month.  Precocial hatchlings leave the nest within a day or two and are led to water by the mother who will tend to them, but the young feed themselves. It takes approximately 50 to 55 days for their first flight. During this time the males go into seclusion to molt.

This is one of the few duck species that often keeps the same mate for several years and prefers returning to the same nest.

Buffleheads forage by diving underwater–usually between 12 and 22 seconds.  Under water, they hold their wings close against their bodies and use only their feet for propulsion.  In winter, they feed primarily on crustaceans, mollusks and sometimes shrimp.  On their nesting grounds, they feed on insect larvae and amphipods which are small, flat-bodied crustaceans such as the beach fleas and sand hoppers and some seeds.

Wintering on both coastal regions of North America, some of the highest concentrations of Buffleheads in the East can be found in Virginia and North Carolina, primarily from late November into March.  On Ocracoke, they prefer the sheltered waters of the Pamlico Sound, though they can be seen sometimes on the ocean.  They are also common in impoundments, such as at Pea Island, Lake Mattamuskeet and the Alligator River Wildlife Refuge, and mainland ponds, lakes and slow-moving rivers.

Like most ducks, Buffleheads migrate at night.  In the spring migration heading north, they follow major river systems or water bodies in valleys because these waters are the first to become ice-free. In the fall migration they use more aquatic habitats. 

Both hatchlings and adults face an array of threats that impact their survival rate. Breeding so far north, cold weather and rain can cause mortality in the young, especially in the first few days after hatching. During adverse weather the young will huddle close to each other on either side of the female which may perch on a floating log or the shore.

Avian predators include Peregrine Falcons, Snowy Owls and Bald Eagles and Barrow’s Goldeneyes in nest-site competition. Females in nests face threats from weasels and mink. 

Eggs are destroyed by nest competitors such as squirrels, European Starlings and Northern Flickers.

Ducklings are vulnerable to predation by other ducks and grebes and, in some northern areas, by northern pike.

Listen: Buffleheads are generally silent except during nesting. To listen, go to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s Macaulay Library by clicking here

When to see: Fall into winter

Where: Sound, inlets, off Springer’s Point, Silver Lake harbor, along the ferry routes and less so on the ocean.

Birds of the Outer Banks Checklist

Arthur Cleveland Bent, in his 21-volume work, Life Histories of North American Birds, published 1919-1968 by the Smithsonian Institution, was noted for colorful and at times anthropomorphic characterizations of birds. He was at the top of his game with the Bufflehead:

The propriety of applying the name “spirit duck” to this sprightly little duck will be appreciated by anyone who has watched it in its natural surroundings, floating buoyantly, like a beautiful apparition, on the smooth surface of some pond or quiet stream, with its striking contrast of black and white in its body plumage and with the glistening metallic tints in its soft fluffy head, relieved by a broad splash of the purest white; it seems indeed a spirit of the waters, as it plunges, quickly beneath the surface and bursts out again in full flight, disappearing in the distance with a blur of whirring wings.


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