The Beautiful, Bobbing Buffalo-Head

PROMO Intro Buffles 512x219

On bays and lakes along the Oregon coast, wintering waterfowl gather by the thousands in quacking, honking, squeaking, whistling flocks. Tear your eyes away from this madding crowd, however, and a particularly puffy-headed species quietly stands out. For one thing, they're petite: only measuring about a foot from bill to tail, Buffleheads are one of the smallest ducks to grace our waters. Another mark is their plumage, which on males is a striking contrast of black-on-white, accented with purplish-green iridescence near the eyes. Females are decked out in grayer tones, plain only in comparison to the male’s spiffyness.

Lastly, if you happen to watch them for a spell, you’ll notice how they dive, not dabble, for their quarry—a distinctive behavioral trait among the Merginae, or sea ducks, the subfamily to which Buffleheads belong. Aquatic insects and other invertebrates are what they’re after, and these they swallow whole, while underwater. After each dive, the ultra-buoyant Bufflehead bobs to the surface like a cork, sometimes shooting clear out of the water.

From November through March they flock to Oregon and other coastal areas to fatten up before heading to Canada and Alaska to breed. We see Buffleheads on a vacation of sorts, wintering in the comparatively mild climate of the Pacific Northwest, where sustenance is rarely locked up under ice. Technically they are sea ducks, but large, inland bodies of freshwater draw them in all the same, because where there is water, there is life—and where there is life, there is food.

Buffleheads are loner types, eschewing the clamor of the large-scale flock in favor of smaller, quieter numbers. Often mating for life, pairs return to the same nesting ground each year to raise ducklings in old poplar trees. The preferred sites are abandoned Northern Flicker nests, the closer to water the better.

Soon the Buffleheads will move on, winging it northward as the weather warms. Let their diaspora usher in the emergence of spring!